on Isak Dinesen from Written Lives by Javier Marias

When she finally made her appearance at the numerous parties to which she was invited and at the public readings where she told stories entirely without the aid of notes, they discovered that she was a frail, eccentric old lady, deeply lined and with matchstick-thin arms, all dressed in black, with a turban on her head, diamonds in her ears and large amounts of kohl around her eyes. Despite this, the legend continued, albeit along more concrete lines: according to the Americans, she lived on a diet of oysters and champagne, which was not quite true, for she consumed prawns, asparagus, grapes, and tea. When Isak Dinesen expressed a desire to meet Marilyn Monroe, the novelist Carson McCullers managed to arrange this, and, at a famous lunch, the three women shared a table with Arthur Miller, the husband par excellence, who, surprised by the Baroness’s eating habits, asked which doctor had prescribed this diet of oysters and champagne. They say that America has never seen the like of the scornful look she gave him: “Doctor?” she said. “The doctors are horrified, but I love champagne and I love oysters and they do me good.” Miller went on to make some comment about protein, and it seems that the second scornful look she gave him will also never be seen again on American soil. “I am an old woman and I eat what agrees with me.” The Baroness got on much better with Marilyn Monroe.

translated by Margaret Jull Costa

on Djuna Barnes from Written Lives by Javier Marias

Djuna Barnes’s life lasted ninety years and for far too many of them she either did not want or could not have any lovers and so she had no alternative but to remain silent. Her apartment in New York was her inaccessible refuge. There she received letters and the cheques with which her friend, the multimillionairess Peggy Guggenheim, kept her provided for years, as well as the occasional call from publishers wanting to reprint her few books, and with whom she  invariably grew indignant. (She got indignant with Henry Miller too, whom she thought was a swine.) Sometimes she would work three or four eight-hour days just to produce two or three lines of verse, and the slightest noise would ruin her concentration for the rest of the day and plunge her into despair. According to one of her biographers, she spent more than fifteen thousand days, that is, more than forty years, in her apartment in Patchin Place. And we know that most of them. days and years, passed in total silence without her exchanging a single word with anyone. Just the noise of the typewriter and those lines still unread. In 1931, long before those forty years began, she had written: “I like my human experience served up with a little silence and restraint. Silence makes experience go further, and, when it does die, gives it that dignity common to a thing one had touched and not vanished.”

translated by Margaret Jull Costa

on Vladimir Nabokov from Written Lives by Javier Marias

Given his reputation as a misanthrope, it  is odd how often the words “pleasure,” “bliss,” and “rapture” appear in his mouth. He admitted that he wrote for two reasons: in order to achieve pleasure, bliss and rapture and to rid himself of the book on which he was currently working. Once it was started, he said, the only way to get rid of it was to finish it. On one occasion, though, he was tempted to resort to a quicker and more irrevocable method. 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 chapter of Lolita, beset as he was with doubts and technical difficulties. On another occasion, he blamed the saving of the manuscript on his own startled conscience, convinced, he said, that the ghost of the destroyed book would persue him for the rest of his life. Nabokov clearly had a soft spot for the novel, for, after pouring all his energies into writing it, he still found the strength to translate it into Russian, knowing full well that it would not be read in his own country for more years than he would be alive.

translated by Margaret Jull Costa

from Robert Louis Stevenson Among Criminals in Written Lives by Javier Marias

Stevenson is such an elusive figure, as if his personality had never been fully defined or was as contradictory as that of those characters of his I mentioned earlier. He was a very generous and, especially after the success of Treasure Island, he himself often went without in order to send money to his needier friends, who sometimes turned out to be not quite so needy after all, but failed to tell him so. One of his most famous proverbs was: “Greatheart was deceived. ‘Very well,’ said Greatheart.” He had a highly developed sense of dignity, but he could also be boastful and impertinent. On one occasion, he wrote to Henry James on the subject of Kipling’s emerging talent: “Kipling is by far the most promising young man who has appeared since–ahem–I appeared.” And in another letter to James, written at the beginning of their friendship, he demanded that in the next edition  of Roderick Hudson, James, who was seven years his senior, should remove from particular pages the adjectives “immense” and “tremendous.” The two men admired each other enormously, and James considered Stevenson to be one of the few people with whom he could discuss literary theory. Nowadays, almost no one takes the trouble to read Stevenson’s essays, which are among the liveliest and most perceptive of the past century. When he was still living in Bournemouth, he had an armchair in which no one else sat because it was “Henry James’s armchair,” and James missed him terribly when Stevenson left for good. In 1888, James wrote to him: “You have become a beautiful myth–a kind of unnatural uncomfortable unburied mort.”

translated by Margaret Jull Costa

from William Faulkner on Horseback in Written Lives by Javier Marias

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 job as a post office clerk at the University of Mississippi. Apparently one of the lecturers there, quite reasonably, complained: the only way he could get his 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 fell alarminbgly: by way of explanation, Faulkner told his family that he was not prepared to keep getting 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.

translated by Margaret Jull Costa