Friday, November 14, 2014

`To Keep Abreast of the Essentials First'

Some of the best biographies arrive in mufti, compact, free of academic plumage and posing as something else. As with any work of literature, we ask only that a life story be well written, not exhaustive, exhausting, “official” or definitive. Auden could have filled an anthology with them (Henry James, Housman, Montaigne). Whitney Balliett wrote dozens of indelible portraits of jazz musicians, few longer than ten pages. Brief lives show up unexpectedly in Liebling’s journalism, Thoreau’s journals, Cowper’s letters, Saint-Simon’s Memoirs, Pepys’ diary, Henry James’ criticism and Oliver Sacks’ case studies, and don’t forget Plutarch, Walton’s lives of Donne and Herbert, and Aubrey’s Brief Lives. Clive James arranged Cultural Amnesia (2007) around biographies and Joseph Epstein keeps the tradition healthy. The form seems endlessly elastic and renewable. 

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.”


drizzz said...

Only volume one of the projected three volume biography of the Beatles by Mark Lewisohn has been published (or even written)- my wife thoroughly enjoyed it and I learned a lot of interesting trivia from her. At any rate, the Beatles had a huge impact on society and were pretty talented to boot.

Subbuteo said...

A good quality in a biographer is his ability to identify the issues in the life of the subject which are truly of interest and which might, in a sense, define them (if a person can be defined). For example Andrew Motion's "A Writer's Life" on Larkin clearly highlights the diffidence, dithering and bad faith in his relationships with several women. This is important as it informs his poetry so much. He's good on Keats too. Motion a better biographer than poet?