So what IS biography?

I began the pre-typesetting read of my book — all 183,000 words of it — a fortnight ago, and immediately relived the never-ending malarkey with the Introduction… Even this late in the day I found myself tweaking the opening paragraph for the twenty-first time. But suddenly this final revisitation seemed to focus for me the underlying issues.

The reason I had eight willing but long-suffering friends read and advise me on this Introduction was that there is a fictive-creative element in this book, it’s not just facts and non-fiction, and I find it impossible to write about something creative that I have created, because if I could have written about it I wouldn’t have created it. In fact I don’t believe one should try to write about something one has created. It’s like trying to describe the self. The self can’t do it. Secretly, I felt that someone else should write the Introduction; but I knew that the convention was against me there and I couldn’t defy it. I compromised by appointing a sort of committee.

The readers’ initial reaction was, quite rightly, that I was not selling George strongly enough from word one, and they suggested various ‘commercial’ angles, most of which I adopted. One reader even rewrote the whole Introduction from what can only, I’m afraid, be called a clichéd marketing point of view, and I even adopted some of that. As I drafted and redrafted, more and more of my readers approved of the result.

Then came the bombshell. I showed the Introduction in this ‘late’ form to one of the most respected and experienced senior literary figures in London, whom I had known for a while and will call Q. His embarrassment, poor chap, was acute. He repeatedly asked me whether I ‘minded’ him telling me this, but the Introduction was fundamentally wrong, a total disaster, because ‘it’s about you, Patrick, it’s all about you’. I did not mind him telling me this, quite the contrary, but it was something I was extremely sensitive about. Also, I couldn’t help wondering why the other readers hadn’t said something similar. Had they been afraid to? However, I knew that in literary terms Q’s opinion outweighed all the rest, so I profusely thanked him, tore the Introduction up, and started yet again.

I could see that it came down to two extremes of Introduction, a ‘solipsistic’ and a ‘non-solipsistic’. The first tells how the author ‘discovered’ his/her subject, what that subject ‘means’ to the author, why he/she feels the subject’s story must be told, why he/she has told the story this way, etc. The second is focussed from word one on the subject of the biography and basically, as they say, ‘sells’ the subject of the biography as hard as it can; the author is discreet, reverential and practically self-effaced.

Well, reading the Introduction this last time before the proofs, I suddenly saw that even if the ‘committee’ had not criticised the Introduction for being solipsistic, i.e. ‘about you, Patrick, rather than George Calderon’, the pull of all their advice had been in the non-solipsistic direction: ‘get his achievement into the opening words’, ‘mention famous contemporaries/friends in the first ten lines’, ‘get the War into the first paragraph’, ‘get stuck into the romance/sex on page one’, ‘rabbit about the Edwardians, who are flavour of the decade’, ‘drop famous names all over the place and make a person casually reading the first sentence believe he/she will be ignorant and deeply unfashionable if they don’t buy the book’. So my re-jigging in those directions had been a substantial move away from me.

But equally, I felt I could see why Q’s response had been so extreme. He surely had little experience of biographies of unknown people. Obviously, if you are writing a biography of someone extremely well known, it would be ludicrous to drag yourself into it (although I daresay even Peter Ackroyd allows himself a bit about what Shakespeare means to him). Yet how someone ‘discovers’ an unknown, what the unknown means to them, and how they came to write his/her life, are profoundly significant: without them, the book would never have been written and they are surely a vital part of the ‘sell’ of the book. Several readers told me as much; they enjoyed reading the ‘personal’ story behind it all. I was hyper-sensitive about the solipsistic element in my Introduction, because I am aware of the parallels between my and George’s experiences of Russia, our involvement with Chekhov, and Russia-related career difficulties. On the other hand, how I first came across George when I was a literary consultant at the National Theatre, my originally negative reaction, my deeper delving after being commissioned to research the history of Chekhov on the British stage, my ‘discovery’ of George and Kittie’s archives, and my realisation of what vibrant people they were, are surely vital to ‘introducing’ the Calderons?

I think I have now got the balance right between the ‘solipsistic’ and ‘non-solipsistic’ in my Introduction, although I fear there will still be too much there about me for Q and some other readers (but the whole book is about other people!). The underlying issue, I see now, is this: biography is not entirely about its subject, or at least it’s about its subject in a peculiar way, because it is the product of a me reacting with that subject. Whether obtrusively or not, the relation of every biographer to his/her subject pervades the whole of the biography he/she has written. As an example, I take the beautiful biography of Edward Lear by Jenny Uglow, published at the end of last year:

Mr Lear Cover

Click the cover to find this book on Amazon.

