pseudopodium
. . . Biographers

. . .

Oh great (by way of Robot Wisdom). I just recently got over the appearance about five years ago of a "historical novel but it's really the truth, it's just that I don't want to be bothered with proving any of my ridiculous delusions" dedicated to the theory that Henry Adams killed his wife, Clover Hooper Adams, during her oh-so-convenient suicidal depression. And now there's another one, this time dedicated to the theory that Charlotte Brontë was a criminal mastermind who successfully poisoned Emily Brontë, Anne Brontë, and Branwell Brontë, only to be poisoned in turn by her new husband.

Probably because Charlotte Brontë revealed herself in her writing (unlike Emily Brontë) with a singularly honest viciousness (unlike Anne Brontë), she's often been targeted by simpleminded vulgarizers. In Hollywood's Devotion, Charlotte the flighty fluffy flirt (!) was contrasted unfavorably to the Sensible Sister, Emily (!), played sensibly well by Ida Lupino. In her group biography of the Brontë family, Juliet Barker almost managed to obscure the wonderful thoroughness of her research by the equally wonderful anti-Charlotte chip on her shoulder, going so far as to bury pro-Charlotte evidence in the footnotes.

Was Charlotte Brontë a nice person? She'd be the first to describe in exacting detail why she wasn't. On the other hand, it's hard to find any contemporary reactions worse than bemused acknowledgment that she was too hard on others and still harder on herself.

I don't know who makes a sillier murderer, Charlotte Brontë, whose most unlikable trait was her stranglehold on moral superiority, or husband Whatsisname, whose only noticeable humor was phlegm. I do know that the silliest aspect of the whole business is the BBC reporter's swallowing this Yorkshire pudding whole. Let it be a warning to all of us: self-knowledge is a dangerous thing, at least when combined with self-expression.

. . .

As long as I'm reacting to recent Simcoe items, here are a few anti-biography rants (one, two, three), with, I'm sure, more to come.

. . .

Modernist Class

I remember reading to him a German translation from a speech by Radek in which the Russian attacked Ulysses at the Congress of Kharkov as being the work of a bourgeois writer who lacked social consciousness. "They may say what they want," said Joyce, "but the fact is that all the characters in my books belong to the lower middle classes, and even the working class; and they are all quite poor." I know he was a convinced antifascist.
-- Eugene Jolas
Underbred.... the book of a self taught working man....
-- Virginia Woolf on Ulysses
It's sleight of hand, a kind of shell game. A few flourishes of the shells labeled "Modernism" and "Postmodernism" keep us from noticing the writers who have not been shoved into them and from noticing the essential differences between the writers who have.

Class, for example.

Yeats's, Pound's, and Eliot's works were in defense of a dreamlike aristocratic status; they loathed the city, or, more specifically, the city's middle class and the city's poor.

Pound and Eliot first became interested in Joyce as a semi-articulate witness to those urban horrors, a sort of Dublin Dreiser. And they lost interest in him as the serialized episodes of Ulysses left realism behind: he was no longer a witness but a class-climbing eccentric who somehow assumed that the world owed him a living. (Biographers still seem to have trouble with that notion, but one should bear in mind that the world of the time seemed perfectly content to supply Yeats, Pound, Stein, Woolf, and so on with livings.)

By the time we get to Louis Zukofsky and Lorine Niedecker (if we ever do; they're still not part of standard academic curricula), those beastly New York Jews and bestial Midwestern immigrants who so offended Henry James are actually writing, without apology, as if they could possibly fit into some respectable (and quite imaginary, thank the lord!) society....

. . .

Why do biographers have such a hard time reconciling the limitations they find in their subjects' lives with the importance of their subjects' works? After all, biographers are nothing but prying voyeuristic parasites who incessantly second-guess people smarter and more talented than themselves, yet their work can still be useful.

. . .

