Roving thoughts and provocations

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Writers Into Saints

James Joyce; drawing by David Levine

The greatest, the best, the finest, the most innovative, the most perceptive…

Over the last ten years or so I have read literary biographies of Dickens, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Hardy, Leopardi, Verga, D. H. Lawrence, Joyce, Woolf, Moravia, Morante, Malaparte, Pavese, Borges, Beckett, Bernhard, Christina Stead, Henry Green, and probably others too. With only the rarest of exceptions, and even then only for a page or two, each author is presented as simply the most gifted and well-meaning of writers, while their behavior, however problematic and possibly outrageous—Dickens’s treatment of his children, Lawrence’s fisticuffs with Frieda—is invariably described in a flattering light. We’re not quite talking hagiography, but special pleading is everywhere evident, as if biographers were afraid that the work might be diminished by a life that was less than noble or not essentially directed toward a lofty cause.

Consider Hermione Lee on Woolf’s suicide: the biographer takes it as an indication of Woolf’s resilience and courage for not having committed suicide in the preceding years, despite her severe depression—a courage directed at breakthroughs in fiction on behalf of female emancipation and for the general furtherance of our culture. There is no real basis for this reflection, or any need for it. Lee simply takes whatever chances she can to build up a positive moral image of Woolf.

Gordon Bowker takes Joyce at his word that he had to leave Ireland because he was unable to become a great writer in a provincial atmosphere amid competing claims of nationalism and Catholicism. Yet the facts suggest Joyce was working well in Ireland; he was publishing and had a growing reputation. A more urgent problem was his having an uneducated and very young girlfriend whom he was embarrassed to present to family or intellectual friends as a future wife, but with whom he wanted to enjoy nuptial bliss at once. That was possible only by moving abroad, a move that definitely slowed down his career and would condition all his work from then on. Bowker enthuses over the myth of the independent artist seeking alone the “spiritual liberation of his country,” then lets us know that Joyce was consulting his aunt by post over his young wife’s depression (Nora was desperately lonely in countries where she could not speak the language) and visiting prostitutes in the meantime.

All biographies of Beckett speak with awe of his artistic integrity, his unwillingness to give interviews or to have his novels entered for prizes. But elsewhere it’s clear that Beckett had problems with all forms of social engagement, and in particular anything that laid him under an obligation or limited his freedom in any way. In early adulthood he would not work, insisted on his parents’ supporting him, but refused to accept that this gave them any right to tell him what to do with his time. Later, he found in his companion Suzanne Dumesnil someone who not only supported him financially but also promoted his work and wrote letters to his publishers for him. In his first novel, Murphy, the eponymous hero refuses to work and is supported by a prostitute, though the person he most admires is an autistic patient totally secure from outside influence. In “First Love” a tramp is picked up by a prostitute and taken back to her house for sex. He escapes into a back room, barricades himself in, and asks to be fed and have his chamber pot removed while conceding nothing in return. In neither story is there any question that this is done for art or out of a need for integrity.

I deeply admire the work of all these writers. I have no desire to run them down. On the contrary. What I find odd is that biographers apparently feel a need to depict their subjects as especially admirable human beings, something that in the end makes their lives less rather than more interesting and harder rather than easier to relate to their writing. It is so much clearer why the books were written and why they had to be the way they are if the life is given without this constant positive spin.

The tendency may be most pronounced in biographies of Dickens. Quite apart from the writer’s dramatic rejection of his wife after she had given him ten children, there is simply an enormous resistance to admitting what a tyrant the man was, seeking to control the lives of those around him to an extraordinary degree, deeply disappointed and punitive when they didn’t live up to his expectations, which was almost always, yet at the same time fearful of any sign of competition. Robert Gottlieb, in Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens, is sublime: to let Dickens off one hook he quotes previous biographer and Dickens descendant Lucinda Hawksley as claiming that the author discouraged his son Walter Landor from writing because he was “probably aware ‘that [Walter] did not have the aptitude or ambition to work at [it] as hard as he would need to in order to succeed financially.’” At this point the boy, who after all had been named after a poet, was not even in his teens. The fact is that, having styled himself “the Inimitable One,” Dickens never wanted competition from his children.

The habit of imagining the writer as more well-meaning than he or she probably was is even more curious when we turn to academe. Usually hostile to any notion that knowledge of a writer’s life illuminates his work—“Biographical Fallacy!” one professor of mine would thunder—academic critics nevertheless tend to assume that the author is a solemn soul devoted to profound aesthetic enquiries and invariably progressive narratives. So for Linda Shires, in Tess of the D’Urbevilles Thomas Hardy was “educating his readers by defamiliarization,” something that “is the primary goal of a novelist who would have us treat women differently, alter linguistic conventions, and reform the institutions that misshape women as much as language.” While for Paul Davies, Beckett “veritably hunted realism to death,” where realism is understood to be the convention underpinning bourgeois complacency.

This is biography. We are being told of a plan the author had to improve the world. Unfortunately, Shires’s remarks give us no sense of why Tess is such an absorbing read, nor does any careful attention to the life or indeed the book suggest that this is what is really going on in the writing. It’s true that Hardy said he wanted “to demolish the doll of English fiction,” but what he was talking about was the freedom to evoke the lure and terror of sexual experience.

As for Beckett, it is truly hard to see his work as politically motivated. His manner of relating to others in his personal life and in print is to say something and immediately unsay it, declare and then deny. Again and again in the novels he builds up a credibly realistic scene, then steps rapidly away from it: “There’s a choice of images!” remarks Malone, having offered us a moving description of his hero Saposcat. His words “went dead as soon as they sounded,” says Murphy’s girlfriend of Murphy. In his strangely contorted letters to Duthuis, after championing a form of expression free from all relation to the world, Beckett warns: “Bear in mind that I who hardly ever talk about myself talk about little else.” In the end, the image he uses to clarify this conundrum is excretion: his writing is something he shits or vomits. He produces it, has to produce it, it is of him, but it is not about anything nor purposefully meant, and he wishes to push it away from himself as soon as possible—a sort of enactment of self-loathing. This is a fascinating pronouncement on the creative process (Byron said something similar), but hardly the description of a noble task.

Returning then to these over-generous biographies, and to the constant insinuation of academe that writers are talented laborers in a good cause, one can only assume that they are satisfying a general need to reinforce a positive conception of narrative art, thus bolstering the self-esteem of readers, and even more of critics and biographers, who in writing about literature are likewise contributing to the very same good causes. Authors themselves, though often contradicting this positive image in private (Dickens frequently acknowledged that certain negative characters in his books were based on himself), soon learn how to play the part. Beckett must have been aware of how those famous author photos, suggesting a lean, suffering asceticism, fed the public’s perception of an austere and virtuous separateness. “How easy,” wrote Beckett’s friend Emil Cioran, “to imagine him … in a naked cell, undisturbed by the least decoration, not even a crucifix.” Actually Beckett was sharing a spacious flat in central Paris with lifetime companion Suzanne, spending weekends and summers with her in their country cottage, but drinking heavily with friends (never Suzanne) most evenings and generally making time for mistresses when possible.

But let’s finish with Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, a masterpiece in having it both ways: “I feel this award was not made to me as a man,” he begins with apparent humility, seemingly denying personal prowess and heading off, as Faulkner always did, the all-too-evident relations between his stories and his biography, “but to my work, a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit.” All the attention must be on the work, but as a manifestation of saintly human endeavor. Whose? Faulkner’s of course.

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