Saturday 23 October 2010

Living with a biography


It was not always thus - but in recent decades (since about the mid 1980s, perhaps) I have often 'lived with' a particular biography or autobiography for periods of weeks or months - dipping in frequently, and trying to get at the heart of the human subject of the book.

These books (which I am about to list) were not necessarily ones which I would (wearing a critical hat) regard as exceptionally well written books, nor would I necessarily recommend them, and sometimes I would regard them as rather disappointing (the subject was generally more important to me than the style)  nonetheless these are indeed biographies with which I spent a lot of time.

The following is incomplete - but in broadly chronological order, or rather the period of my life (some weeks or months) dominated by the book:


Lucky Poet by Hugh MacDiarmid

JRR Tolkien and The Inklings by Humphrey Carpenter

MacDiarmid: a critical biography by Alan Bold

Robert Graves by Martin Seymour Smith

Genius: the life and science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick

Emerson: the Mind on Fire, by RD Richardson (Ralph Waldo Emerson).

The Flowering of New England by Van Wyck Brooks (group biography of early 19th century)

Robert Frost by Jay Parini

Joseph Campbell by Steven and Robin Larsen

Autobiography by John Cowper Powys

Charles Williams by Alice Mary Hadfield

Father Seraphim Rose by Heiromonk Damascene


For example, the Emerson biography by Robert D Richardson is associated with a long period around 1996-8 - I was continually going back and re-reading certain parts, until my copy was fallen into pieces. I then was more easily able to carry pieces of the book to read in bed, the garden or cafes (it is, intact, a very thick book).

My interest in this, as in others listed, was that Emerson seemed (at the time, not now) to have lived a kind of life (not specifically his life - but in some specific respects) which I wanted (in some way) to live - and I think I was trying to learn from this. In fact my motivations were not clear to me, now or since, but anyway I kept returning to the book and trying to puzzle-out something.

Or, and this would apply to the next book - The Flowering of New England, I returned to the parts of these books because they 'cast a spell' on me. VW Brooks prose is incantatory, and evokes a delicious (to me) idyllic quality.

There was, here and elsewhere, an element of day-dreaming, wish fulfillment and escape. The book was working as a technology, or a magical device, to create an alternative world in my mind.


Of course, most people get this from novels - which are, after all, designed to do it. But novels don't usually work for me; at least seldom since my late twenties (for example, the novels of Halldor Laxness did this for me, for a while circa 1999-2001, after visiting Iceland).

So biographies have been, for better or worse, a linking thread of life over the past 25 years.

It may have been for worse - in so far as they were a distraction (on the one hand) yet (on the other hand) apparently held out a (slender) promise of ultimate worldly gratification.

The idea that there had been satisfactory lives, and that these might perhaps be emulated - at least in their satisfactoriness - was a delusion, ultimately. 


NB: It is probably not relevant - but I have myself written a (very) mini-biography. A chapter length account of the life of writer/ painter Alasdair Gray - published in The Arts of Alasdair Gray, 1991 - and based on a few months of  proper archival research in diaries, letters etc.


HofJude said...

The same effect is powerful for me, but for few others I can think of among my literate friends. Novels have come to seem thin, and history generalized to the point of meaninglessness, compared to biographies. This is true although most of them now published, in skill and style, are no better than history and fiction. Still you can learn something from even an unbearably badly written biography, and this is not true of fiction or history. I envy you your ability to reconstruct your life of lives.
Since I had the same reduction-to-pamphlet experience you had with that Emerson biography, I feel I have the standing to suggest two other extraordinary books: one is Henry James Life in Letters, and the other is odd - it is the great minor novelist Sybille Bedford's biography of Aldous Huxley, which is interesting not because of Huxley, but because in telling Huxley's story, Bedford enables one not only to come to know the far more interesting figure of Huxley's wife (whom Bedford knew as an adolescent), but to know her with such intimacy and force that one can find oneself actually falling in love with her. Be careful.

Bruce Charlton said...

Thakns for these comments and tentative recommendations.

I am not - I'd like to be clear - recommending the books I have listed. Some are pernicious! But they did influence me at certain points in my life.

There is a horrible genre of poisonous biography, pioneered I believe by Lytton Strachey with Eminent Victorians.

The intention (or at least the effect) of such biographies is to poison appreciation, to recontextualize - to emphasize the bad as representative and to explain away the good.

A relatively mild example is AN Wilson's biography of CS Lewis - which is helped in its task by slapdash research, a few falsehoods and incompetences.

But the supreme example is Lawrance Thomson's three volume 'authorized' biography of Robert Frost - which is hugely researched and documented, and accurate in every detail - and which achieves its self-consciously destructive goals purely by distortion of emphasis and by biased interpretation.

Thomson's only error in his objective comes in the detailed index; which contains scores of index headings listing passages documenting Frost's (supposed) negative characteristics, faults and bad behaviors - and virtually none listing passages descriptive of his good qualities. In this Thomson makes all too clear his motivations.

Dave Lull said...

"Canongate has a new book of Alasdair Gray's artwork A Life in Pictures coming out . . . ."

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dave Lull - thanks, I saw a review of that.

Gray is a very distinctive illustrator, and I like especially the decorations for Unlikely Stories, Mostly; and the section headings for Lanark.

He actually did a portrait drawing of me (I have the original) which is published in his Book of Prefaces.