Tuesday, May 02, 2006

I took Written Lives, by Javier Marias, along on a road trip into the mountains this weekend and found it very agreeable company. This is the slender volume in which Marias has collected slender biographical sketches of writers. The brevity of each biography (3 or 4 pp.) means that we keep swooping from birth to death with tremendous speed -- it's like a good meal wolfed down, though not much the worse for it. Laurence Sterne, Isak Dinesen, Henry James, Nabokov, Turgenev rise up like flares for a few minutes then go dark. There is a photo with each sketch and a longer essay at the end that leaves biography aside and discusses Marias's collection of photos of authors, body by body. There is more than a little Sebald in all of this, esp. because the sketches tend to be rather melancholic (I suppose that's unavoidable when every fourth or fifth page recounts a death). Even more Sebaldian is the emphasis on the great writer as a kind of necessarily eccentric traveller, slightly lost by the end of it, a little larger and at least twice as haunted as the average citoyen. Critique: he should have/could have done Stein, Woolf, Dickinson... (more women!). Highlight: the photo of Thomas Bernhard near the end of the book. One pictures the great Austrian as dour, obsessive, gloom-wracked: here he is all quizzical delight.


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