Self-expression: It's clear to the most casual reader of his books that Fr. Rolfe (aka Baron Corvo) was always his own hero. But since it's also clear that he was a raving loon, his attempts at self-portraiture convey nothing of what he was actually like. Thus my delight in The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography by A. J. A. Symons, which proves again that Venice is, in so many ways, the perfect place for a sponge.

My Penguin edition changes the subtitle to "Genius or charlatan?", but that's a stupid question when you're talking about a fiction writer. Symons's is more accurate: this biography is emphatically experimental in ways that gain Cholly's full approval:

1. Primacy of primary sources

Rather than going omniscient on us, Symons makes room for quoted documents and testimony (with the first-person account of his own research as a bridge), preserving subjectivity and increasing the odds that the reader will actually learn something.

As a leeching paranoid, Rolfe/Corvo thoughtfully minimized the formal difficulties of implementing this approach, dividing his life neatly into sausage-shaped episodes wrapped around one (and usually only one) acquaintance who was first obsessively latched onto and later obsessively tied off.

2. Sympathy for the subject

Most biographers suffer from wildly inappropriate self-righteousness, and Rolfe/Corvo, who wears his faults not just on his sleeve but all over like a paisley three-piece suit, has been a particularly efficient self-righteousness vector: none of the books I've found by him have escaped a mean-spirited introduction. But Symons, bless 'im, bears in mind, through all storms of icky gossip, the gratitude befitting anyone who's been successfully intrigued by another human being.

Symons bends over backwards to interpret the life's events as Rolfe/Corvo might have, and, on top of that, as his first-person sources might have. And if his Unified Corvo Theory (all the Baron's problems stemmed from being born gay into an intolerant world) seems excruciatingly naive (I'm pretty sure Symons had plenty of gay acquaintances who didn't act like Rolfe/Corvo), at least it's helped bring other sympathetic readers into the fold.

Speaking of bending over backwards, Symons may be explicitly experimental, but that's the only way he's explicit. And I'd go so far as to call him a downright little tease when it comes to Rolfe/Corvo's final literary remains, a bundle of pornographic letters. On the Web, we can at least learn the name of the letters' recipient (Henry Scott Tuke's "most intimate friend, the pederast Charles Masson Fox") and their motive (to entice a new source of funds to Venice). But as for their contents -- and as for the Rolfian novels I've not yet found -- well, Symons may be able to conclude his book by saying that his Quest for Corvo has been satisfied, but I'm stuck with legendary-Bomp-recording-artist Professor Anonymous:
You know, it's been said many times:
Seek and ye shall find.
Well, I have sought,
And yet I'm still searching for the one.
And you know?
I guess my search has just begun....

. . .

It's odd to think of Beatrix Potter in the Blitz.

It also seems odd that 1940s-top-guy Raymond Chandler was only a couple years younger than James Joyce, whose career ended in 1939.

Well, Chandler didn't start writing until he was 45. And since he didn't live in Europe during WWII, he lasted longer....

Maybe it's just WWII that seems odd.

"John Taylorís compliments and thinks he might pass for a dormouse."

. . .

I forget how I found the Art Fein site, but anyone this mean to Ann Powers is OK by me! Fein is kind of like a rockabilly version of Paul Williams: short on analysis but high on life and America and, of course, their offspring, Elvis.

Which puts me in mind of that old Elvisphage, Lester Bangs, who just got a new biography aimed at him. Since Bangs's own writing already covered everything of any possible interest that ever happened to him (plus a whole lot more), publishing a second collection seems like a better idea than having some other guy come in and paraphrase, but I guess that's not the way publishers think. Definitely the way that publishers do think is to have a Trouser Press editor write about Bangs's life, which is like Abe Rosenthal writing about I. F. Stone, or -- I was gonna say a zoo keeper writing about the monkeys, but sometimes those zoo keepers are pretty insightful.

. . .

