Here’s Looking At You, Henry James

Written Lives, a collection of essays by the Spanish novelist Javier Marias, must be one of the most unusual and charming books written about writers. Most writers have a healthy interest in the lives and work of others in their trade, believing, to quote from one of Marias's essays, "that in those lives, or in their most secret anecdotes, can be found the key to a writer's work." Often diligent biographers give us access to such details, but with a great deal of dross alongsides, in works often five or six hundred pages long. As Marias notes, we are living in an age of "exhaustive and frequently futile erudition".

In contrast, Marias's attempts to sketch out the shape of the lives of Joyce, Faulkner, Turgenev, Rilke, Nabokov and Kipling, among others, are usually no more than six or seven pages long. His essays are a felicitous mix of precisely weighted observations, whimsical speculation, and telling details or anecdotes. He claims of his selection that "the one thing that leaps out when you read about these authors is that they were all fairly disastrous individuals", although it cannot be denied that, just as a novelist never bothers to write about characters who bore him, so Marias seems to have eliminated from his selection those writers who led quiet, sensible, dull, workaday lives.

Writers emerge here as an eccentric, scatterbrained, and chaotic lot in their personal life, no matter how beautifully alert and composed their work (indeed, perhaps because they gave so much of themselves to their work). Joseph Conrad was so absentminded that "it was not unusual for the book he was reading suddenly to catch fire after prolonged contact with the candle illuminating it". Henry James's speech resembled his written sentences, multi-claused and neverending: "The simplest question addressed to a servant would take a minimum of three minutes to formulate, such was his linguistic punctiliousness and his horror of inexactitude and error". Vernon Lee would come up with "so many arguments in a discussion that she would sometimes contradict herself and it would become hard to follow her". Yukio Mishima was so egotistic that he once made a record "on which he played all forty characters in one of his own plays". Thomas Mann's diaries are tiresomely exhaustive, recording everything from "the time he got up in the morning to what the weather was like, as well as what he was reading and, above all, what he was writing". Marias notes with gentle sarcasm: "Only very rarely, though, does he make any wise comment on these things."

  Writers emerge here as an eccentric, scatterbrained and chaotic lot in their personal life, no matter how beautifully alert and composed their work
And yet — and yet. Marias says at one point in his chapter on Robert Louis Stevenson, "Nowadays, almost no one takes the trouble to read Stevenson's essays, which are among the liveliest and most perceptive of the past century". If this observation has a faintly disturbing quality, it is because it alerts us to what is generally missing in Marias's essays, which is some sense not just of a writer's life but also of the particular qualities of his or her work. This lacuna renders some of Marias's essays slightly insubstantial, too much like pleasant trifles. While they are never uninteresting, they serve to remind us that, even at the hands of someone as accomplished as Marias, writers are nothing without their books.

And also perhaps their looks. Tacked onto the back of Written Lives is a long essay, "Perfect Artists", very different in method and manner from the rest of the book. Here Marias delves into his collection of picture postcards of writers, and declares that he is going to look once again at these familiar faces — Dickens, Eliot, James, Baudelaire, Blake — "with pen in hand". Marias's essay on these faces, eyes, poses, gestures, and what they reveal about the personality of the subject — matters that most human beings spend a great deal of time contemplating in their effort to understand each other — contains some of the most delicate and surprising writing one could ever hope to read. It is this section of Written Lives that seems likely to become Marias's most enduring contribution to literary biography.

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