I have never read a biographical work by Uglow before. She has written so many that I had rather come to regard her as a ‘professional biographer’ who wrote her stories to a very high documentary standard but did so for no particular personal reasons and never got involved much with her subjects. Indeed, she was quoted by Susie Boyt in an article entitled ‘The Experience of Writing a Biography’ (Financial Times 6 June 2009) as saying:

I’m so conscious that it’s dangerous to think of your subject as a friend or to over-identify. It would be completely bonkers to think you could actually get close to them. Liking is dangerous, loving is dangerous because, of course, it will change the way you see things. I hate the idea of things being soppy.

Quite. Thus we get a meticulously informed, densely documented, superbly illustrated, fast-moving account of Lear’s family, youth and early work as a zoological painter that absorbs us and bears us along until…in my case about page 200. At that point I asked myself, where is this going? There had been a minimum of speculation about why Lear’s life was thus — in particular, so restless — what his real ambitions were, what his sexuality was, how good his contemporaries actually thought him as an artist. The impression of motion over substance in Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense is enhanced by the fact that the chapters are short and there are over forty of them.

But I am so glad I persisted, and I recommend others to. All at once I realised that the reason Uglow’s treatment of Lear’s rejection by his mother, his epilepsy, his relationship with Frank Lushington, his on/off interest in Gussie Bethell, his obsession with memory and the past, his relationship with his lifelong servant Georgio, or with Tennyson, or with Foss his cat, is so, well, unexplicit, so discontinuous, so pointilliste, is not that she doesn’t want to probe or pry, but that she understands these problems of Lear’s so well. Gradually, cumulatively, we understand the complexity of Lear’s relationships too. Beneath Uglow’s low authorial intervention, beneath her ‘restraint’, there must be a profound empathy for her to be able to leave us understanding them so well.

Nevertheless, I have to say that the narrative spine here is too weak for me at times to think of it as biography. After you have followed Lear from Britain to Italy, from here to there by steamer, back to Italy, back again to Britain, per Bradshaw’s all over Britain, back to Corfu, or wherever, several times, you yearn for a bit of generalisation and personal interpretation. Again, you want to know what the biographer makes of it all.

Uglow, or Faber, have got round this problem in a most ingenious way. Every chapter is headed by a Lear drawing and limerick, Lear’s verse and accompanying drawings thickly bestrew the text, and every so often there is a fabulous reproduction of one of Lear’s mind-blowing watercolours or oils. Throughout, Uglow quotes Lear’s poetry and letters copiously. Without wishing to sound cynical, one can only describe this as a marketing masterstroke. It means that Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense is really a burgeoning Lear compendium, a grandiflora of all that’s best in Lear, the finest Lear Experience for the uninitiated that has ever been confected.

I instinctively feel this ploy detracts from the book as biography, but I cannot deny that it ends by making you feel you know Edward Lear as well as it is, probably, possible to know him. I stress: this is the achievement of Uglow and Lear, of the two authors in their own mysterious dialogue. You end by feeling you know the vulnerable, kind, despairing, hilarious, indignant, rebellious, supremely tolerant and civilised man who had an impossibly modern sense of beauty, who gave endlessly of his time to children and their parents alike, who worked like a Trojan. And to know Mr Lear is extremely pleasant.

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1 Response to So what IS biography?

  1. Damian Grant says:

    Patrick: I have just read your most interesting reflections on the entity of an Introduction, and its unstable relationship to the work that follows. ‘The self can’t do it’, you say, of the degree of reflexivity involved; yes indeed, as one can’t lift the chair one is sitting on. (Just tried.) But I find your argument that the dialogue between author and subject is central to biography totally convincing; we’re back to an inflated DNB without it. (And it’s this perception that enables you to make such a sensitive analysis of Uglow’s method — if it is such — in her recent Mr Lear.)

    There is a well-known observation by Henry James in one of his Prefaces (forgive me quoting from memory), where he says: ‘There is one’s story, and then the story of one’s story’, proceeding to confess, with (affected?) embarrassment, that for the author — especially the author of Prefaces, which is what you are talking about — ‘the latter imbroglio might end up being the more interesting of the two’. This most insightful of comments, from a not-uninsightful (I parody the man) novelist, seems to offer a strong defence, justification, of your method and your argument. In a haiku:

    George Calderon met
    Patrick Miles: a strange meeting
    that redefined both of them.

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