by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
June 5, 2002
SEATTLE, Wash. -- When you think of it, the word biography is strange. Bio:graphy :: life:writing. There is a sense in which all writing is life-writing, for what else is there? But biography is the story of one life, usually a life that rises above the ordinary.
A very venerable genre, it is for many people their favorite form of reading. Every culture has deposited in its memory banks the lives of its notable exemplars. For Christians, the gospels of the New Testament serve as the life of Jesus. Jews have the stories of Moses, Ruth, Esther, and others.
But the genre of biography is, if I am any judge, in deep trouble today.
I've recently written reviews of several biographies, those of Norman Rockwell, by Laura Claridge, W.P.Thackeray, by D.J. Taylor, Gustave Flaubert, by Geoffrey Wells, D. H. Lawrence, by Michael Squires and Lynn K. Talbot, and, of all people, Marcus Tullius Cicero, whose resonant periods once made me wonder whether learning Latin was worth the mental anguish, by Anthony Everitt.
Biography, ideally, is the narrative of a significant life. The curse of contemporary biography is the eclipse of narrative and the dimming of significance by excessive and pestiferous documentation, and this not in appendices and notes but right there in the paragraph through which you are trying to claw your way.
The life of Lawrence (which is entitled "Living at the Edge" and includes a biography of his wife Frieda von Richthofen) is typical of this tiresome trend. On learning about half way through the book that Lawrence had kept no diary, one groans with relief, for if the authors had had this priceless resource to quote and paraphrase, the book would have run to twice its present 480 pages.
One typical page in this work consists largely of 1) a list of the vegetables that he grew in a kitchen garden and 2) his budget for a typical month--and this latter is pure speculation, with no document to be quoted. In the absence of a source, the authors imagine one.
What is one to conclude about Lawrence's character from the fact that he grew parsnips and peas (but no potatoes), or that one line of what might or might not have been his budget shows an outlay of 2.5 pounds sterling for "milk, butter, eggs, cheese, cakes, and sweets" ?
One reads these lives as if they'd been lived in an unremitting blizzard of paper--letters, diaries, interviews, legal documents, and of course lists. But the incessant reference to these convinces you that the author has done the research at the same time that it obscures the actual subject of that research.
There is, however, one splendid exception. For readers who are interested in well-written biographies that can be read in an evening and without the irritating clutter of collateral evidence, there is a series published by Lipper/Viking under the general editorship of James Atlas: the Penguin Lives.
Reading these attractively formatted books (of around 200 pp. each) one has the feeling of immediacy: nothing blocks your view of the man or woman whose story is being told by an unobtrusive narrator.
And in the Penguin series that narrator is a person carefully matched to the subject. The great Irish novelist Edna O'Brien tells the story of her countryman James Joyce. Edmund White seems exactly the right person to write with elegant insight into the life of Marcel Proust.
Other inspired choices (from those I have read) are Larry McMurtry on Crazy Horse, Garry Wills on Saint Augustine. Peter Gay on Mozart, and Jonathan Spence on Mao Zedong.
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.