• Email
  • Print

One Cheer for Literary Biography

There never was a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn’t be. He is too many people, if he’s any good.

—F. Scott Fitzgerald, in his notebooks

Poets don’t have biographies. Their work is their biography.

—Octavio Paz, in an essay on Fernando Pessoa

The main question concerning literary biography is, surely, Why do we need it at all? When an author has devoted his life to expressing himself, and, if a poet or a writer of fiction, has used the sensations and critical events of his life as his basic material, what of significance can a biographer add to the record? Most writers lead quiet lives or, even if they don’t, are of interest to us because of the words they set down in what had to be quiet moments. Regardless of what fascinated his contemporaries, Byron interests us now because of Don Juan and those other poems that, though slightly tinny, still ring out, and, secondarily, because of his dashing, spirited letters. His physical beauty, his poignant limp, the scandalous collapse of his marriage and his flight from England as a social outcast, his picturesque European dissipations, his generous involvement in the cause of Greek independence, and his tragically youthful death at Missolonghi in 1824—all this sensational stuff would be buried in the mustiest archives of history did not Byron’s literary achievement distinguish him from the scores of similarly vexed and dynamic men of this turbulent Romantic era. By his words he still lives, and they give the impetus to the periodic biographies of which the latest is by Phyllis Grosskurth, published last year.

Although one rarely sees literary biography on the best-seller list, a prodigious amount of it is produced, some of it at prodigious length. The estimable British biographer Michael Holroyd topped his two-volume biography of Lytton Strachey with a three-volume biography of George Bernard Shaw. Leon Edel’s biography of Henry James took twenty-one years in the writing and occupies five volumes, of which the last is the bulkiest.

In my barn I keep those books which, arriving free at the house, I deem too precious and potentially useful to give to the church fair, and yet not so valuable as to win space on the packed shelves within my book-burdened domicile. Venturing out to my slapdash barn shelves, I note works of roughly five hundred pages on Edmund Wilson, Simone Weil, and Joyce Cary; six-hundred-page tomes on Oscar Wilde and Ivy Compton-Burnett, six hundred and fifty pages on Norman Mailer, seven hundred each on Jean Genet and Samuel Beckett, an eight-hundred-page work on Zola, and, the heavyweight champion in this vicinity, twelve hundred pages on James Thurber. Length of life bears some relation to length of book; in the department of doomed poets, Sylvia Plath, dead at thirty, received three hundred fifty pages of attention whereas Anne Sexton, who lived to be forty-six, one hundred more. However, Delmore Schwartz had the fifty-three years of his life compressed into a mere four hundred pages, as did the drink-raddled but surprisingly long-lived Dorothy Parker. And these are just the dwellers in my barn.

My opening question—Why do we need it at all?—focuses us on the motives of the consumers, not the producers. We read, those of us who do, literary biographies for a variety of reasons, of which the first and perhaps the most worthy is the desire to prolong and extend our intimacy with the author—to partake again, from another angle, of the joys we have experienced within the author’s oeuvre, in the presence of a voice and mind we have come to love. An example of such a prolongation is George D. Painter’s splendid two-volume biography of Marcel Proust, which I read as a young man not long emerged from the full stretch of Remembrance of Things Past, intoxicated and thirsty for more. Painter’s biography allows us to enter the mansion of the novel by a back door, as it were, an approach that turns solid and hard and definite what in the novel was large and vague and inconsecutively arranged and beautifully charged with a poetry of subjective sensibility. Painter must use research and investigation to build what Proust constructed out of his memory, but it is recognizably the same edifice, with fascinating additions.

Painter restores great omissions, such as the writer’s younger brother Robert, and is frank and analytic where Proust was magnificently evasive, as in the matter of his narrator’s homosexuality. The enchanted Combray where little Marcel is fed a tea-soaked madeleine by his Aunt Léonie and waits with desperate longing for the bell on the garden gate to signify that Monsieur Swann has left and his mother is free to come upstairs and give her son a goodnight kiss—Combray becomes Illiers, a town on the map, not far from Chartres, with a distinct history, cartography, and set of houses. Aunt Léonie, we are told, was based, almost without modification, on Proust’s father’s sister Elisabeth Amiot; her house still stands, and Painter describes little Marcel’s bedroom with some of Proust’s words but in an altogether more factual accent:

His bed was screened by high white curtains, and covered in the daytime with flowered quilts, embroidered counterpanes and cambric pillowcases which he had to remove and drape over a chair, “where they consented to spend the night,” before he could go to bed. On a bedside table stood a blue glass tumbler and sugar-basin, with a water-jug to match, which his aunt always told Ernestine to empty on the day after his arrival, “because the child might spill it.” On the mantelpiece was a clock muttering under a glass bell, so heavy that whenever the clock ran down they had to send for the clockmaker to wind it again; on the armchairs were little white antimacassars crocheted with roses, “not without thorns,” since they stuck to him whenever he sat down…

and so on, in a strange but pleasing transposition of the Proustian world into our own. The principal of the two “ways” whereby Proust organized his narrator’s pilgrimage is sharply brought down to earth. Painter writes:

To the child Marcel the two favourite walks of the family seemed to be in diametrically opposite directions, so that no two points in the world could be so utterly separated as their never-reached destinations. Whether they left the house by the front door or by the garden-gate, they would turn one way for Méréglise and the other way for Saint-Eman…. In his novel Proust called Méréglise “Méséglise,” for euphony; and as the way there went by the Pré Catalan, which he had transformed into Swann’s park, he was able to say with truth that it was also Swann’s Way.

The biography becomes, then, a way of reexperiencing the novel, with a closeness, and a delight in seeing imagined details conjured back into real ones, that only this particular writer and his vast autobiographical masterpiece could provide. Lovers of Proust will be inevitably drawn to Painter because it is more of the same, mirrored back into reality. Richard Ellmann’s superb biography of James Joyce, though also dealing with a concentrated and highly personal oeuvre, cannot quite offer us such a mirroring, though its chapter epigraphs, beautifully chosen quotations from Joyce, do compose a sort of anthology. We read Ellmann not only to revisit Joyce’s Dublin but to understand how Joyce, modernism’s wonderworker, did it—how did he produce from the drab facts of the provincial, sodden, priest-ridden Irish capital such rare and comprehensive art as is contained in Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake?

What I remember from my reading, years ago, in Ellmann’s eight hundred pages is that Ulysses first came to Joyce as a short story, one more sketch of a Dubliner, and that during its seven years’ composition, even to within a few weeks of its publication day, the author in his European exile pestered his relatives and friends back in Dublin for local details. He wrote his aunt Josephine Murray concerning the Powells and the Dillons, models for Molly Bloom’s family: “Get an ordinary sheet of foolscap and scribble any God damn drivel you may remember about these people.” He asked her such relentlessly circumstantial questions as “Is it possible for an ordinary person to climb over the area railings of no 7 Eccles Street, either from the path or the steps, lower himself from the lowest part of the railings till his feet are within 2 feet or 3 of the ground and drop unhurt.” Ulysses, confronting the banality of modern life, compels quantities of drivel into a Thomistically schematic mold that parodies the incidents of the Odyssey; an excess of matter is heroically matched by an excess of form.

Perhaps only writers are interested in the details of craft, and how others manage the cunning dishevelment of composition. But of literary biographies I tend to remember curious methodological details: Ivy Compton-Burnett wrote sitting at one end of a sofa and stored the accumulating composition under a sofa cushion; Edith Wharton wrote in bed and threw her pages on the floor for a secretary to pick up and transcribe; Joyce Cary worked at whatever scene of a novel came to him and trusted them to all tie up at the end; Hemingway wrote with freshly sharpened pencils while standing at a tall desk; Nabokov wrote on 3” by 5” index cards; John Keats would put on his best clothes before sitting down to write a poem; Henry James, when he suffered an attack of writer’s cramp, began to dictate to a typist, and his later style was born in the dutiful transcription of his spoken longueurs, qualifications, and colloquialisms.

The question How did he or she do it? takes, in the case of William Shakespeare, the more drastic form, Did he do it? A few years ago I went out and—always a reluctant move for a writer—purchased a book, Dennis Kay’s 1992 biography of Shakespeare. I was interested to see what a modern scholar could assemble of evidence regarding the historical identity of the greatest writer in English. I was persuaded, as I had expected to be, that the son of a small-town burgess and high bailiff, an eldest son presumably educated in the strenuous Latin curriculum of the King’s New School in Stratford, and evidently enlisted in a shotgun marriage at the tender age of eighteen, might go to London and become an actor and playwright and, in a career little more than twenty years long, write the greatest plays and some of the greatest poetry of the language.