"The more likely truth is that, by the time he was halfway through Ulysses, Joyce's mind was too far gone to be anywhere near capable of moral judgement - or, indeed, much else." -- Conrad Jameson
You poor poet, you!
Wow, that takes me back... the last time anyone came up with the "James Joyce was just psychotic" theory was probably William Empson fifty years ago....

Nostalgia isn't all that attracts me to this buffoonery. There's my ongoing holy war against journalism (that is, slanderous lies) and biography (that is, self-righteous gossip) to consider: The only way to pull such a delusion over one's readers' eyes is through deliberate obfuscation and deliberate plays on presumed ignorance.

For instance by claiming that a conspiracy of "the so-called New Critics" was responsible for inflating Crazy Jamie's reputation when in fact Empson was entirely typical of the New Critics in his dislike for Joyce. It wasn't academics and critics and journalists but writers and artists and amateurs who stoked the pre-1970 Joyce industrial forges.

".... he emerges as a man of great causes, an anti-colonialist, a pacifist and a feminist who, in Bloom, heralds the new womanly man. As it turned out, none of the things that either set of critics had said about Joyce was true...."
"As it turns out," it's demonstratedly true that Joyce was, albeit passively, a pacifist (and a socialist as well, though the New Statesman seems leery of that awful label) and an anti-colonialist and an anti-anti-Semite (not to be confused with a non-anti-Semite; that category didn't exist at the time): he said so quite openly, and others said it, whether insultingly or approvingly, about him. The "feminist" label I'll grant would be a stretch, but in typical journalistic "I don't need a man, I've got straw, thank you" fashion, Conrad Jameson ignores the hostile reception that Joyce has therefore received from many feminists. (I should know; I've argued with 'em.) What he was not was a propagandist, which is what's driven many a propagandistic writer to fury.

Anyway, the writer's job is precisely to seem better and wiser and wittier than the writer is. When the writer doesn't succeed -- when the writer is, say, Oliver St. John Gogarty -- the writer will be remembered as a character rather than a writer. (And despite Jameson's calumny, characters are the ones who're sustained through imitation and emulation rather than the comparatively depressing and colorless writers: emulating the writers would be too much work for the payback.) If Joyce's writing can convince anyone that he was a feminist, it's as much to his writing's credit as it is to Shakespeare's when readers convince themselves that Shakespeare must've been a lawyer or a doctor or a Duke of Earl. "Mme. Bovary, c'est moi" is a boast, not a confession.

Jameson's least mendacious attack on Joyce is purely personal and based on a very slim selection from Joyce's private letters and biography. There's no point in taking a defensive stand on that slim selection: a careful pinching out of details from anyone's private life (much less a writer's, since anyone who decides to write instead of taking a sensible job has got to be more than half crazy to begin with) would make them sound committable. (Yes, even George Bernard Shaw. Even, I suppose, the swollen parasite at hand.)

But, except in the most blatant miscarriages of justice, commitment papers aren't signed based on selected details but on how one's life is viewed in the context of one's place and time. In Joyce's place and time he might not have been called cuddly but neither was he ever called psychotic. As Virginia Woolf proved, there are more direct routes to self-destruction than neglecting one's health; as T. S. Eliot proved, there are worse attitudes toward one's spouse than brusqueness; as Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound proved, doubts about the later Joyce are not necessarily proof of good politics and coherent writing. And (to veer back to slander and lies for a moment), Pound, Eliot, and Woolf didn't take issues with Joyce's "insanity" so much as with his lack of class.

. . .

Everyday tragedies

From the Bruno's Weekly contributors' notes of April 22, 1916, editor Guido Bruno:

Djuna Barnes, who designed the front cover this week, retired to a sedate and quite private life. After a rather exciting career of a few years of newspaper work (drawing and writing) she decided to do some real work unhampered by editorial influences. A series of war pictures and among these her uncanny gripping "The Bullet," are not only the work of a promising artist, but one of one who started really to fulfill promises.

