I would rather choose to be truly informed of the conversation [Brutus] had in his tent with some of his particular friends the night before a battle than of the harangue he made the next day to his army; and of what he did in his study and his chamber than what he did in the public square and in the Senate.
Me, too. And, if his Written Lives is anything to go by, so would Javier Marías. Written Lives is a collection of brief biographical sketches of writers—mostly rackety, frequently troublesome, the sort who only demonstrate capability when putting pen to paper. But these aren’t by any means conventional biographies, covering achievements and major life events; instead, Marías tells of quirks and phobias, arguments and spectacular drunks.
The Borgesian origins of Marías’s approach are worth noting. He explains in the Introduction that
This book arose from another in which I was also involved: an anthology of very strange stories entitled Cuentos únicos, in which each story was prefaced by a brief biographical note about its extremely obscure author. The majority were so obscure that any information I had about them was sometimes both minimal and difficult to unearth, and, therefore, so fragmentary and often so bizarre that it looked as if I had simply invented it all, a conclusion reached by several readers, who, logically enough, also doubted the authenticity of the stories.
I believe, and believed at the time, that this was due not only to the strange and disparate nature of the information available about these ill-fated and forgotten authors, but also to the manner in which the biographies were written, and it occurred to me that I could adopt the same approach with more familiar and more famous writers. . . . The idea, then, was to treat these well-known literary figures as if they were fictional characters, which may well be how all writers, whether famous or obscure, would secretly like to be treated.
He’s combed biographies, collections of letters, and diaries and boiled them down to telling details and anecdotes. He knows what’s likely to pique our interest—and that’s all he relates. Of Isak Dinesen he reveals,
According to the Americans, she lived on a diet of oysters and champagne, which was not quite true, for she also consumed prawns, asparagus, grapes, and tea.
And he tells of Djuna Barnes that
No one saw very much of her during this interminable old age. She was afraid of the adolescents who hung around in the streets. She had such a horror of beards that she even phoned a future visitor and demanded that he shave his off (she had enquired about his appearance) before he came to see her.
Then there is Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife, Fanny:
The truth is that, with the exception of Henry James, who always treated her with great respect, Stevenson’s other friends all heartily detested her, because Fanny, on the excuse that everything was bad for Louis’ health, devoted herself to organizing every aspect of his life and to keeping him away from those friends whose companions—wine, tobacco, songs, and talk—she considered dangerous.
Then there is Nabokov’s wife, to whom we owe a great deal:
One day in 1950, his wife, Véra, only just managed to stop him as he was heading out into the garden to burn the first chapters of Lolita, beset as he was with doubts and technical difficulties.
The stories are enlivened by Marías’s elegant, detached, somewhat arch prose. He presents Laurence Sterne as the son of Roger Sterne, who
traveled ceaselessly with his battered regiment, accompanied by his wife and their variable number of children: variable because some were always being born and others were always dying.
And he ends the Djuna Barnes sketch with
She considered age to be an exercise in interpretation, but she also thought that the old ought to be killed off. “There should be a law,” she said. The law had its way in that apartment on the night of June 18,1982.
Of Yukio Mishima’s suicide, he says,
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.
Speaking of death, months before Henry James died—following a delirium in which he dictated two letters as if he were Napoleon—he told friends that in the grip of an attack,
When he fell to the floor convinced that he was dying, he had heard in the room a voice not his own saying: “So it has come at last—the Distinguished Thing!”
I could go on and on. I haven’t even touched on the entry for the notorious alcoholic Malcolm Lowry, or the pleasant awkwardness of Conan Doyle, or the utterly incomprehensible behavior of Rimbaud. Written Lives is an enchanting book, a worthy companion to John Aubrey. It's so attuned to my tastes in biography that it might well have been written just for me. If Marías would write a dozen volumes, I’d read them all.
And now I can’t resist. I will give you something from the Malcolm Lowry sketch after all. It’s the epitaph he proposed for his tombstone:
Late of the Bowery
His prose was flowery
And often glowery
He lived, nightly, and drank, daily
And died playing the ukelele.
His long-suffering wife chose, understandably, not to follow his wishes.