Unlike certain devotees of the nobility I have never had any problem with the idea that a child of the middling provincial genteel (Shakespeare’s mother was an Arden, a family of prosperous farmers) might enter the theatrical profession and spin a literary universe out of his dramatic flair, opportune learning, and street-smarts. Robert Greene’s famous calumny, of “an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers,” who “supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you,” fits the case perfectly. Shabby gentility has ever been the cradle of upstart writers.

Nevertheless, there is an embarrassing disproportion between the meager verifiable biographical events and the tremendous literary events associated with Shakespeare’s name. Something of the same disproportion affects the case of Jane Austen, another exalted literary performer about whom we seem to know too little, so that the recent biography by Claire Tomalin must pad its substance with a wealth of detail about the general period in which Austen lived. Literary biography in all cases runs up against this limit of determinism: there is no clear reason why one secluded clergyman’s daughter should be a literary genius when hundreds of others are not. Certain generalizations might be made, in retrospect, about the flowering of, say, Elizabethan poetry or Greek drama or the Russian novel, but the appearance of a great individual remains a chancy matter of microcosmic luck and will. The cultural situation at the turn of the last century might be said to have been sickly; but Yeats and Proust and Joyce all took their beginnings in it.

We read literary biography, often, in a diagnostic mood, as if dealing with a ward of sick men and women. Psychoanalytical theories of compensation and Edmund Wilson’s moving essay “The Wound and the Bow” have alerted biographers to the relation of creative drive to a human insufficiency elsewhere. Any biographer of Kafka must deal, for example, with his insomnia, his unnatural awe of his father, his ambivalence toward his own Jewishness, his inability, until fatally weakened by tuberculosis, to achieve a liaison with a woman—the entire psychological paralysis, in short, dramatized in his superb comedies of modern bafflement. Our mid-nineteenth-century giants Melville and Hawthorne, linked by an uneasily charged friendship, challenge any biographer with the mysteries of their affective lives. Melville’s mental fragility, his homoerotic vein, his inadequacies as a husband and a father hardly fit with the humor and vigor of his best creations and the toughness that saw him through a longish life loaded with disappointments.

And Hawthorne, who spent the years of his youth haunting Salem, writing in an attic, walking out mostly at dusk, chiefly consorting with an eccentrically shy mother and a strong-minded sister who was, it has been speculated, a virtual wife to him—how does this strangeness feed into the strangeness of his work, lending it its shadowy intensity and its evasive reliance upon whimsy and the play of fancy? The vocabularies of psychoanalysis and of literary analysis become increasingly entwined; though we must not forget that these invalids receive our attention because of the truth and poetry and entertainment to be found in their creations. A wound existed, but also a strong bow, and a target was struck.

From such examinations it is not a far step to those biographies, of which Lytton Strachey is the patron saint, that ridicule and denigrate their subjects. We read them, perhaps, in order to feel superior to well-known writers. Mark Schorer is supposed to have detested Sinclair Lewis by the time he finished his bulky biography of the man, and James Atlas could not have felt much more kindly toward Delmore Schwartz. I happened to review Jeffrey Meyers’s 1994 biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and quote my review:

Before Mr. Meyers assembled his brief, we never knew quite how nasty a drunk Fitzgerald was. He repaid Gerald and Sara Murphy’s elegant hospitality by “throwing Sara’s gold-flecked Venetian wineglasses over the garden wall” and, when banned for this outrage, threw a can of garbage onto their patio while they were dining. As he and some friends were leaving the Casino at Juan-les-Pins, an old Frenchwoman held out a tray of nuts and candies, and Fitzgerald kicked the tray right out of her hands. He picked quarrels and started fistfights, which he usually got the worst of. A fierce malice and resentment emerged in the guise of pranks and teasing. He wrote in lipstick on the expensive dress of his friend John Peale Bishop’s wife; dining with Hemingway and Edmund Wilson in New York, he turned the occasion into a revel of self-abasement. According to Wilson’s journal: “Scott with his head down on the table between us like the dormouse at the Mad Tea Party—lay down on floor, went to can and puked—alternately made us hold his hand and asked us whether we liked him and insulted us.”

Now, after reading such a summation, don’t we feel released from ever having to take Scott Fitzgerald seriously again? But Mr. Meyers at least offers a medical excuse—Fitzgerald, like Poe, he asserts, suffered from hypoglycemia. Michael Sheldon, in his 1995 biography of Graham Greene, offers no excuse for his subject, whom he indignantly portrays as an insincere Catholic, a faithless husband, a sexual masochist, a sadistic prankster, a burnt-out talent, and, in two veiled and hedged charges that mark some sort of sensationalist low point in literary biography, the actual murderer of a dismembered woman found in Brighton in 1930 and, in collaboration with his close friend Kim Philby, a traitor to his country! Furthermore, Sheldon claims, Greene consorted with dictators and “rich men who enjoyed idle jests.”