As well as in drawing and painting she has a style of her own in her literary adventures. Her poems and her short stories cannot possibly be called otherwise but adventures. She feels the rhythm of her inspiration and she struggles along as good as she can to make us feel it too. Her inspiration is flirting constantly with her creative desires. But Djuna Barnes is a bad match-maker. The little things in life make for tragedies. Spelling, punctuation, syntax, lack of concentration, are such little things. They are everyday tragedies in Djuna's life.

. . .

Since the biggest problem with biographies are the biographers, why not just get rid of 'em?

In an email message a while ago, Jessie Ferguson fantasized one approach to erasure: "I still want to write a biography that passes no judgments at all and raises no questions it isn't equipped to answer." And I imagine something like the "Chronology" in a Collected Works, except busting out all over with source documents like a microwaved popcorn bag....

That sounds nice.

An easier approach, which could be said to be even more honest, being even less interpretive, is just stringing the blatantly heterogeneous source material together, like in The Sammy Davis, Jr., Reader, 500 pages of Gerald Early's selections from memoirs, interviews, and journalism.

Which is nice.

Having an actual example brings on a couple of new thoughts, though, which just goes to show that examples are worthwhile:

  1. If you don't rush into things, secondary sources eventually turn into primary sources. Back in the 1950s, the astonishingly nasty Confidential pieces were just destructive gossip; now they're essential to understanding what the heck was going on.

  2. There's an awful lot of repetition. With variation. Me, I enjoy tracing slight changes from one retelling of an anecdote to another as it rots into accepted history, but I don't know how many others share that rarefied pleasure.

  3. To quote Jessie Ferguson again, "you can't apply the work-as-mirror-of-life analysis to someone whose life is lost to history, that being the negative lesson to take from the case of Emily Bronte."

    You need a fairly wide variety of voices and publication genres for a biographical compilation to work; else all you've got is a reprint of someone else's book (not that there's anything wrong with reprinting someone else's book). For some biographical subjects, you might be able to get sufficient variety out of letters and diaries. Outside such knitting-brow circles, the approach will skew you towards the kind of people who get talked about in memoirs, interviews, and journalism: that is, to show-biz celebrities. And performers just don't tend to be very interesting. Their work can be interesting, but as people, with few exceptions, they fall within a pretty narrow range of affection-craving self-dramatizing technique-obsessed personalities.

    Sure, there are noticeable differences between performers. Those more-or-less unique aspects are what passes for interest in memoirs, interviews, and journalism, and what incited Early's hard work on Sammy Davis, Jr. But there are even more similarities between performers, and the constant background noise of those shared aspects starts (to me, anyway) to get numbing after a while.

  4. All theoretical speculation aside and against, a highlight of the book is Early's still-young-enough-to-be-a-secondary-source introductory essay:

. . .

Karen Joy Fowler's Sister Noon: A Note on Method

"As a corollary, then, historical inference can only take us back to the furthest-past extension of the principles that now govern the world. A time when 'everything was different' is in principle not reconstructable, i.e. not available to history."
- On Explaining Language Change, Roger Lass
"That's not where I want to be."
- The Ramones
"If it's not all about me, she might have said, why does everyone watch everything I do? Lucky she didn't. Who would complain of this to Mrs. Pleasant, about whom the whispers never hushed?"
Sister Noon - Karen Joy Fowler
"On the one hand, in effect, one must want the greatest good for the friend -- hence once wants him to become a god. But one cannot want that, one cannot want what would then be wanted, for at least three reasons...."
Politics of Friendship - Jacques Derrida
"Here discretion lies not in the simple refusal to put forward confidences (how vulgar this would be, even to think of it), but it is the interval, the pure interval that, from me to this other who is a friend, measures all that is between us.... It is true that at a certain moment this discretion becomes the fissure of death."
- Friendship, Maurice Blanchot

Most good fiction set in the past achieves its brief rapprochement between history and story by avoiding any names that might rouse mutual interest. But let an old beau be brought up and the holiday is ruined: "Well, if you'd only listened to Aaron Burr —" "Aaron Burr! Aaron Burr! Always she throws Aaron Burr in my face!"

