Tuesday, October 30, 2007

biography & concision

I've been thinking about biography again – frantically, as it's book-order time for next semester's graduate seminar in Biography: Theory and Practice, & by golly there seems to be very little on biographical theory in print at the moment. Dipping desultorily into Nigel Hamilton's Biography: A Brief History (Harvard UP, 2007), which for all its breeziness & frequent flyspecks ("Samuel Johnson was fascinated by the lives of poets – if only because his own attempts to write verse had proved miserable failures" – ye gods & little fishes, has the man never exposed himself to the mordant grandeurs of "London" or "The Vanity of Human Wishes," 2 poems for which I'd exchange about 80% of the Norton Anthology of English Poetry????) may turn out to be the course's pis aller.

Much more fun, of course, has been Lytton Strachey's Queen Victoria, an exquisitely written 240-page jeweler's setting of the 81-year life & 63-year reign of the woman who gave sex a bad name. How does one perform such a feat of miniaturization, of Proust-summarizing? One has in mind the passage from the Preface to Eminent Victorians, of course: "To preserve, for instance, a becoming brevity – a brevity which excludes anything that is redundant and nothing that is significant – that, surely, is the first duty of the biographer."

In a long set-piece passage towards the end of the book – one of the very few such passages – Strachey describes the Queen's collection-mania, how Victoria retained not merely everything she inherited – china, jewels, furniture, draperies, paintings – but every single object she acquired, both by purchase and by the "constant stream of gifts" that flowed in "from every quarter of the globe"; to boot, she had catalogued & photographed every object in each of the royal residences, recording its appearance from various perspectives, its provenance, its position within a given room. "And Victoria," Strachey writes,
with a gigantic volume or two of the endless catalogue always beside her, to look through, to ponder upon, to expatiate over, could feel, with a double contentment, that the transitoriness of this world had been arrested by the amplitude of her might.

Thus the collection, ever multiplying, ever encroaching upon new fields of consciousness, ever rooting itself more firmly in the depths of instinct, became one of the dominating influences of that strange existence.
(This is scarily like my own relationship to my books...) What is this a description of, however, but the Victorian multi-volume "Life and Letters" biography, the very print mausoleums that Strachey set out to demolish in Eminent Victorians?

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