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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary history

Written Lives

Javier Marías

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Written Lives

Title: Written Lives
Author: Javier Marías
Genre: Biographical
Written: 1992, rev. 2000 (Eng. 2006)
Length: 193 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Written Lives - US
Vidas escritas - US
Written Lives - UK
Written Lives - Canada
Written Lives - India
Vies ecrites - France
Geschriebenes Leben - Deutschland
Vidas escritas - España
  • Spanish title: Vidas escritas
  • Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
  • With numerous illustrations

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Our Assessment:

B : curious collection of brief writers' lives

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 20/3/2001 Gerhard Schulz
The LA Times A 29/1/2006 Susan Salter Reynolds
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 2/5/2001 Martin Krumbholz
The NY Sun . 15/1/2006 Carl Rollyson
The NY Times Book Rev. . 12/3/2006 Christopher Benfey
The Observer A 12/2/2006 Sarah Emily Miano
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Summer/2006 Jeremy M. Davies
San Francisco Chronicle . 26/3/2006 Jamie Berger
The Telegraph D 21/2/2006 Philip Hensher
The Telegraph . 21/2/2006 Frances Wilson
TLS . 5/5/2006 Peter Parker
The Washington Post A 5/2/2006 Michael Dirda
Die Zeit . 5/7/2001 Katharina Döbler

  Review Consensus:


  From the Reviews:
  • "Daß diese Bilder gezeichnet seien aus einer Mischung von "Zuneigung und Spott", merkt man ihnen an, und nicht zu ihrem Nachteil, aber auch das hat etwas von einer Ausrede an sich. Denn was alle diese Lebensskizzen prägt, ist die Freude ihres Erzählers am Erzählen. Es sind Geschichten, bestimmt zum intelligenten Vergnügen am Klatsch, was hier ausdrücklich als Empfehlung gemeint ist. (...) Aber Stimmigkeit hin, Stimmigkeit her -- es hat mir Vergnügen bereitet, dieses Buch zu lesen, und Lustauf die Dichter macht es allemal." - Gerhard Schulz, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "In Written Lives, Javier Marías weaves thousands of glittering bits into the most gorgeous portraits, each two to five pages long. (...) All, for the most part, are very funny." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Die ironischen Halbporträts, die der Hauptteil des Bandes versammelt, kommen nicht ohne das Element des Anekdotischen und Klatschhaften aus, das auch jede Künstlerbiographie würzt; nur würzt Marías extrascharf, denn seine Halbporträts verhalten sich zu herkömmlichen Monographien wie Kurzgeschichten zu Romanen, die verwendete Menge Salz, Pfeffer und Paprika ist aber die gleiche. Recht so" - Martin Krumbholz, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Biographers are not in the predicting business, but my premonition is that Javier Marías's Written Lives will be regarded as a landmark text in the history of biography. (...) Mr. Marías is extending what seems to be a growing movement to make of writers lives a new form of literature." - Carl Rollyson, The New York Sun

  • "For Marías, great writers aren't riddles to be solved but paradoxes to be savored." - Christopher Benfey, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Written Lives, which contains essays on well-known literary figures, probably won't do much to broaden his reputation, but it does prove what a beguiling, clever and original writer Marias is, and may act as a taster for the next volume of Your Face Tomorrow (.....) The success of the book relies greatly on diction and tone, and Marias, whose hallmark is a quizzical precision, delivers the goods with care as well as panache. (Once again, Jull Costa captures the microscopic nuances of his language in her excellent translation.)" - Sarah Emily Miano, The Observer

  • "Though never dramatized, never becoming "historical fiction," these pieces are short stories in the best tradition of the form: satisfying both our base urge for juicy gossip about our betters, and the concomitant (and no less natural) desire for the rigor -- and humor -- of literature. (...) Guilty pleasure or not, Written Lives is a perfect delight." - Jeremy M. Davies, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "The book is notable for Marías' wit and charm but also for its unabashed and refreshing subjectivity. (...) Written Lives is an odd, satisfying read. Marías' confident, wry voice and insights (wonderfully translated by Margaret Jull Costa) alone are worth the read " - Jamie Berger, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Not that I don't revere the ground that Javier Marías walks on, but I do think him distinctly lucky to have been able to persuade anyone to publish this volume. (...) Here, despite Marías's occasional wit and elegance, I can't see who would see the point. (...) Let us remind ourselves that Marías is a very good novelist, be thankful that there is someone in Spain who obviously loves classic English literature and works hard to propagate it, and then, I'm afraid, turn our eyes away from this unmistakably embarrassing offering." - Philip Hensher, The Telegraph