Name-dropping historical fiction, whether researched-sincere or postmodern-bratty, may sell well, but it withers quickly. Even Flaubert couldn't lift John the Baptist to the same level as Frédéric Moreau, and a Michener or Vidal, or worse yet a James Tully or Sarah Booth Conroy, seems irredeemably presumptious. History originally comes from story the rushed and slanted newspaper report, the misremembered self-serving memoir and if I'm going to give up the illusion of certainty, I might as well just return to those primary sources. Their half-truths will most likely provide more surprises than a contemporary fiction writer's could.

You could easily argue with that opinion. Me, I just hold it. And it was with no small confusion that, in the dazzle of my first reading of Sister Noon, I looked down and found it still there in my unattended hands, a commute-worn hat from which a table-filling bouquet had been produced with a show of perfect ease.

Well, one of the critic's tasks is to figure out how the trick's done. It doesn't begin to make the magic easy, but it's what we do. And after a few years of slow-mo-ing through Fowler's performance, I think I might've done it.

Rather than confusing gossip and slander with knowledge, Sister Noon eyes that confusion's source and the hunger that feeds it. Its hero isn't the ascertained celebrity, but the half-reluctant, half-fascinated hanger-on. Its plot isn't a schematic rise to power and fall into disgrace, but a journey into the sucking bog of schemas and back out again.

With "poor, fanciful, inconsequential little Lizzie," we learn how one's unattended, unkempt life becomes stuctured into narrative by a brush with celebrity, or a dream of celebrity, or a memory of celebrity. Suddenly that's what people know about you, that's what people think about you, that's what they want to hear, that's what you want to tell them. You find yourself with a story, even if it's a pale distorted reflection of someone else's story, even if that story itself distorts the celebrity's own unattended, unkempt life.

As docudrama's smugness resembles the lower forms of biographer or journalist, Fowler's fond respect resembles The Quest for Corvo. What's offensive about those other ginks is their wilfull, even spiteful, ignorance. The finer stuff of Fowler and Symons gracefully incorporates its own limitations. Symons begins his biography not with an unpromising birth but with the author's curiosity, and ends it not with an overdue death but with the author's satisfaction. In Sister Noon's first chapter, the protagonist is brought into the circle of the most infamous name of her time and place; in its last, they definitively separate, and, satisfyingly, that's the only thing made definitive.

Fowler's choice of protagonist neatly solves another generic problem as well, that being how to convey the alienness of another time or culture with the techniques of realistic fiction. If reader identification takes for granted a shared notion of what's natural, how can what's "natural" become an issue? Of course, this is also a foundational problem for science fiction, and in both genres a frequent solution is to make the novel's protagonist a first-time visitor to the novel's setting. Fowler instead leverages the insight that alienation from one's mundane surroundings is a familiar shared experience (albeit not one that's necessarily taken for granted). Lizzie Hayes exhibits the same dully baffled irritability towards spiritualism, white slavery, and the Doom Sealers that I feel towards Burning Man, multi-player shooters, or the Great Anthrax Scare. We all occasionally find ourselves stranded on Mars or in a suburb of Carthage.

The ambiguous and disputatious sources of history aren't different in kind from those of the present. To resolve them is to falsify not just "what really happened" but also "what really happens."

And we readers, gossipers, hanger-ons make up part of "what really happens," unattended though we might be even by ourselves. A close look at an entrepreneurial multi-millionaire may confirm our unconfessed contentment in the tweedy middle class. Long-standing acquaintance with a successful author may reduce the shame-facedness with which we prefer self-publishing. On the sinister hand, our growing identification with a target of scandal may weaken our own restraints: having seen the worst, the fears that hemmed us in seem tawdry things, low-grade cotton rotted and easily torn.

