Friday, February 10, 2006

Sordid lives

  • Michael Dirda reviews Written Lives by Javier Marías at The Washington Post.
The anecdotes from the review alone put this one on the top of my wish list:
In his preface, Marías notes that he generally writes with "affection and humour," though he confesses that he feels very little of the former for James Joyce, Thomas Mann and Yukio Mishima. The chapter on the self-important Mann is a comic masterpiece:

"Any writer who leaves behind him sealed envelopes not to be opened until long after his death is clearly convinced of his own immense importance, as tends to be confirmed when, after all that patient waiting, the wretched, disappointing envelopes are finally opened. In the case of Mann and his diaries, what strikes one most is that he obviously felt that absolutely everything that happened to him was worthy of being recorded. . . . [The diaries] give the impression that Mann was thinking ahead to a studious future which would exclaim after each entry: 'Good heavens, so that was the day when the Great Man wrote such and such a page of The Holy Sinner and then, the following night, read some verses by Heine, that is so revealing!' "

***

According to Marías -- and it's hard to argue with him -- Malcolm Lowry, author of Under the Volcano , seems "to have been the most calamitous writer in the whole history of literature." An alcoholic, he was known to drink shaving lotion and his own urine. Shortly after their marriage, his first wife started going off with other men, once climbing onto a bus in Mexico "to spend a jolly week with some engineers." He tried to strangle his second wife. Twice. And he had lots of trouble with animals, once punching a horse in the ear so that it fell to its knees:

"Even sadder was what happened to a poor little rabbit that he was absentmindedly stroking on his lap while talking one night to the pet's owner and the owner's mother: the rabbit suddenly went stiff; Lowry had broken its neck with his small, clumsy hands. For two days, he wandered the streets of London carrying the corpse, not knowing what to do with it and consumed by self-loathing."
Ouch.

Living in the gutter and acting like a raving asshole doesn't guarantee great work and/or recognition, but, at the same time, you do need a bit of madness to accomplish great things; you have to put your own humanity aside. Whether or not you ever get it back is another question, but in this world, sometimes that's not a great loss.

2 comments:

Your father's brother's nephew's cousin's former roommate said...

"Living in the gutter and acting like a raving asshole doesn't guarantee great work and/or recognition, but, at the same time, you do need a bit of madness to accomplish great things; you have to put your own humanity aside. Whether or not you ever get it back is another question, but in this world, sometimes that's not a great loss."

Jesus, you're fucking cynical! And wrong. Writing something significant isn't the only road to greatness and recognition, ya know. Gandhi accomplished great things and I don't think he ever tossed aside his humanity.

Jason Comerford said...

Mike, Mike, Mike... ever the optimist. Sigh. Read the post again and note the use of the word "sometimes."

Gandhi starved himself for six days in 1948 to try and bring peace between Hindi and Muslims. His intent was altruistic, absolutely, but he was also deliberately denying himself the nourishment he needed to survive, and he was willing to deprive his family of a husband and father to do so.

Wouldn't you call that giving up your humanity? Wouldn't you call that madness?

Ruthless pursuit of a goal takes many forms. But people can't seem to understand this unless it's coated in sugar and tied up in a pretty bow. If it's not, well, then, fingers get pointed and people are called "wrong" for not toeing the line. The truth hurts, and the best people always take the bullets in the head. Like Gandhi. I rest my case.