Such an assault, however, comes from a researcher who never met the subject, who in turn is safely dead, beyond personal hurt or recourse to lawsuit. Recent years in America have given rise to what we might call the Judas biography, in which a former spouse or friend of a living writer confides to print an intimate portrait less flattering than might be expected. Claire Bloom, as the wronged ex-wife of Philip Roth, shows him to have been, as their marriage rapidly unraveled, neurasthenic to the point of hospitalization, adulterous, callously selfish, and financially vindictive. Paul Theroux, finding himself snubbed by his friend and mentor of thirty years, recounts all he can remember about V.S. Naipaul, including a host of racist, misogynistic, cruel, and vain remarks allegedly made in their—Naipaul must have thought—private conversations.

Joyce Maynard, most fascinatingly, recalls, as part of her rather arduous self-development, her affair with J.D. Salinger and thus lifts the curtain on perhaps the most cherished privacy in America; Salinger is portrayed as a food crank, a keen student of homeopathic medicine, a Reichian, a fan of old movies and present-day television, a man full of scornful opinions and rather creepily fond of very young girls. Maynard describes her inability to have genital sex and his insistence on her providing oral sex instead; she quotes, with more pertinence than perhaps she realizes, his saying, “It’s a goddam embarrassment, publishing. The poor boob who lets himself in for it might as well walk down Madison Avenue with his pants down.”

Another cherished privacy, meanwhile, that of long-time New Yorker editor William Shawn, has been exploded by Lillian Ross in her rapturous recounting of their affair. And, hot off the press, Rosemary Mahoney’s A Likely Story: One Summer with Lillian Hellman, in a remarkable reprise of a teenage housekeeper’s casually cruel observations and easily wounded vanity, presents the septuagenarian Hellman as fearful, fussy, inconsiderate of her help, obsessed with food, hard-drinking, and physically hideous, with “the big beaky face of a sea turtle at rest on the ocean floor, with one dyspeptic eye half open in a sluggish scan for predators and perhaps more food.”

Insofar as we are consumers of such books, or of reviews of them, we are collaborators in their creation. As lovers of literature, we are lovers of truth, and regret the loss of, say, the letters and papers that Henry James and Walt Whitman burned as their ends approached; we would like to read the journal that Sylvia Plath kept in her darkest months and that her surviving spouse, the late Ted Hughes, destroyed. Contrariwise, the reputation of Samuel Johnson would still be high had not Boswell spent so many informal hours with him; but less high, I dare say, without that closeup biography, and much more wooden. Viewing the intimate underside of writers we have read is fascinating. Even when the information has already been shaped into fiction, the revelations of another party, because less artful, seem more authentic. In this art-wary age, it is the photograph we trust over the painting, and the more awkward and unposed the photograph the more trustworthy it appears. I raise the possibility that we resent a fiction writer’s manipulation of his private life, including the private lives of those around him, and rejoice when he or she loses control.

Which brings us to my own decided reluctance to be, were I ever invited, a subject of extended biographical treatment. A fiction writer’s life is his treasure, his ore, his savings account, his jungle gym, and I marvel at the willingness of my friends William Styron and Joyce Carol Oates to cooperate in their recently published biographies. As long as I am alive, I don’t want somebody else playing on my jungle gym—disturbing my children, quizzing my ex-wife, bugging my present wife, seeking for Judases among my friends, rummaging through yellowing old clippings, quoting in extenso bad reviews I would rather forget, and getting everything slightly wrong.

To the disinterested reader, however, literary biography need not be purely a bane. The more or less meager and ignoble and practical facts tie the author’s balloon, his flotilla of balloons, to the earth, and tracing the connections tells us something of the nature of artistic creation. The life of a writer, which spins outside of itself a secondary life, offers an opportunity to study mind and body, or inside and outside, or dream and reality, together, as one. Consider the many inventive yet judicious connections Leon Edel makes between Henry James’s evolving psyche and the accumulating corpus of work. The many people that James was, to use the phrasing of our epigraph by Fitzgerald, to some extent unite. If it enhances our access to literature, populating its annals with graspable, provocative personalities, then literary biography does perform useful work.

Letters

Slight Revision March 4, 1999

  • Email
  • Print