There's a reason the fiction was put into this historical fiction. Lizzie Hayes isn't merely a passive conductor, capacitor, or resistor of the social current. When she has reached this realization or rather more actively has realized it, in the most humane and engaged way imaginable the tension between perfectly known fiction and permanently unknowable history is released, and the characters are set spinning out of the name star's orbit, from the documented fantastic to the unlimited mundane, cycling around once, four years later, to be glimpsed in the novel's first paragraph, and then (re-)lost to view.

Not that Lizzie Hayes would genuinely vanish, much as she might like to. Duties, if not heavens, forbid. She and her new-found (or rather more actively new-founded) family drive away, quite as material as they ever were, into what would appear to be a most distinctive narrative of their own.

But that's another story.

. . .

What I Learned from Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller by Jackie Wullschlager

  1. I knew the fairy tales weren't Andersen's first publication. I'd somehow assumed, not really thinking about it, that he'd bummed along more clearly marked literary routes and got run off each by their rent-a-cops before being forced down this low-prestige path.

    He certainly started with a diet of humiliations. Crow for breakfast, crow for tea, crow for in-betweens. Maybe a few early worms in season, you know, while hunting crow.

    But in fact he didn't take the risk till he had something to lose. He waited till he had an internationally successful inspirational poem anyone can be inspired, the real money's in inspiringand an internationally successful mainstream inspirational novel before he started writing oblique colloquial self-defeating stories whose only excuse were they were for kids.

    And the critics disapproved right off. Waste of talent.

    "It is not meaningless convention that one does not put words together in print in the same disordered manner as one may do quite acceptably in oral speech."

    It's as if after winning the National Book Critics Circle Award Jonathan Lethem began scripting superhero comics. Or if after attaining some stability in academia, Samuel R. Delany started writing niche-market porn.

    The fucker had guts.

    "Of course I shan't enjoy the experience in this world."
  2. Andersen had to meet Dickens; Dickens had to meet Andersen. In the newspapers, they were twin urchins of different dead mothers. Smile on their lips, tear in their eye, lectures in their circuit, and the kids love 'em.

    The meeting was excruciating. Much worse than Proust meets Joyce. Neither Proust nor Joyce were clingers.

    Andersen was a poet who wanted to be a dancer; Dickens was a pro who wanted to be a pro. Andersen was sentimental; Dickens deployed sentiment. A Dickens reading was scripted; an Andersen reading was the original recreated. Andersen was a drama queeen spaz; Dickens was a charming smoothie. Andersen didn't realize how annoying he'd been till Dickens stopped answering his letters.

    You know who Andersen really should've met in England, though? John Keats. Keats was nine years older, but they were equally enthused by an ideal of aesthetic community, and when they found it gated, they shared public abuse for their pretensions and developed similarly perverse attempts at guardedness.

    The only hitch would be that Keats died age 25, and Andersen hit his stride age 30. But if Keats had lived to hit his own stride, and then lived a decade or two more, I bet they would've gotten along real good.

Responses

Kierkegaard got his start jumping on HC Andersen, and I can't find it on the web, but there's a marvellous grovelling letter extant from A to K thanking him for not attacking him as much as he might have or not attacking him in some later publication, I forget which. -- PF

"Grovelling" seems a little strong, if we're thinking about the same thing. Some years after Kierkegaard attacked his novel, when the younger man was a little better established, Andersen sent him a newly published volume of fairy tales with the note:

"Either you like my little ones Or you do not, but they come without Fear and Trembling, and that in itself is something."

Looking back at what I wrote, a couple of clarifications might be useful:

  • I at first avoided reading Wullschlager's book because the reviews and auxiliary journalism led me to think it committed the contemptible and common sin of contempt for its subject. Instead I found an intelligent and scrupulous biography which incorporated the best Andersen criticism I've seen.
  • Pretty much any characterization I've applied to Andersen might also apply to myself, aside from the ones relating to courage and genius.

