Written Lives is extremely readable, mostly interesting and just a little disturbing. Marias is so cunningly selective about the details he highlights in these brief pieces that the portraits he reveals are quite artfully and quite thoroughly distorted.
(I must mention the cover of my edition here: three clever and funny caricatures, of Oscar Wilde, James Joyce and R L Stevenson, in beautiful sepia tones, by Andre Carillho).
The penetrating insights in Written Lives vary from tender to cooly objective, from stealthily critical to openly disparaging but even when Marias is tender, there is ruthlessness beneath. He is like a sadistic lover, having his wicked way with this bunch of writers, some of whom he may love, but surely, only a little. He mentions Lampedusa’s advice to his nephew, “Cave obdurantionem cordis.” The phrase strikes me as a very suitable warning to Marias himself.
The final essay, Perfect Artists, a sort of addendum to Written Lives, is quietly excellent and almost free of any irony or desire to humiliate. (I am ignoring the comment that these artists are perfect because they are dead). In this essay, Marias examines a set of images of a selection of writers, some of whom already featured in Written Lives. His analysis of these images, his ability to draw intelligent conclusions from the position of a hand, the direction of an eye, is simply brilliant.
Marias admits to omitting Spanish authors but gives a very vague excuse for this omission. Maybe he is afraid of hometown ghosts?
In case I've put anyone off reading Written Lives, here's a little snippet about Emily Brontë to whet your appetite: Afterwards, she went down to the living room and there, sitting on the sofa, she died at two o'clock in the afternoon, having refused to go back to bed. She was only thirty years old and she wrote nothing more....Continua