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In addition to his own busy career as "one of Europe's most intriguing contemporary writers" (TLS), Javier Marías is also the translator into Spanish of works by Hardy, Stevenson, Conrad, Faulkner, Nabokov, and Laurence Sterne. His love for these authors is the touchstone of Written Lives. Collected here are twenty pieces recounting great writers' lives, "or, more precisely, snippets of writers' lives." Thomas Mann, Rilke, Arthur Conan Doyle, Turgenev, Djuna Barnes, Emily Brontë, Malcolm Lowry, and Kipling appear...
In addition to his own busy career as "one of Europe's most intriguing contemporary writers" (TLS), Javier Marías is also the translator into Spanish of works by Hardy, Stevenson, Conrad, Faulkner, Nabokov, and Laurence Sterne. His love for these authors is the touchstone of Written Lives. Collected here are twenty pieces recounting great writers' lives, "or, more precisely, snippets of writers' lives." Thomas Mann, Rilke, Arthur Conan Doyle, Turgenev, Djuna Barnes, Emily Brontë, Malcolm Lowry, and Kipling appear ("all fairly disastrous individuals"), and "almost nothing" in his stories is invented.
Like Isak Dinesen (who "claimed to have poor sight, yet could spot a four-leaf clover in a field from a remarkable distance away"), Marías has a sharp eye. Nabokov is here, making "the highly improbable assertion that he is 'as American as April in Arizona,'" as is Oscar Wilde, who, in debt on his deathbed, ordered up champagne, "remarking cheerfully, 'I am dying beyond my means.'" Faulkner, we find, when fired from his post office job, explained that he was not prepared "to be beholden to any son-of-a-bitch who had two cents to buy a stamp." Affection glows in the pages of Written Lives, evidence, as Marías remarks, that "although I have enjoyed writing all my books, this was the one with which I had the most fun."
ACCORDING TO SOMEWHAT kitsch literary legend, William Faulkner wrote his novel As I Lay Dying in the space of six weeks and in the most precarious of situations, namely, while he was working on the night shift down a mine, with the pages resting on an upturned wheelbarrow and lit only by the dim rays of the lamp affixed to his own dust-caked helmet. This said kitsch legend is a clear attempt to enlist Faulkner in the ranks of other poor, self-sacrificing, slightly proletarian writers. The bit about the six weeks is the only true part: for six weeks one summer he made the most of the long, long intervals between feeding spadefuls of coal into the boiler he had been put in charge of in an electrical power plant. According to Faulkner, no one bothered him there, the continual hum from the enormous old dynamo was "soothing," and the place itself was otherwise "warm and silent."
There is certainly no doubting his ability to lose himself in his writing or his reading. His father had got him the position at the power station after he was dismissed from his previous fob as a post office clerk at the University of Mississippi. Apparently one of the lecturers there, quite reasonably, complained: the only way he could gethis letters was by rummaging around by the garbage can at the back door, where the unopened mail bags all too often ended up. Faulkner did not like having his reading interrupted, and the sale of stamps tell alarmingly: by wax of explanation, Faulkner told his family that he was not prepared to keep setting up to wait on people at the window and having to be beholden to any son-of-a-bitch who had two cents to buy a stamp.
Perhaps that is where the seeds were first sown of Faulkner's evident aversion to and scorn for letters. When he died, piles of letters, packages and manuscripts sent by admirers were found, none of which he had opened. In fact, the only letters he did open were those from publishers, and then only very cautiously: he would make a tiny slit in the envelope and then shake it to see if a cheque appeared. If it didn't, then the letter would simply join all those other things that can wait forever.
He always had a keen interest in cheques, but one should not deduce from this that he was a greedy man or, indeed, mean. He was, in fact, something of a spendthrift, He got through any money he earned very quickly, then lived on credit for a while until the next cheque arrived. He would then pay his debts and start spending again, mostly on horses, cigarettes and whisky. He did not have many clothes, but those he had were expensive. When he was nineteen, his affected way of dressing earned him the nickname "The Count." If the fashion was for tight trousers, then his would be the tightest in the whole of Oxford (Mississippi), the town where he lived. He left there in 1916 to go to Toronto to train with the RAF. The Americans had rejected him because he didn't have enough qualifications, and the British didn't want him because he was too short, until, that is, he threatened to go and fly for the Germans instead.
On one occasion, a young man went to visit him and found him standing with his pipe, which had gone out, in one hand and, in the other, the bridle of the pony that his daughter Jill was riding. To break the ice, the young man asked if the little girl had been riding long. Faulkner did not reply at once. Then he said: "Three years," adding: "You know, a woman should know only how to do three things." He paused, then concluded: "Tell the truth, ride a horse, and sign a cheque."
