The opposition is formidable. Biographers have taken to treating their subjects as mysteries to be solved or miscreants to be exposed and punished. The impulse is hubristic. The other common failure is gigantism, a pathology I encountered forty years ago in Joseph Blotner’s grotesquely swollen two-volume life of Faulkner, a book that reads nearly as long as A Fable. Off hand, I can think of several big biographies worth reading – Richard Holmes’ Coleridge and Leo Damrosch’s Swift – but who wants to read three fat volumes devoted to The Beatles or 656 pages about a guy who sold computers? Especially as we have no good brief lives – that is, lives in which information is digested, not regurgitated -- of Yvor Winters, Joseph Mitchell, Willa Cather, Guy Davenport, Louis Pasteur, Zbigniew Herbert, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Charles Lamb, Omar Bradley, Michael Oakeshott, Richard Diebenkorn and Ella Fitzgerald, among many others.
Earlier I mentioned Clive James. As a postscript to an essay about Kingsley Amis collected in The Revolt of the Pendulum: Essays 2005-2008 (Picador, 2009), James adds a note on biographies. Anthony Cronin’s Samuel Beckett, he says, is “full of things that I would never have figured out for myself” – perhaps the ultimate biographer’s accolade. He hopes that sheer biographical bulk can be “kept within reasonable limits,” and adds: “My own rule of thumb is that a book is of decent length if I can remember how it started when I get to the end. Ideally, though, one can’t help wanting less than that.” James takes nice shots at both Lytton Strachey and his biographer, Michael Holroyd. The odious Eminent Victorians is, James says, “a meretricious book but it was in a meritorious tradition.” Then he cinches his argument:
“One doesn’t say that Aubrey’s Brief Lives set the desirable measure, but it always helps to remember how much got said by Johnson in his Lives of the Poets, any one of which is the first thing to read on the poet in question. Not, of course, the only thing: but surely our aim, like Johnson’s, should be to keep abreast of the essentials first.”