Saturday, December 20, 2008

`Enchain the Heart by Irresistible Interest'

Finishing a biography of a person about whom one knew almost nothing – Benjamin Disraeli by Adam Kirsch – only to begin another about a person whose life and work one knows in some detail – Samuel Johnson: The Struggle by Jeffrey Meyers – illustrates why we remain so deeply interested in the lives of others, and why good biographies are important. Disraeli was little more than a name in a museum to me, once punningly revived by the title of a Cream album. I started reading the book for two reasons: The author, at age 32, is a dauntingly accomplished poet and critic whose wonderful first book of poems, The Thousand Wells, was published when he was 26. Secondly, the volume is part of Nextbook’s Jewish Encounters series, which has already given us the superb Maimonides by Sherwin Nuland and Betraying Spinoza by Rebecca Goldstein.

Without Kirsch’s imprimatur I probably wouldn’t have picked it up, as I haven’t read such earlier entries in the Jewish Encounters series as lives of King David, Emma Lazarus, Marc Chagall and Barney Ross. I’m not interested. But Kirsch reanimates Disraeli as a novelist, prime minister, Victorian and especially as a Jew. Within the constraints of a brief life, Kirsch has organized his book around the theme of Jewishness in an anti-Semitic time and place. Disraeli masterfully juggled identities, eventually becoming a trusted favorite of Queen Victoria. His life reads like a mirrors-within-mirrors plot devised by Philip Roth in one of his novels from the nineteen-eighties (or Operation Shylock). Kirsch gracefully works an immense amount of information into a small space (258 pages, counting a chronology and other extras). He kept me compellingly interested in a man about whom I was largely ignorant and prompted me to shift Daniel Deronda to the soon-to-reread bin.

I’ve only just started Meyers’ biography, mere months after reading Peter Martin’s Samuel Johnson. Both are timed to meet the tercentenary of the Good Doctor’s birth, next September 18. According to his publisher, Meyers has put out 20 previous biographies of personalities as various as Wyndham Lewis, W. Somerset Maughm and Humphrey Bogart. I’ve read none of them and my expectations of such a writing machine are not excessive. After reading only the introduction I remain noncommittal:

“[Johnson] also had a compassionate heart and a heroic capacity for suffering. He endured constant pain, long years of profound depression and two decades of failure. Ford Madox Ford called him `the most tragic of all our major literary figures.’”

Nice touch from Fordie, and Meyers clearly knows and sympathizes with his man, but his prose thus far is never more than serviceable and I’ve learned nothing new. But there’s comfort in being in Johnson’s company, watching the familiar outlines sketched yet again. Part of the challenge posed by Johnson for a biographer is that he was himself a masterful writer of lives and the subject of the greatest biographies in the language – Boswell’s and W. Jackson Bate’s. Meyers is humble and proud enough to use for his epigraph a well-known passage from The Rambler No. 60:

“No species of writing seems more worthy of cultivation than biography, since none can be more delightful or more useful, none can more certainly enchain the heart by irresistible interest, or more widely diffuse instruction to every diversity of condition.”

1 comment:

Frank Wilson said...

I reviewed Meyers' biography of Maugham and it was pretty good, but I think he's more suited to Maugham than the good Doctor.