* * *

A strong misweeding of Negative Capability Brown

Whether meant as brickbat or bouquet, I thank you.

Grovelling may have been strong, or I am misremembering completely - I do have in mind something like dear mr kierk thank you so much that my little thingums are not chewed up by you and spat out again that was so nice. I read it years ago of course and so can't quite remember right.

. . .

Flaming while Rome fiddles

The hardest and most important lesson I learned early in online life was to walk away from a fight after I'd had my say. It's the interpersonal equivalent of "Just pay the five dollars, George."

Or maybe of "I been thrown outa sweller joints than this." No need to scrawl toilet stalls with the Troll of Sorrow so long as Mr. Waggish or Dr. Lukin remain willing to call me on BS. To use the elegant formula which first crystallized at age nineteen, "Why am I standing here arguing with this shmuck about Dhalgren when I could be back at college getting laid?"

Oh, I remain thin-skinned, quick-tempered, and gullible, and so I can still forget that lesson when anxious and exhausted, just like I might forget to use a knife and fork when I'm very hungry, except scarfing hurts less in the aftermath; yes, even if a cayenned finger wanders to my eye it pains me less. There's less collateral damage, for one thing.

As for needing to set the record straight, the record's advice is unambiguous: Forget it. If history teaches us anything, it's that historians will treat us like dirt. A subject who attempts to stage-manage his reputation is handled with special contempt by biographers. (Who then mail scathing corrections to the biography's bad reviews.) Stopping first is not an admission of defeat: it's an admission of maturity.

Responses

I for one was arguing with schmucks about Delany when you were in short pants. And your spelling of "collateral" is as loose as your logic.

... or my short pants, for that matter. Anyhow, thanks for the spellcheck!

If you're trying to get the last word, you're too busy to get the last laugh.
It
Oh

. . .

More gossip about strangers

Increasingly I wonder if we wouldn't do better without biography. Of course we want to know other people's stories and to roll around in distant tragedy, but the pairing of talent and life too often suffers from banal, received assumptions based on ghastly popular psychology.... Perhaps it should be left to fiction to worry about why and how, because fiction has the possibility and the freedom to be original in a way that dogged biography doesn't.
- Jenny Diski, review of Nina Simone: The Biography

Good luck with that. So far in 2009, the London Review of Books has published more than forty reviews (summaries, retellings) of biographies, memoirs, diaries, and letters; this issue alone considers three biographies and a memoir. Even when the reviewer's not handed a biography, one may be given to us.

I read these pieces, of course; how else would I have encountered Diski's lament? (For that matter I just finished reading an 1100-page scrapbook of literary gossip very thinly disguised as a scholarly book about the birth of literary gossip.) Is it to my credit that I don't read the books themselves? Certainly it's to LRB's credit that its retellings tend to provide such a refreshing crunch and such easily compostable cores. "Nothing too taxing, but interesting enough to last to the end of the pint before someone starts the next story."

And if we can't avoid swallowing a bit of the delusion that we've learned something and a bit of the poisoned pseudo-intimacy of celebrity, if the tales aren't as blood-clearingly wholesome as those of Kharms or Kafka, if they don't completely escape the received assumptions and ghastly popular psychology that monopolize contemporary short stories and novels, still from these snatched anecdotes and curt demurrals we absorb at least a trace of the irreducible arbitrary. Enough to scrape by. As Silenus advised Plutarch, "Best to have no biographies at all, but second best keep them short."

Responses

and I can't for the life of me fathom autobiography

Josh Lukin writes:

Delmore Schwartz, whose great strength as an essayist was metacriticism, enabled me to appreciate Bunny Wilson by pointing out that Wilson never writes about the literariness of literature or the politicality of politics but is in essence a yente journalist, writing gossipy profiles of interesting authors. With the armor of this perspective riveted firmly on (sorry—too much Wodehouse), I was quite moved by a couple of the better profiles in The Triple Thinkers: pace the many good bits in Unacknowledged Legislation, Wilson rather outdoes his present-day admirers in the yente journalism genre.

