Monday, June 16, 2008

Nabokov's Nikolai Gogol - my favorite biography - "I said there were students and students."

- "Well." - said my publisher, - "I like it - but I do think the student ought to be told what it is all about."

I said...

- "No," - he said, - "I don't mean that. I mean the student ought to be told more about Gogol's books. I mean the plots. He would want to know what those books are about."

I said...

"No, you have not," - he said. - "I have gone through it carefully and so has my wife, and we have not found the plots. There should also be some kind of bibliography or chronology at the end. The student ought to be able to find his way, otherwise he would be puzzled and would not bother to read any further."

I said that an intelligent person could always look up dates and things in a good encyclopedia or in any manual of Russian literature. He said that a student would not be necessarily an intelligent person and anyway would resent the trouble of having to look up things. I said there were students and students. He said that from a publisher's point of view there was only one sort.

- Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol, pp. 151-2.

The above is how Nabokov more or less ends his dazzling short biography of Nikolai Gogol, dashes and ellipses included. I'll let the (fictional, presumably) excerpt speak for itself. I can recommend this book to anyone interested in, let's say, reading. Not just reading Gogol - reading books.

Once you've read it, you will perhaps see the struggles - anxiety, even - I have had this week, trying to write something about Gogol that is not just a series of quotations from Nabokov.

When I said short, I mean short: 175 pages, including the chronology and index (which will not, in this case, help you find the Crown Jewels). More biographies should be this long. I don't want to exaggerate - I have read the 1,400 pages of the first two volumes of Nicholas Boyle's biography of Goethe, and will dive into volume 3 as soon as it's published - but most of those big brick-like literary biographies are not for me.

So many of the short (less than 200 pages) biographies seem to be in series now - Penguin Lives, Ackroyd's Brief Lives, Overlook Illustrated Lives. Edmund White's little Proust bio is a pleasure, as is Joseph Epstein on Tocqueville. Madison Smartt Bell on Lavoisier. Nigel Nicholson on Virginia Woolf.

None of these hit quite the same perfect combination as Nabokov of fine prose, organization, and focus on the writer's work. But all are worth the two hours or so they'll take you.

Does anyone have any favorite short biographies they would like to recommend - not just of writers, but of anyone? Who do you think gets it right?

1 comment:

  1. I'm going to do a little research and get back to you. I read a 175-200 page biography of Petrarch last year and I can't recall its name. It wasn't fashioned by a prose stylist of Nabokov's ilk, but it got the job done, gave fine insights into the major and minor works, made Petrarch a real person to me, and took only two sittings to read.

    I also like the book "Shakespeare & Co.: Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, John Fletcher and the Other Players in His Story" by Stanley Wells. It is a collection of biographical sketches mixed with criticism and really brings the peripheral world of Shakespeare to life.