Monday, November 26, 2007

back; biographical anonymity

Well, we're back to warmer climes. New York was wonderful as usual, pulsing with life. Cultural tourism (apart from a fruitful but sweaty visit to The Strand) was confined to the Macy's Parade (this year's highlight – according to the tastemakers – a giant inflatable balloon version of Jeff Koons's "Rabbit" – not a patch on the flower-covered two-stories-high "Puppy" at Rockefeller Center some years back) and to a wonderful Lincoln Center production of Cymbeline. I've always had a soft spot for the late Shakespeare tragicomedies they used to call "romances," but Cymbeline has been my least favorite of the four. Okay, it's still not up to the mark of The Tempest or Winter's Tale (& my own partiality for Pericles Prince of Tyre is perhaps perverse Zukofskyana), but this production made Cymbeline come alive for me (& made it make sense – I always lose track of the characters when reading early modern dramas about 2 acts in, & wander befuddled thru much of the most important action) in ways that I hadn't anticipated. I gather the show is actually still yet to officially open, but if you're in NYC over the holidays, I'd highly recommend it.
Well, my comments the other day on Andrew Motion's Guardian review of A. David Moody's Ezra Pound, Poet: The Young Genius got me a righteous smacking down from a blogger named Eshuneutics, both in my comments box & on his own rather interesting blog. Yes, I suppose I was over the top a bit there in attacking Motion & wondering about what Moody's biography – as yet unread by me – would amount to. I suppose Culture Industry leans a bit too much towards the pugilistic at times, & I think I ought to give my own splenetic tendencies a rest: to try for a bit more celebration & thoughtful speculation, a bit less simple grousing.

But Motion's review made me think about a grad student who dropped by my office hours the other day to discuss my upcoming biography seminar, & who shared his response to a review of the latest Hunter Thompson biography: "The guy begins, 'The only time I met Hunter S. Thompson...,' then spends several paragraphs talking about Thompson's career, life, & eccentricities, & only at the end does he say 'Oh yeah, this is a pretty good biography.'"

That, I'm beginning to think, is about the best the biographer can expect from the average reviewer.* This makes reviewing biography potentially a rather cushy task, as opposed to reviewing a new book of, say, poetry, philosophy, or political economy. One needs take only the most cursory note of the shortcomings or strengths of the biographer's actual text: instead, one can fill up all that dreaded white space with a potted summary (garnished with anecdotes) of the subject's life. This isn't at all inevitable – there're lots of reviews of biographies that focus sharply on the actual dynamics of the text – but one finds, frustratingly, the "6 paragraphs of life-summary plus 2 paragraphs of actual reviewing" all the time, from the Guardian to the TLS to the Miami Herald.

Sometimes I think biography is the anonymous art, the art in which the biographer, if she has done her work well, vanishes from the reader's attention, which is wholly drawn into the reconstructed narrative of the subject's life. There are of course wonderfully intrusive biographers: Boswell, for instance, continually poking his presence into the camera shots of Johnson's conversation, or Peter Ackroyd, inventing dialogues between himself and the long-dead Dickens. More often, however, we have to be cunningly alert for the biographer's presence in the text, for those moments when the biographical "might have" shades into a "would have" & then into a "did"; or when a subtle turn of adjective performs the work of interpretation that by rights ought to be left to the reader alone.
Huzzah! Amen! Selah! The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky, according to, & according to the stack of complimentary copies I found waiting by the doorstep earlier today, is now shipping!

*Motion goes a little beyond that in assessing Moody's book, & in praising Moody's objectivity and energy, but his review spends far too much time providing an abbreviated account of Pound's career, pitched it seems for an audience who knows next to nothing about one of the 20th century's central poets.


Emily said...

I enjoyed reading Cymbeline more than I enjoyed seeing it onstage -- Bradley really disliked it. I do think that Pericles is terribly underrated -- and both are probably actually highly teachable.

Your comment on keeping track of characters reminded me of a grad class in which we read Bartholmew Faire -- one of the other grad students decided that the way to keep track of all the characters (and there were a lot) would be to make puppets out of colored clay, popsicle sticks, and pictures from the Mizzou magazine. She even color-coded the puppets according to which group they belonged to.

Mark Scroggins said...

I think I've actually seen Pericles produced *twice* -- & both times it was really boss. The most winning part of this particular production of Cymbeline was how they decided to do the (rather silly) ghosts-&-deux ex machina scene: with 10-foot high puppet ghosts (rather scary, actually) & a whacking huge bronze eagle descending out of the ceiling, complete with ear-shattering thunderbolt effects, for Jupiter -- totally over the top, & delightful.

J.'s got a set of illustrations she did for BF ages ago, in the style of Richard Scarry -- kitty-cats & piggies & so forth in Renaissance wear.

Ed Baker said...

Try The Proud Highway
Hunter S.Thompson
Saga of a
Desperate Southern Gentelman
edited by Douglas Brinkley

met Hunter Thompson twice.. (we were in the same place-at-the-same-time didn't know who he was (then) or his writing)
did not talk to him or care to...
1 st about 1962 in a 'saloon' in Manhattan he was shooting pool in a cloud of cigarette-smoke

2 nd about 1967 in Corvallis, Oregon on Ken Kesey's bus he was in a cloud of 'home-grown' smoke

ciao, Ed

Bradley said...

I think I recall that my problem with the production of Cybeline that we saw had more to do with the acting than the actual play itself-- which is to say, the actors didn't really seem to have a firm grasp on the play, and weren't able to "sell" it. Some seemed to think that they should be trying for some type of over-the-top, archetypal acting style, while others thought they were going for "psychological realism." I can't really explain it better than that, I'm afraid-- some of the actors seemed to be having fun; others thought they were in the Martin Scorcese production. Oh, that, and it took me forever to figure out why the actor playing Cymbeline walked so slowly and tenatively, with his eyes closed; he was blind. Which, I must admit, made me feel like a jerk-- here I thought he was just overdoing the "doddering old man" thing, but it turns out everytime that happened some other actor had dropped the ball and forgotten to lead him to where he was supposed to be...

Michael Peverett said...

I saw it once in an open-air production at some National Trust property, complete with programme linking the play to Green Man folk myth for which you could buy a matching bramble liqueur or silk scarf in the visitor centre. It was not a memorable performance. A breeze got up. So much hangs (like fruit) on carrying off that gigantic last scene, but with the audience cold and restless, the night breeze whipping the words off into the venerable oaks..