I like Jenny Diski's work, so I'm pleased to report that Terry Eagleton's LRB review of a biography of Teddy Adorno easily managed less self-awareness and more obnoxiousness:

The English have always prized the lovably idiosyncratic individual over those arid entities known as ideas.... If they aren't able to extricate the man or woman 'behind' the work, they tend to feel a little cheated. Their fondness for biography, a superior version of what the media know as 'human interest', goes hand in hand with their philistinism. It is not surprising that Adorno himself detested the genre. It is too often a middle-class alternative to material history, one in which that supreme creation known as the individual may hold untrammelled sway. Discussing the prosody of Don Juan is all very well, but how on earth did Byron get to Sintra on a club foot? As far as such literary prurience goes, Claussen remains high-mindedly Teutonic. Beyond a discreet allusion to the fact that female students found him attractive, a fact the photographs of him provided in this volume do nothing to confirm, there is not a word about Adorno's notorious philandering....

. . .

Why do you make me hit you?

But if Pat's affinity for Jewish dentists was yet another example of the subversive Miss Highsmith turning an ordinary exchange upside down i.e., the "German-identified" Pat being "gassed" by "Jewish dentists" (an idea so offensive that it might actually have appealed to Pat) she never said so.
- Joan Schenkar,
The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith
Gee, how clever you are to know about things that never happened.
- Joanna Russ, The Female Man

Against my better judgment, I read Schenkar's long dreadful book for the same reason I read Juliet Barker's similarly vindictive The Brontës: its compilation of primary sources. But Barker is a more controlled writer (or maybe benefited from a harder-working editor), and her intolerance closely resembles that of her chosen villain, lending the affair a certain meta-piquancy.

Schenkar, on the other hand, only resembles her own telling. She calls Highsmith's prose awkward and flat-footed, and she ladles out an Irish stew of purple clunkers. She snickers at Highsmith's pretensions, and she routinely overreaches:

By 1977, when Edith's Diary was published, rye had not been produced in the United States for at least twenty years.

She descries Highsmith's compulsive disruptions, and she's so full of redundant snark that she can't wait till a quote is finished before telling us what to think:

But she was "quite unable to do any creative work, though in my house there is always quite enough else to do. The mental fear needs a thousand words to describe. [But Pat did not provide them. [And neither does Joan.]] It as though death is right there suddenly and yet one feels no pain, one is talking in a calm voice to friends & doctors."

Schenkar's starting position may not be far from uncannily unmoved and unmoving witnesses like Found in the Street's Natalia or Inez from Those Who Walk Away. Here, though, their silent treatment bursts into a grossly extended middle-school poison-pen letter: "We just thought you should know: we don't like you." The best I can say is it gives Highsmith's paranoia, misogyny, and resentment a more flattering context than I could've conjured on my own.

Responses

Highsmith scholar Josh Lukin:

"When Pat Highsmith gave life to Ripley, she was exposing the black backside of her country's Zeitgeist" is more than a purple clunker: it's Tom Friedman on weed.

And Josh follows up:

But you know what'd be helpful in maintaining your youthful figure? Her recenter reminiscences of Stanley Hyman and Shirley Jackson, complete with critical comments by their kids in the comments dept.

A relatively restrained and respectful performance. Wall Street Journal's blog must have an editor.

. . .

How Musil Can Change Your Life!

Mixed feelings are more productive in fiction than in conversation. Even writers with definite or self-definitive prejudices will induce muddle in pursuit of a story. (And then, reversing the process, their biographers become disillusioned by the bigoted troll.) Those whose second thoughts resecond, rethird, refourth and so on to Reichian volume and density may be lured into the hunt merely by the blessed prospect of something captured.

You'd better bag the game, though. Otherwise all you've achieved is another unsatisfying conversation.

 

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.