Books: Matters of Life and Death ; by Hermione Lee/Mark Bostridge Body Parts: Essays on Life-Writing by Hermione Lee CHATTO & WINDUS Pounds 20 (245Pp) Pounds 18 (Free P&p) from 0870 079 8897 Lives for Sale: Biographers' Tales Ed. Mark Bostridge CONTINUUM Pounds 16.99 (220Pp) Pounds 15.99 (Free P&p) from 0870 079 8897
Angier, Carole, The Independent (London, England)
Scavengers, vampires, grave-robbers, tarts - these are just a few of the choice epithets hurled at us biographers. And yet the biographies keep coming. And now we've gone one step further: books about biography are starting to abound, and here come two more.
Lives for Sale concentrates on the problems of biography, especially the moral problem of invading our subjects' lives. This is characteristic of biographers - when did you last read a collection of novelists agonising over the moral problems of novels? Yet they also use other people's lives; Graham Greene's line about writers having ice in their hearts was about novelists.
Fiona McCarthy reminds us that it is not just our subjects' lives we invade but other people's, and recounts one sad consequence. Lyndall Gordon and Andrew Motion tell wonderful, symbolic tales of biographical intrusion. Motion found Philip Larkin's letters to Monica Jones scattered all over their secret hideaway, as though Larkin and Monica had just walked out the door - on their bed, on an ironing board "with a half-ironed dress still draped across it". We understand exactly why he felt both "exhilarated and ashamed".
Gordon replays Henry James's story "The Real Right Thing", in which the ghost of a writer appears to his biographer. In the library at Harvard she opens a tall white box and looks down on James's death mask, "like looking into a grave". Like Motion she is ashamed, and speaks the truth: "What we do is morally indefensible." But she did not stop, and nor did any of the biographers in this book. Should they have?
No, surely not. If we cannot learn (at least a little bit) from other people's experience, what can we learn from? At least our subjects are dead. McCarthy's problem - the intrusion on family and friends - is more intractable. But I have a tip for them. Yes, biographers are as ruthless as all writers; but they are also vulnerable. If they're any good they're very vulnerable, with a necessary gift of sympathy. So if your friend's (or wife's, or husband's) biographer approaches you, do not refuse to see them. Meet them, befriend them, and they will be unable to ignore your living human claims.
The other problems rehearsed in Lives for Sale are technical ones: the unreliability of memory (Sara Wheeler), the ambiguity of documents (Lucasta Miller), the difficulty of estates (Jeremy Lewis), all of which also make terrific tales. But the one that spawns the best stories is the biographer's strange love affair with the dead: the longing to be the only one (Frances Wilson), the hopes and fears of an almost supernatural connection (Hilary Spurling, Kathryn Hughes, Miranda Seymour, Margaret Forster, as well as Gordon.)
They are all very aware of the danger, the narcissism that could unbalance one, or, worse, one's book. But held at the right distance, this sense that death has been banished is the best achievement of the best biographies - even, sometimes, for those invaded families, as Hilary Spurling's account of the Misses Compton Burnett movingly shows.
Biography is a British art. France and Germany have long biographical traditions, but largely as scholarly study, emerging only occasionally into general literature. In the US the two traditions have merged, with biography widely read, but mostly written by academics.
Hermione Lee belongs to that merged tradition, being a distinguished professor as well as biographer. She is, therefore, the perfect person to analyse biography, as opposed to posting anecdotes from the coal-face.
Lee's first question about biography is captured in her title and her first essay, which recounts the battle between Shelley's widow and friends over his heart. …