Jill was not the first daughter Faulkner had with his wife, Estelle, who brought with her two children from a previous marriage. The first daughter they had together died only five days after being born. They called her Alabama. Her mother was still weak and in bed, and Faulkner's brothers were out of town at the time and never saw the child. Faulkner could see no point in holding a funeral, since in those five days the little girl had only had time to become a memory, not a person. So her father put her in a tiny coffin and carried her to the cemetery on his lap. Alone, he placed her in her grave, without telling anyone.
When he received the Nobel Prize in 1950, Faulkner was, at first, reluctant to go to Sweden. However, in the end, he not only went, he travelled throughout Europe and Asia on "a State Department mission." He did not much enjoy the endless functions to which he was invited. At a party given in his honour by Gallimard, his French publishers, it is said that after each succinct reply to questions put by journalists, he would take a step backward. Step by step, he eventually found himself with his back to the wall, and only then did the journalists take pity on him or else give him up as a lost cause. He finally sought refuge in the garden. A few people decided to venture out there too, announcing that they were going to talk to Faulkner, only to come straight back in again, proffering excuses in faltering voices: "It's awfully cold out there." Faulkner was a taciturn man who loved silence, and went to the theatre only five times in his entire life: he had seen Hamlet three times, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Ben Hur, and that was all. He had not read Freud either, at least so he said on one occasion: "I have never read him. Neither did Shakespeare. I doubt if Melville did either and I'm sure Moby Dick didn't." He read Don Quixote every year.
But then he also said that he never told the truth. After all, he wasn't a woman, although he did have a woman's love of cheques and horseback-riding. He always said that he had written Sanctuary, his most commercial novel, for money: "I needed it to buy a good horse." He also said that tie didn't visit big cities very often because you couldn't go there on horseback. When he was getting older, against the advice of both his family and his doctors, he continued going out riding and jumping fences, and kept falling off The last time he went riding he suffered just such a fall. From the house, his wife saw Faulkner's horse standing by the gate, with its saddle still on and the reins hanging loose. When she didn't see her husband there with the horse, she called Dr. Felix Linder and they went out looking for him. They found him over half a mile away, limping, almost dragging himself along. The horse had thrown him and he hadn't been able to remount, having fallen on his back. The horse had walked on a few paces, then stopped and looked round. When Faulkner managed to get to his feet, the horse came over to him and touched him with its muzzle. Faulkner had tried to grab the reins, but failed. Then the horse had headed off towards the house.
William Faulkner spent some time in bed, badly injured and in great pain. He had still not fully recovered from the fall when he died. He was in the hospital, where he had been admitted for a check-up on his progress. But legend refuses to accept that the fall from his horse was the cause of his death. He was killed by a thrombosis on July 6, 1962, when he was not quite sixty-five.
When asked to name the best American writers of his day, he would say that they had all failed, but that Thomas Wolfe had been the finest failure and William Faulkner the second finest failure. He often repeated this over the years, but it is worth remembering that Thomas Wolfe had been dead since 1938, that is, during nearly all the years that Faulkner used to give this answer and was himself alive.
Joseph Conrad on Land
JOSEPH CONRAD'S BOOKS about the sea are so many and so memorable that one always tends to think of him on board a sailing ship, forgetting that he spent the last thirty years of his existence on land, leading an unexpectedly sedentary life. In fact, like any good sailor, he hated travelling, and nothing consoled him more than being shut up in his study writing with agonising difficulty or chatting with his closest friends. It has to be said, however, that he did not always work in rooms that were, in principle, intended for that purpose: towards the end of his life, he used to hide away in the most remote corners of the garden in his house in Kent, scribbling on scraps of paper, and once, it is said, he even annexed the bathroom for a whole week without a word of explanation to his family, who, during that time, enjoyed only very restricted use of that room. On another occasion, the problem was his clothes, for Conrad refused to wear anything but an extremely faded yellow-striped bathrobe, which proved most embarrassing when friends turned up unannounced or American tourists arrived, who claimed, oddly, to have just been passing by.
The gravest threat to family safety was, however, Conrad's deep-rooted need to have a cigarette clamped between his fingers at all times, although this was usually only for a matter of seconds, since he would immediately put it down somewhere and forget about it. His wife, Jessie, resigned herself to the fact that books, sheets, tablecloths, and furniture were all covered in burn marks, but she lived for years in a state of high alert lest her husband burn himself, for even when he gave in to her pleas and got into the habit of throwing his cigarette butts into a large jug of water placed there for that purpose, he had 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.
