You'd think a small book of sketches of famous writers would be just a quick earner or something of a pastime for Spain's Javier Marías, perhaps during a dry spell between novels. After all, he's one of the world's most highly-praised and -circulated living authors. Yet in closing this book the unmistakable impression is that he is really enthralled by the people he's encountered, by their quirks and eccentricities, and that this was no lark for Marías.
Each of these short pieces is only a few pages long, and tries to encapsulate facets of known artists without attempting to evaluate their achievements. Marías explores strange angles about famous writers, including from Victorian times (Wilde, RL Stevenson, James) to our day (Lowry, Nabokov, Djuna Barnes, Mishima). Never striking out for straight mini-biography, he takes a special interest in their obsessions and perversions -- such as Nabokov's crankiness, Mishima's frequent stupidity, Joyce's coprophilia, Barnes's exhausting intensity, etc.
For the most part, he writes affectionately about his characters, or at least never with bitterness. The only other feature common to these bio-sketches is his invariable focus on precisely how his subjects died. No pattern but the frequent banality of these final moments seems to emerge, so this may be Marías' own quirk.
All of this is presented in a translation into idiomatic English, but for the occasional lapse -- as with the redundant "true facts" (p 158) Recommended.
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