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Michael Dirda
An acclaimed Spanish novelist offers quirky portraits of famous writers.

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, February 5, 2006

WRITTEN LIVES

By Javier Marías

Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

New Directions. 200 pp. $22.95

It's difficult to be moderate about the charm of these brief portraits of Rimbaud, Turgenev, Rilke, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Robert Louis Stevenson, Isak Dinesen, Djuna Barnes and a dozen other literary eminences. "The one thing that leaps out when you read about these authors," writes the acclaimed Spanish novelist Javier Marías, "is that they were all fairly disastrous individuals; and although they were probably no more so than anyone else whose life we know about, their example is hardly likely to lure one along the path of letters." That wry sense of amusement characterizes Marías's approach. Though he acknowledges the artistic greatness of his chosen writers, he prefers to point out and relish their personal oddities, all those quirks, eccentricities and obsessions that make them neurotically and sometimes pitiably human.

Occasionally the stories he tells may be familiar, but Marías -- or rather Marías in Margaret Jull Costa's delicious, slyly ironic English -- brings his own light touch to their telling. Henry James, he reminds us, took against Flaubert and Rossetti because they received him in their work smocks:

"On the other hand, [James's] enthusiasm for Maupassant knew no bounds, again thanks to a single visit: the French short-story writer had received him for lunch in the society of a lady who was not only naked, but wearing a mask. This struck James as the height of refinement, especially when Maupassant informed him that she was no mere courtesan, prostitute, servant, or actress, but a femme du monde , which James was perfectly happy to believe."

Once Arthur Conan Doyle, who was known to get into fistfights when young and who identified with knights of old, was traveling by train through South Africa:

"One of his grown-up sons commented on the ugliness of a woman who happened to walk down the corridor. He had barely had time to finish this sentence when he received a slap and saw, very close to his, the flushed face of his old father, who said very mildly: 'Just remember that no woman is ugly.' "

Throughout, Marías tosses off the sort of facts and turns of phrase that linger in the mind: Kipling's "The Man Who Would be King" was the favorite story of both Faulkner and Proust. "The death of Yukio Mishima was so spectacular that it has almost succeeded in obliterating the many other stupid things he did in his life." Joseph Conrad's "natural state was one of disquiet bordering on anxiety." Violet Hunt, at age 13, offered herself to John Ruskin, later refused a marriage proposal from Oscar Wilde, seduced the homosexual Somerset Maugham, was seduced by H.G. Wells and lived for some years as the putative wife of Ford Madox Ford. Marías reminds us that William Faulkner, who once worked for the University of Mississippi post office, hated to be interrupted in his reading by "any son-of-a-bitch who had two cents to buy a stamp." He goes on:

"Perhaps that is where the seeds were first sown of Faulkner's evident aversion to and scorn for letters. When he died, piles of letters, packages and manuscripts sent by admirers were found, none of which he had opened. In fact, the only letters he did open were those from publishers, and then only very cautiously: he would make a tiny slit in the envelope and then shake it to see if a cheque appeared. If it didn't, then the letter would simply join all those other things that can wait forever."

In his preface, Marías notes that he generally writes with "affection and humour," though he confesses that he feels very little of the former for James Joyce, Thomas Mann and Yukio Mishima. The chapter on the self-important Mann is a comic masterpiece:

"Any writer who leaves behind him sealed envelopes not to be opened until long after his death is clearly convinced of his own immense importance, as tends to be confirmed when, after all that patient waiting, the wretched, disappointing envelopes are finally opened. In the case of Mann and his diaries, what strikes one most is that he obviously felt that absolutely everything that happened to him was worthy of being recorded. . . . [The diaries] give the impression that Mann was thinking ahead to a studious future which would exclaim after each entry: 'Good heavens, so that was the day when the Great Man wrote such and such a page of The Holy Sinner and then, the following night, read some verses by Heine, that is so revealing!' "

Most of these pages, adds Marías, chronicle the state of Mann's stomach and bowels or include plaintive entries like: "Sexual disturbance and disturbance in my activities when faced by the impossibility of refusing to write an obituary for Eduard Keyserling." Other entries make clear the married Mann's attraction to muscular youths, such as "a healthy young fellow with golden hair" or a young gardener, "beardless, with brown arms and open shirt," who gave the writer "quite a turn."

