“Biography is a thoroughly reprehensible genre”

Only a few days after I made a rather grumpy comment on the quality of the Spectator now, comes this piece by Roger Lewis on the dodginess of biography.

Lewis captures an awful lot of things I dislike about biographies – the all-too-easy judgments, the reductionist explanations, the pseudo God’s-eye-view, the air of the laziest aspects of “quality” journalism being dominant. The Spectator has a limit of free articles per week so here are some highlights:

Indeed, it is a reprehensible and misguided genre. Privacy is violated, creative achievements are explained away, and great men and women are unmasked as sneaky, predatory, cruel and ordinary. Humphrey Carpenter wrote all his biographies — of Auden, Britten and Ezra Pound — in this way.

The exhaustive and exhausting biographies of Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin and Anthony Powell nearly killed those authors stone dead for me, as each and every girlfriend and sexual conquest was connected to an incident in a novel or a line in a poem. Ever since learning that V.S. Naipaul was a bully I’ve not ventured near his books.

More than the deluge of personal detail, however, the chief problem with biography is that the fundamental precepts are wrong, the principles too rigid. For the idea always seems to be that by gathering and establishing facts, cataloguing testimonies and anecdotes, each life can be made a perfect whole — that the objective biographer will see to it that there has been a plan or pattern, and dignity is conferred.

This is a futile quest, but one biographers insist on anyway:

Few biographers have had the ability or wit to perceive and describe the Cubist jaggedness of a life. Accident, chance, reversals of fortune, betrayals, sudden eruptions, dreams and areas of darkness; the shifting layers of identity, the friction between public and private selves (which character will a person choose to play?): little of this rough texture is ever evoked. Biographers conduct the background research, but few write it up with any verve.

Another insight of Lewis’ is the sheer futility of much biographical labour. An awful lot of the seemingly important figures of today will be in intellectual oblivion in due course:

A

tlas himself once laboured at a book about Delmore Schwartz, who’d inspired Bellow’s character Von Humboldt Fleisher. ‘No one outside the literary world had ever heard of him,’ says Atlas ruefully, save Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground, who paid for the upkeep of Schwartz’s grave, having once been his pupil at Syracuse.

When Atlas says, ‘I learned that biography is about death,’ he doesn’t only mean that Schwartz died of drink in 1966, aged only 52, or that Bellow croaked in 2005, aged nearly 90. He means that the world his subjects inhabited has vanished. The figures Atlas interviewed, the ‘fierce, irascible, antagonistic’ intellectuals of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s — Philip Rahv, Alfred Kazin, Maurice Zolotov, Dwight Macdonald, R.P. Blackmur, Glenway Wescott — the self-important and humourless fellows who once adorned fuggy Greenwich Village parties, whose book reviews mattered so much and who were in charge of dispensing grants and prizes, have quite entered oblivion, leaving not even footnotes behind

Of that catalogue of “fierce, irascible, antagonistic” intellectuals, I have definitely heard of Dwight Macdonald (not that I could tell you much about him), I have dimly heard of Philip Rahv (I could tell you nothing of him apart from the name), and the others are blanks for me. But what wonderful mid-twentieth century names – Glenway Wescott! R P Blakmur! Maurice Zolotov!

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