Conrad was, needless to say, absentminded, but while his main characteristics-irritability and deference-may seem contradictory, they can, perhaps, be explained reciprocally. His natural state was one of disquiet bordering on anxiety, and such was his concern for others that the slightest setback suffered by one of his friends would provoke in him an attack of gout, an illness he had contracted as a young man in the Malay Archipelago and which tormented him for the rest of his life. When his son, Borys, was fighting in the First World War, his wife returned home one night, having been away all day, and was received by a tearful maid who told her that Mr. Conrad had informed the servants that Borys had been killed and had, since then, been closeted in their son's room. And yet, added the maid, no letter or telegram had arrived. When Jessie George Conrad, legs shaking, went upstairs to find her distraught husband and ask him how he could be so sure, he replied, offended: "Can't I have a presentiment as well as you? I know he has been killed!" Presently, Conrad grew a little calmer and fell asleep. His presentiment proved false, but, it seems, once his imagination was let loose, there was no stopping it. He lived in a permanent state of extreme tension, and that was the source of his irritability, which he could barely control and yet which, once it had passed, left neither trace nor memory. When his wife was giving birth to their first son, the aforementioned Borys, Conrad was pacing anxiously up and down in the garden. Suddenly he heard a child cry and strode indignantly over to the kitchen to tell the maid: "Send that child away at once; it will disturb Mrs. Conrad!" Apparently the maid shouted back at him even more indignantly: "It's your own child, sir!"
Conrad was so irritable that whenever he dropped his pen, instead of picking it up at once and carrying on writing, he would spend several minutes exasperatedly drumming his fingers on the desk as if bemoaning what had occurred. His character remained an enigma to those around him. His inner state of agitation would sometimes cause him to fall silent for long periods, even in the company of his friends, who would wait patiently until he resumed the conversation, in which, ordinarily, he was extremely animated, displaying a remarkable gift for story-telling. They say that his tone then was more like the tone in his book of essays, The Mirror the Sea, than in his stories or novels. After one of these interminable and apparently ruminative silences, he would usually come out with some unlikely question that had nothing whatsoever to do with what they had been talking about up until then, for example: "What do you think of Mussolini?"
Conrad wore a monocle and disliked poetry. According to his wife, he only ever gave his approval to two books of verse, one by a young Frenchman whose name she could not recall and the other by his friend Arthur Symons. There are, however, those who maintain that he liked Keats and hated Shelley. The author he hated most, though, was Dostoyevsky. He hated him because he was Russian, because he was mad, and because he was confused, and the mere mention of his name would provoke a furious outburst. He devoured books, with Flaubert and Maupassant heading the list of those he most admired, and took such pleasure in prose that, long before proposing to the woman who would become his wife (that is, when they were still not as yet close companions), he turned up one night bearing a bundle of papers and suggested that the young woman read a few of these pages-part of his second novel-out hind. Full of fear and trembling, Jessie George obeyed, but Conrad's own nervousness did not help: "Never mind that part," he would say: "That is not going to stand-never mind it-start three lines lower; over leaf, over leaf." He even criticised her diction: "Speak distinctly; if you're tired, say so; don't eat your words. You English are all alike, you make the same sound for every letter." The odd thing is that this same persnickety Conrad had, until the end of his days, an extremely thick foreign accent in the language which, as a writer, he came to master better than any author of his day.
Conrad did not get married until he was thirty-eight and when he finally made his proposal, after they had known each other and been friends for several years, it proved to be as pessimistic as some of his own stories, for he announced that he did not have very long to live and had absolutely no intention of having children. The optimistic part came afterwards and consisted in him adding that, such as his life was, he thought that he and Jessie might spend a few happy years together. The bride-to-be's mother commented that: "she didn't quite see why he wished to get married." Conrad, nevertheless, was a devoted husband: he often brought his wife flowers and, each time he finished a book, he would make her some generous gift.
Despite having lost his parents at an early age and despite preserving few memories of them, he was a man much preoccupied with family tradition and with his forebears, even going so far as to express his repeated regret that a great-uncle of his, retreating with Napoleon from Moscow, had been so hard pressed by hunger that he was forced to find temporary respite from it, along with one or two other officers, at the expense of "a luckless Lithuanian dog." The fact that a relative of his should have consumed dog-meat seemed to him a disgrace, and one for which, moreover, he held Bonaparte himself indirectly to blame.
Conrad died quite suddenly, on August 3, 1924, at his house in Kent, at the age of sixty-six. He had felt unwell the previous day, but nothing suggested that death was imminent. That is why, when death came, he was alone in his room, resting. His wife, who was in the room next door, heard him shout: "Here ...!", followed by a second stifled word that she could not make out, and then a noise. Conrad had slipped out of his chair onto the floor.
Excerpted from Written Lives by Javier Marías Copyright © 1999 by Javier Marías. Excerpted by permission.
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