Magazine article Salmagundi

On Biography

Magazine article Salmagundi

On Biography

Article excerpt

"Why does the writing make us chase the writer?"

- Julian Barnes, Flaubert's Parrot

In November 1998, John Updike gave a talk at the University of South Carolina to honor the two hundredth volume published by the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Whoever invited him must have had a perverse sense of humor. Updike had already made his feelings about having a biography of his own quite clear in his memoir, Self-Consciousness: "To take my life, my lode of ore and heap of memories, from me!" In a review of Michael Shelden's 1995 biography of Graham Greene in The New Yorker, he broadened his opprobrium to the entire endeavor:

In an age increasingly reluctant to read anything but E-mail, why do biographies of literary practitioners continue to pile up? These great scholastic mounds of summarized writings, faded gossip, and reconstructed travel schedules seem monuments in a perfect desert waste.... Creativity is no longer trusted to speak for itself; as in tabloid journalism, existence (the life) enjoys priority over essence (the performance, the works) .Now, before his audience in South Carolina, Updike came out swinging. "The main question concerning literary biography is, surely, Why do we need it at all?" his talk began. If an author has used the events of his life as the "basic material" of his fiction-as virtually all authors do-then the biographer's work will be at best superfluous and at worst misleading, not to say damaging. Updike reported that his own experience thus far had been discouraging: the editor of the Updike Encyclopedia confused his maternal and paternal grandfathers and made other mistakes regarding details about his childhood. "Someone else, in my limited experience, never gets things quite right." He chose to store his collection of literary biographies, he could not resist adding, in his bam.

Updike, of course, was hardly alone in his skepticism. Even before the New Critics made into dogma the idea that the details of a writer's life are irrelevant to an understanding of his or her work, literary biography was on the defensive. Like criticism, it is often seen as a bastard genre, derivative in its essence. If a writer's work exists on a metaphysical, even spiritual plain, how can knowing what he ate as a snack shed any light upon it? (Updike's own archive includes the wrapper of a Planters Peanut Bar.) In Possession, A. S. Byatt's wonderful novel about a pair of literary scholars who discover a trove of documents that reveal a secret romance between two Victorian poets, the biographer is the villain: smarmy, deceitful, and so fixated on superficial objects, such as his subject's pocket-watch, that he overlooks the mystery unfolding under his nose. Janet Malcolm, the most insightful critic of the genre and a practitioner herself, has compared the biographer to a "professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through secret drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away."

Yet even Updike admitted in his talk that biography can, upon occasion, have something to redeem it. His recommendation of George D. Painter's two-volume life of Proust is rather backhanded: the biography, Updike said, offers not interpretation but "a way of re-experiencing the novel, with ... a delight in seeing imagined details conjured back into real ones.... [M jore of the same, mirrored back into reality." Richard Ellmann's life of James Joyce allows the reader "not only to revisit Joyce's Dublin but to understand how Joyce, modernism's wonderworker, did it."

This, in a phrase, is the essential question of literary biography: how did the writer do it? Can there be any more interesting or pressing question to ask about any artist?

Humans love creation stories. That's what the literary biography is, at its best: the chronicle, in retrospect, of a masterpiece's birth. Literature itself is full of these fantasies, from the stack of letters that obsess the biographer-narrator of Henry James's The Aspern Papers to the revelatory discovery stumbled upon by one of those young researchers in the first pages of Possession. …

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