or, Why I'd Rather Sail with Stevenson than Dance with Turgenev
By Javier Marias
Voyage along the Horizon
By Javier Marias
You know you're a talented writer when you can make Henry James flit. Clocking in at well over two hundred pounds for most of his adult life, James enjoyed gravity in every sense of the word. Yet as a character in Javier Marias' highly mythological Written Lives, he's positively spritely. James gets his own niche in the pantheon ("Henry James on a Visit," a delightful chapter topped with a photo of a beknickered and be-bicycled Henry), but despite Marias's killing him off by page forty-one, he flits--yes, flits--in and out of Robert Louis Stevenson's wife-wooing, Oscar Wilde's cavaliering, and Ivan Turgenev's melancholizing.
In Written Lives, Marias compiles a small, dense set of miniature biographies treating his subjects "as if they were fictional characters, which may well be how all writers, whether famous or obscure, would secretly like to be treated." Each brief chapter stands alone and complete as a stained glass window in a church, and like such windows, is subject to fits of lighting and atmosphere that can turn the same figure gaudy, resplendent, warm, or hard. Marias abandons lead for quicksilver, though, and lets on that our canonized still carry on the dance of life after all the votive candles have been blown out.
Turgenev's biography provides the most literal example, as Marias recounts how the novelist "danced the cancan with a twelve-year-old girl during a particularly animated birthday party. Count Tolstoy noted severely in his diary that night: 'Turgenev... the cancan. Sad.'" Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa, also drew gossip when the kohled and turbaned old bird came west to her American fans, dripping in mystique and diamond jewelry. "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." Vegetarian Rainer Maria Rilke loved the letter y, being German and therefore more discerning than the English, who according to persnickety polyglot Joseph Conrad "make the same sound for every letter." This observation, romantically enough, was made by Conrad to his then-girlfriend, later-wife, when the poor woman was reading aloud a manuscript of his on a particularly torturous date. If you haven't guessed, sly Marias notes in his prologue that "although nothing in [ Written Lives ] is invented (that is, fictitious in origin), some episodes and anecdotes have been 'embellished.'"
Some of the most luminous glints, however, need only Marias ' faithful documentation, without a trace of embellishment, to shine of their own accord. Wisely, he lets Robert Louis Stevenson's epitaph speak for itself: Under the wide and starry sky,
Marias so clearly loves to talk that when he stops, the pause feels as deliberate as prayer.
In this way we come to read Marias ' own life by negation, the unwritten but present Life throughout the Lives. Sometimes he intentionally peeps his nose between the lines (see his aside on Wellesley in "Nabokov in Raptures"); from the start he admits antipathy to James Joyce, Thomas Mann, and Yukio Mishima, though he grants them each a rather bilious chapter. He hates them for their egotism, it seems, though there are plenty of other vices he gamely stomachs, or else writes off as mere mischief. Having read Written Lives, I am fairly certain I would cross the street to avoid saying hello to Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, but Marias clearly pines across a century's divide to cultivate the friendship of the "iconoclastic lout" and his "brutal" and "mawkish" other half.
His intolerance for the proud and love of the brash, though in one sense contradictory, makes sense in keeping with the socially subversive streak we see in Written Lives and also in his recently reprinted early novel, Voyage Along the Horizon. Voyage, written when Marias was twenty-one, can be read as a wry critique of the indolent wealthy, tacit class barriers, colonialism, art for art's sake, and the banality of evil. You and I will never read it this way, however, because it's far too much fun getting your swashes good and buckled and having the kind of old-time high seas rollick that Melville nearly killed when he let on that a whale was not--could never again be--just a whale. Young Marias leaves allegory and metaphysics sitting on a dock by the bay, while setting his plot a-sail on the HMS Tallahassee . Those aboard this ship of fools, mostly preening writers and addled fans, intend "to produce a literary work and a great musical spectacle based on their experiences at the South Pole." Voyage Along the Horizon makes me wish that life proffered more occasions to use words like "boatswain" and "Manchurian ponies," both of which, I suspect, enter the plot primarily because Marias relishes the words, too.
He has good contagious fun with structure, too, as the Voyage happens only fourth-hand and at least one account surely lies. The reader's most immediate narrator and his source's source both have aspects of the fanaticism and idiosyncrasy of a Charles Kinbote or Humbert Humbert , while our hero on the Tallahassee , Victor Arledge, is a dull-witted snob and opportunist. A farcical salute to the twilight of the Grand Tour era, as well as perhaps to Henry James, Voyage Along the Horizon triumphs in circumlocution as decidedly as the voyagers fail in circumnavigation, which is to say, very much indeed.
Laura Kolbe lost her sea-legs playing poker with pirates in Corsica .
photo © Quim Llenas, Courtesy of New Directions