Literary Biography

Article excerpt

Plenty has happened in the four years since "Quick Bibs" last looked at the state of literary biography (March 1987, p. 170). The books listed below are only a sampling of a great outpouring of major biographies, many of which make use of heretofore unavailable sources. Scholars will exert much energy debating how Ackroyd's new life of Dickens or Worthen's of Lawrence fit in the vast panorama of available scholarship on these much-studied writers; for the general reader, though, who has little or no interest in territorial warfare among academics, these books represent a splendid feast, an opportunity to immerse oneself in the lives and times of the writers who have shaped our literature.

The biographer's craft remains a peculiar one, part historian, part critic, part psychologist, part cutter-and-paster. A well-made biography, however, like a well-lived life, transcends its individual parts. It may not be art exactly, but it feels just as good.

Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. HarperCollins, 1990, $35 (0-06-016602-9).

There have been many lives of the Victorian era's most revered writer, but Ackroyd's is clearly special--for its tantalizing complexity, for its almost tactile evocation of nineteenth-century London, for its vision of how, finally, Dickens's reality became "a reflection of his own fiction." But most of all this biography is special for the headlong, excited rumble and roll of its smoothly flowing sentences, which give us a vivid sense of Dickens's energy, of his "unmistakable urge to encompass everything, to comprehend everything, to control everything."

Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Princeton, 1991, $35 (0-691-06797-X).

Nabokov, a distant, seemingly cold man who hid his life behind the multiple mirrors of his art, makes a difficult subject for any biographer. Yet Boyd, both here and in the first volume of this study, The Russian Years (1990), manages to get beneath the surface, both in the life and the works. Nabokov may never capture the general reader's imagination the way, say, Hemingway or Faulkner do, but Boyd's sterling analyses of such novels as Lolita and Pale Fire should help resurrect his reputation as a profound and important writer.

Cronin, Anthony. No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O. …