Thursday, June 7, 2012

One of the sweeter satisfactions of literary biography - I should try to write a less rambling post sometime

When I lived in Chicago it was common enough to see news stories about people stranded at O’Hare airport, sleeping on cots or slumped against their bags.  Gee, that must be rough, I would think.  It turns out it is rough, and certainly an excuse for the scattered and exhausted writing of this blog post.  Then again, the cab driver who picked us up from Willie Mae’s Scotch House yesterday spent eight days – “see that bridge up there” – on a highway overpass with his wife and ten kids, looking down on the flood waters, before a helicopter rescued them.  So one bad travel day is hardly a good excuse for bad writing.

I want to consider a line from a review of the newly translated Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life by Lev Loseff.  The review is by Michael Scammell and is in the June 7 The New Republic; I am on page 35:

In the earlier chapter [the critical commentaries on Brodsky’s poems] attain a narrative tension of their own, offering one of the sweeter satisfactions of literary biography, which consists in reading about the early creative struggles and artistic successes of a major writer on the way up.

I just want to ask:  is that true?  Because, although I had never expressed it so well, this is exactly why I enjoy biographies of writers.  The discovery and exploration of genius is always an exciting story, much like the exploration of an unknown mountain range.  What is in there?  Anything could be in there.

Once an artist becomes famous, once his biography turns into a list of prizes, teaching positions, and honorary degrees, nothing is left for the biographer except gossip about the writer’s sex life and feuds. The mystique of the poet who dies young, of Keats and Shelley, is that we never see the end of the story.  Much of the pleasure of Nabokov’s creative biography is certainly that the story repeats.  Just as he achieved a unique mastery of the Russian language he fled to America and started over with English, so I get to enjoy two struggles, two successes. The Francis Steegmuller book on Flaubert that I am reading, Flaubert and Madame Bovary, is almost entirely devoted to this one stage, with just a few pages for his childhood and family and a few for his later career.

No, that is hardly true, that business about the later life of the poet and the mystique and so on.  Wordsworth can be one of the dullest poets imaginable – I know exactly how the creative story ends – yet his early life, his grasping for the breakthrough of Lyrical Ballads (1798), is an exciting story.  The mystery of that moment of creation is what matters.  Yeats only becomes more interesting – artistically interesting – as he ages.   Samuel Johnson’s creative instrument is fully developed by the time he meets James Boswell, yet the extensive treatment of Johnson’s later years, often pulled directly from Boswell’s journals, is extraordinary.  But Johnson’s biography, as Boswell discovers, mostly consists of Johnson’s own words (intermixed with those of his appreciative biographer).  For some artists the creative struggles never end.  Perhaps that is the definition of an artist.  Except now I have another list of unfair exclusions.

And so in summary: it depends.


  1. I agree entirely, except for perhaps the last two words. I usually give up on literary biographies the moment the writer publishes their first novel. Their lives cease to interest me at that point.

    Literary autobiographies, on the other hand, are a different kettle of fish. And, as you say, much of Boswell's Johnson is Johnson's Johnson. It's probably something about internal lives not accessible to the biographer.

  2. First novel seems about right. Faulkner gets really good with novel #4, The Sound and the Fury, so I might think that I need to read the biography up to that point, at least. But what does he do after publishing novel #1 except write more novels? The relevant artistic biography is now in the novels themselves - if I want to know what Faulkner was doing, I should just read those.

    So, good point.

  3. Perhaps that's why I like literary biographies and also books about exploration. The struggle, the hint of madness, the necessary isolation and creativity. Once they're back (if they ever get back, vide Keats) it's all downhill from there.

  4. I read biographies to see the writer die, and everything up to that is a horrifying prelude.

  5. Those biographies I have liked have been almost exclusively literary ones, and I liked them mostly for this exact reason. The last one I read was Robert Greenfield's terrific bio of Frederick Prokosch. Literary autobiographies are perhaps even more intriguing in this way, since the author is almost invariably selectively revising his or her history, on occasion to the point of attempting to rehabilitate a reputation.

  6. I should write more sloppy, rambling posts, I guess. They get such good responses. I wish there were an option by which I could move the comments above the post.