Sunday, April 22, 2007

More biography

My call for suggestions in re/ a prospective course in biography netted a plethora of suggestions. Everyone seems to enjoy biographies – everyone, that is, except Ray Davis, who manages nonetheless to toss out some excellent possibilities (Ray’s reservations about the genre give me pause, tho they remind me as well of Hugh Kenner’s diatribes about Ellmann’s Joyce distracting readers from Ulysses etc. – one of the great old critical rivalries, Kenner v. Ellmann, tho I suspect RE’s coming out the longterm winner) – including Gaskell’s Brontë (one of the Victorian classics) & a great example of the biography-as-problem genre, Symons’s Quest for Corvo. Oh, & perhaps the ground-breaking deflationary biography, Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (which Alex also cites).

The group bio is an interesting case. I’d read the TLS review of Lovell’s book on the Mitford Sisters (which Pam suggests), & found myself actually wanting to read the book, a response I only have to TLS reviews about 1/3 of the time. Strachey come to think of it is less a group or collective biography than it is a roundup of short lives, their very brevity (apart from Strachey’s delicious nastiness) serving to deflate the Victorian tradition of multiple-volume documentary monuments. The only proper group biography I recall reading offhand is Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings, a neat read but so far as I can remember lacking one of Guy Davenport’s best anecdotes (by way of his tutor H. Dyson): in the midst of an interminable reading by Tolkien of the latest stretch of Lord of the Rings, CS Lewis wedges his pipe out of his mouth and growls “Oh fuck, not another elf!”

Tiffany & Frank, by citing Richard Holmes’s Coleridge (compulsive reading) & Hermione Lee’s various books, remind me how good the current crop of professional British biographers are. Holmes, Lee, Michael Holroyd, Victorian Glendenning, Clair Tomalin all write biographies that are both scrupulously researched & and remarkably graceful reads. (Holmes & Holroyd have each as well turned out a couple books apiece on the process of writing biography.) It’s these folks that make the reviewers keep talking about a “renaissance” of the genre. I’m sure there are Americans out there just as good – but I, like most biography readers, choose the book by its subject first, & only later shop for authors.

I’m probably not alone in thinking that 20th-century poets haven’t been awfully well served by biographers – poets, that is, from the generation after the “high” modernists. (And Stevens & Moore have yet to have a readable biography written on them.) Linda Hamalian’s Rexroth is indeed pretty good (tho I’m told that Norton made her cut out vast stretches of actual discussion of the poetry, which is a bit of a shame). The Bunting and David Jones lives available aren’t really much good. I have my problems with the Mina Loy and Laura (Riding) Jackson biographies. I like the Killian/Ellingham Jack Spicer biography, tho I often found myself saying as I read, “this is too much information – I didn’t need to know this fascinating factoid about Jack’s sex life or anatomy…” And I too can’t wait for Lisa Jarnot’s Duncan, tho deep within me there's some type-A gnome who keeps thinking of her as the competition.

I’m glad that Paul suggests Steven Nadler’s excellent life of Spinoza & Tony throws out Ray Monk’s Wittgenstein (the latter was for me a wonderful thing, coming as it did on the heels of a deeply researched & really flatly inert first volume of what looked to be a very long bio by Brian McGuinness), as well as Peter suggesting lives of Mozart & Jung. (As for philosophers, Tony & Paul, I’d steer you towards Rüdiger Safransky’s wonderful life of Nietzsche.) Steven Fama is right – “biography” alone is way too broad a field.

Of course, literary biography is what I know best, with philosophical biography coming in a distant second. (I’ve read more than a handful of historical biographies – mostly of 17th-century folks – and for you, Ray, I’d recommend Antonia Fraser’s life of Cromwell: long but rewarding.) But both literary & philosophical biography are in some ways special cases: writing the lives of people who are best known for themselves writing. A little closed loop there, a conceptual Möbius strip. One way to break out of it, while still hewing to one’s sense that it’s somehow more important to have written a perfect poem than to have won a bunch of battles, is to look at biographies of writers who actually did stuff: Pepys, for example, who never suspected he’d be remembered for his personal diary as he went about the real work of reforming the navy; or Charles Montagu Doughty, who thought of himself first as a poet but who gets remembered as a guy who trekked all over uncharted Arabia.
I’m gonna find it hard to resist assigning Samuel Schoenbaum’s Shakespeare’s Lives, a big book which begins with a short bio of Shax (basically covering everything actually known about the chap & leaving out all of the speculation that fills three-quarters of Greenblatt’s & everybody else’s books) & then proceeds to map out a history of the tradition of Shakespeare biography right up into the 20th century (with highly entertaining side trips into the Bellevue or St Elizabeths of the “authorship question” wackos).
Did I mention that I’ve written a biography that’ll be out later this year?


Anonymous said...

One biography nobody has mentioned (I think) is Roy Foster's 2 vol. life of W. B. Yeats. Brilliantly researched and compulsively readable. Bit thin on Synge, but wonderful on Yeats's occultism. The "lit. crit." is minimal in the 1st volume, but in the 2nd Foster shows that (for an Irish historian!) he's not such a bad close reader of poetry.

Anonymous said...

Also not mentioned (I don't think) is Barbara Guest's Herself Defined: the Poet HD and her World. It is really wonderful.