Chris Benfey Reviews Written Lives

This review ran in the New York Times on Sunday, March 12, 2006.

By Christopher Benfey

The Spanish novelist and translator Javier Marías has lived so long in other countries and other languages that, by his own account, some of his compatriots have come to deny his own "Spanishness." It shouldn't be too surprising, then, that no Spanish writers are among the "fairly disastrous individuals" Marías has honored in "Written Lives," a collection of short and scintillating portraits deftly translated by Margaret Jull Costa and inspired more by intriguing anecdotes and details than by a determination to capture basic biographical facts. While he claims that his selections are "entirely arbitrary," it can't be coincidental that most of these writers, with a few exceptions like Faulkner, lived for extended periods abroad, either as exiles or expatriates.

Among Malcolm Lowry's many phobias, Marías tells us, was a "fear of crossing frontiers, something he had to do on innumerable occasions throughout his itinerant life." Rilke lived in 50 places between 1910 and 1914 -- though, in a rare lapse, Marías locates one of them, the northern German town of Worpswede, in Scandinavia. Two writers Marías describes with particular affection, Conrad and Nabokov, wrote masterpieces in their adopted English, but Nabokov's claim that he was "as American as April in Arizona" has, Marías notes, a suspicious ring.

The trait Marías seems to admire most in his assemblage of writers is that "none of them took themselves very seriously." With three exceptions --Thomas Mann, James Joyce and Yukio Mishima -- he says they didn't live their lives as though in preparation for posterity. Mann, "clearly convinced of his own immense importance," cluttered his diaries with mundane detail -- trouble with his false teeth, visits to the toilet -- that not even a biographer could find interesting. Joyce filled his novels with "interior gasbags" while himself remaining "taciturn and disdainful." Mann was obsessed with his own intestinal activities; Joyce with those of his wife; and Mishima, in his partly botched act of ritual suicide, exposed his bowels for all the world to see.

Marías prefers subjects who demonstrate reticence and mystery. So enigmatic was Isak Dinesen when she first traveled to America in 1959 that a flurry of rumors preceded her: "She is, in fact, a man; he is, in fact, a woman; Isak Dinesen is actually two people … she's from Paris really; he lives in Elsinore … she writes in French; no, in English; no, in Danish." Marías finds Arthur Conan Doyle's deathbed silence more evocative than words: "Many years before, he had said that the secret of his success was that he never forced a story. It seems that on that day, he did not force a phrase either." As for Djuna Barnes: "Her silences were both written and verbal." A family tradition of spiritualism may help explain this penchant, as well as shedding light, Marías suggests, on her own "extravagant" first name and those of her siblings and ancestors: "Urlan, Niar, Unade, Reon, Hinda, Zadel."

The likes and dislikes of writers, as detailed by Marías, can be equally enigmatic and suggestive. One can see why Nabokov, the lepidopterist, had an aversion to insecticides, but what did he have against jazz, swimming pools, trucks, bidets, yachts and the circus? Barnes hated beards, demanding on one occasion that a potential visitor shave his off before coming to see her. As for Rilke: "It is not known what he liked, as regards food or other things, apart from the letter 'y' -- which he wrote whenever he could." Whatever Conrad disliked, he can't have liked Rilke, since "Conrad wore a monocle and disliked poetry."

When she was introduced to Marilyn Monroe and her husband at the time, Arthur Miller, at a lunch arranged by Carson McCullers, Dinesen ordered oysters and Champagne. Miller inquired which doctor had prescribed such a novel diet. "They say that America has never seen the like of the scornful look she gave him," writes Marías. " 'Doctor?' she said. 'The doctors are horrified, but I love Champagne and I love oysters and they do me good.' "

Marías is far too nimble a writer to risk anything so ponderous as a theory of biography. He has no more use for Freud than did Faulkner, who claimed he had never read him, adding: "I doubt if Melville did either and I'm sure Moby Dick didn't." For Marías, great writers aren't riddles to be solved but paradoxes to be savored. In fact, many of these "written lives" begin with a paradox. ("Despite being a very widely traveled man, Rudyard Kipling strikes one as more of a recluse or a hermit.") And they frequently end with the writer's last words, as though these -- so often fragmentary or inscrutable -- are the most important clue of all. Robert Louis Stevenson cried, "What's that?" and then asked, "Do I look strange?" As though in answer, Henry James, when he thought he was dying, heard a voice that said, "So it has come at last -- the Distinguished Thing!"

Christopher Benfey, the Mellon professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, is the author of "Degas in New Orleans" and "The Great Wave."

Related Link:

Christopher Benfy - Faculty Profile