  • "Javier Marías manages to describe the group of Class A pub-bores who represent the best that has been said and thought in literature without once boring his reader: quite a feat." - Frances Wilson, The Telegraph

  • "Literary scholars (for whom Marías provides a teasing bibliography of books he says they will find "very difficult to locate") will no doubt frown upon this sort of carry-on, but these essays are often as evocative of their subjects and as full of illuminating little nuggets of information as a well-written obituary." - Peter Parker, Times Literary Supplement

  • "It's difficult to be moderate about the charm of these brief portraits (.....) 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." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

  • "Es ist Marías in erster Linie um die Demontage der großen Namen zu tun und darum, den zarten Staub der Mystifikation, der sich seit Jahrzehnten auf den illustren Herstellern von Literatur gesammelt hat, munter aufzuwirbeln. Tiefschürfende Erkenntnisse darf man nicht erwarten von diesen kleinen Garstigkeiten, eher pikante Enthüllungen, wie man sie in einschlägigen Gazetten über die zeitgenössische Prominenz lesen kann.(...) Als Material für gehobene Konversation eignet sich dergleichen allemal. Und ebenso als geistreiches Vergnügen der niederen Art." - Katharina Döbler, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Written Lives consists almost entirely of brief pieces that summarise the lives of twenty-six more or less well-known authors. They're not intended as straight biography, but Marias' approach is only slightly playful: as he explains in his Prologue, what he tries to do is "treat these well-known literary figures as if they were fictional characters". Sticking to the facts, with only some embellishment of some episodes and anecdotes, it doesn't come across as entirely convincing: they're solid (and well-written) little portraits, but most of the figures are perhaps too familiar and the portraits not skewed enough to convince of the necessity of such a collection.
       Most of the authors are very familiar indeed, and they include Faulkner, Joseph Conrad, Joyce, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rilke, Nabokov, Kipling, Rimbaud, Wilde. A separate section on 'Fugitive Women' takes the same approach with some lesser-known figures (but also Emily Brontë).
       Most appealing about Marías' approach throughout is the tenor, which is not quite (or at least always) one of a lack of respect -- but he decidedly doesn't treat the figures with the near-veneration generally encountered. Mishima Yukio comes off worst of all, though Marías makes an easy target of him by completely ignoring his actual writing -- beyond noting: "He must also have written non-stop, for at his death he left over one hundred volumes". Others are treated more gently, if no less irreverently.
       The focus on the very human sides (and failings) of these authors makes for fairly entertaining reading. Malcolm Lowry, for example, is convincingly sketched as "the most calamitous writer in the whole history of literature", while Marías also makes a point of discussing Conrad's "constant incendiary mishaps":

On more than one occasion, his clothes nearly got scorched when he sat too close to a stove, and it was not unusual for the book he was reading suddenly to catch fire after prolonged contact with the candle illuminating it.
       The difficulty, however, with writing about such famous authors is that their works are too well-known, their reputations already fixed in the readers' minds: Marías' amusing takes on these lives can't convince (or even be fully enjoyed) because they run counter to the so widely accepted wisdom. Not surprisingly, it is the pieces on some of the less well-known authors, such as Lampedusa that seem the most rewarding.

       In addition to the writers' lives, there is one longer piece, 'Perfect Artists', in which Marias describes his collection of postcards of authors' portraits (photographs, paintings, and deathmasks). He offers brief, amusing commentary to go along with the reproductions of three dozen or so pictures, an interesting mini-survey of the author-image (and, particularly, how various authors wanted to be seen).

       Written Lives is an enjoyable little exercise that perhaps doesn't work to best effect for English-speaking audiences (because of the subject-matter, not the language). Worth a look, but has to be read on its own terms.

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Written Lives: Reviews: Javier Marías: Other books by Javier Marías under review: Books about Javier Marías under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Spanish literature under review

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About the Author:

       Spanish author Javier Marías lived 1951 to 2022.

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© 2006-2023 the complete review

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