According to Marías -- and it's hard to argue with him -- Malcolm Lowry, author of Under the Volcano , seems "to have been the most calamitous writer in the whole history of literature." An alcoholic, he was known to drink shaving lotion and his own urine. Shortly after their marriage, his first wife started going off with other men, once climbing onto a bus in Mexico "to spend a jolly week with some engineers." He tried to strangle his second wife. Twice. And he had lots of trouble with animals, once punching a horse in the ear so that it fell to its knees:

"Even sadder was what happened to a poor little rabbit that he was absentmindedly stroking on his lap while talking one night to the pet's owner and the owner's mother: the rabbit suddenly went stiff; Lowry had broken its neck with his small, clumsy hands. For two days, he wandered the streets of London carrying the corpse, not knowing what to do with it and consumed by self-loathing."

Isak Dinesen, we're reminded, married Bror Blixen, who promptly infected her with syphilis, though she took a long time before divorcing him. Here the urbane author of All Souls and Your Face Tomorrow injects one of those observations about life that seem so insightfully European: Dinesen's "husband was the twin brother of the man she had loved from girlhood, and bonds formed through a third party are perhaps the most difficult to break." He continues:

"Having syphilis obliged her, early on, to renounce sex, and seeing that there was no help to be had from God and bearing in mind how terrible it was for a young woman to be denied 'the right to love,' Isak Dinesen promised her soul to the Devil, and he promised her, in return, that everything she experienced thenceforth would become a story. That, at least, is what she told a non-lover."

Though he envies the cheerful humanity of Laurence Sterne, the character that Marías most obviously adores is the caustic, illusionless Madame du Deffand, best known today as one of the world's great letter writers, her correspondents including Voltaire and, above all, Horace Walpole. "In both youth and maturity," writes Marías, she "had known no weak passions, only overwhelming ones." He tantalizes with accounts of her early life:

"During her youth, having already been married and almost immediately separated ('Feeling no love at all for one's husband is a fairly widespread misfortune'), she had taken part in a number of orgies, to which she had doubtless been introduced by her first lover, the regent Philippe d'Orléans."

Madame du Deffand's wit is still celebrated in France. When a priest marveled at the miracle of St. Denis, who had managed to walk after his beheading all the way from Montmartre to the church that now bears his name, she answered: "The distance does not matter, it is only the first step that is difficult." She once forthrightly announced, "I find everyone loathsome." She could also be optimistic and trusting, in her fashion: "One is surrounded by weapons and by enemies, and the people we call our friends are merely the ones we know would not themselves murder us, but would merely let the murderers have their way."

As I say, this is a delightful volume. Marías closes it with a longish piece about his collection of portrait postcards of writers, meditating on what the various images mean to him: The young Gide, he concludes, looks like "a professional duellist"; T.S. Eliot like "a man who has spent decades combing his hair in exactly the same way." But let me finish with Marías's reflections on a photograph of Rilke:

"Rilke does not have the face one would suppose him to have, so delicate and unbearable was he in his habits and needs as a great poet. . . . His face is frankly dangerous, with those dark circles under deep-set eyes, and the sparse, drooping moustache which gives him a strangely Mongolian appearance; those cold, oblique eyes make him look almost cruel, and only his hands -- clasped as they should be, unlike Conrad's indecisive hands -- and the quality of his clothes -- an excellent tie and excellent cloth -- give him some semblance of repose or somewhat mitigate that cruelty. The truth is that he could be a visionary doctor in his laboratory, awaiting the results of some monstrous and forbidden experiment."

One glance at Rilke's picture and you'll see that Marías's description is exactly right. ·

Michael Dirda is a book critic for Book World. His e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com, and his online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.

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