Chapter One: Everything ConsideredOn Literary Biography
(A talk given on November 13, 1998, at the University of South Carolina, in Columbia, in honor of the two hundredth volume produced by the Dictionary of Literary Biography
. A less discursive version appeared in The New York Review of Books
, January 21, 1999.)There never was a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn’t be. He is too many people, if he’s any good.
–F. Scott Fitzgerald, in his notebooksPoets don’t have biographies. Their work is their biography.
–Octavio Paz, “A Note to Himself”
The main question concerning literary biography is, surely, Why do we need it at all? When an author has devoted his life to expressing himself, and, if a poet or a writer of fiction, has used the sensations and critical events of his life as his basic material, what of significance can a biographer add to the record? Most writers lead quiet lives or, even if they don’t, are of interest to us because of the words they set down in what had to have been quiet moments. Regardless of what fascinated his contemporaries, Byron interests us now because of Don Juan
and those other poems that still sing, and, secondarily, because of his dashing, spirited letters. His physical beauty, his poignant limp, the scandalous collapse of his marriage and his flight from England as a social outcast, his picturesque European dissipations, his generous involvement in the cause of Greek independence, and his tragically youthful death at Missolonghi in 1824–all this sensational stuff would be buried in the mustiest archives of history did not Byron’s literary achievement distinguish him from the scores of similarly vexed and dynamic men of this turbulent Romantic era. By his words he still lives, and they give the impetus to the periodic biographies of which last year’s, by Phyllis Grosskurth, will soon be followed, next year, by Benita Eisler’s.
I am not an especial devotee of literary biography. Indeed, I have my reasons to distrust it. Yet, looking back, I see that I have reviewed a fair amount of it, and, in addition, have read an amount on my own initiative, to satisfy my own curiosity. Although one rarely sees literary biography on the best-seller list, a prodigious amount of it is produced, some of it at prodigious length. The estimable British biographer Michael Holroyd topped his two-volume biography of Lytton Strachey with a three-volume biography of George Bernard Shaw. Leon Edel’s biography of Henry James took twenty-one years in the writing and occupies five volumes, of which the last is the bulkiest. In my barn I keep those books which, arriving free at the house, I deem too precious and potentially useful to give to the local church fair, and yet not so valuable as to win space on the packed shelves within my book-burdened domicile. Venturing out to my slapdash barn shelves, I note works of roughly five hundred pages on Edmund Wilson, Simone Weil, and Joyce Cary; six-hundred-page tomes on Oscar Wilde and Ivy Compton-Burnett; six hundred and fifty pages on Norman Mailer; seven hundred each on Jean Genet and Samuel Beckett; an eight- hundred-page work on Zola; and, the heavyweight champion in this vicinity, twelve hundred pages on the not notably prolific James Thurber. Length of life bears some relation to length of book; in the department of doomed poets, Sylvia Plath, dead at thirty, received three hundred fifty pages of attention, whereas Anne Sexton, who lived to be forty-six, one hundred more. However, Delmore Schwartz had the fifty-three years of his life compressed into a mere four hundred pages, as did the drink-raddled but surprisingly long-lived Dorothy Parker. And these are just the tenants in my barn.
My opening question–Why do we need it at all?
–focuses us on the motives of the consumers, not the producers. Some literary biographies begin as Ph.D. theses; others as the personal accounts of a friend or acquaintance of the author. In general, people write books because they think they have some light to shed and because they aspire to the rewards and satisfactions of having written a book. We read
, those of us who do, literary biographies for a variety of reasons, of which the first and perhaps the most worthy is the desire to prolong and extend our intimacy with the author–to partake again, from another angle, of the joys we have experienced within the author’s oeuvre, in the presence of a voice and mind we have come to love.
An example of such a prolongation is George D. Painter’s two-volume biography of Marcel Proust, which I read as a young man not long emerged from the full stretch of Remembrance of Things Past
, intoxicated and thirsty for more. Painter’s biography, unprecedented in its attempt to treat Proust’s life with definitive completeness, allows us to enter the vast mansion of the novel by a back door, as it were, an approach that turns solid and hard and definite what in the novel was large and vague and inconsecutively arranged and beautifully charged with Proust’s poetic sensibility. Painter must use research and investigation to build what Proust constructed out of his memory, but it is recognizably the same edifice, with some practical additions. Painter restores great omissions, such as the writer’s younger brother Robert, and is frank and analytic where Proust was evasive, as in the matter of his narrator’s sexual preference. The enchanted Combray, where little Marcel is fed a tea-soaked madeleine by his Aunt Léonie and waits with desperate longing for the bell on the garden gate to signify that Monsieur Swann has left and his mother is free to come upstairs and give her son a good-night kiss–Combray becomes Illiers, a town on the map, not far from Chartres, with a distinct history, cartography, and set of houses. Aunt Léonie, we are told, was based, almost without modification, on Proust’s father’s sister Elizabeth Amiot; her house still stands, and Painter describes little Marcel’s bedroom with some of Proust’s words but in an altogether more factual accent: “His bed was screened by high white curtains, and covered in the daytime with flowered quilts, embroidered counterpanes and cambric pillowcases which he had to remove and drape over a chair, ‘where they consented to spend the night,’ before he could go to bed. On a bedside table stood a blue glass tumbler and sugar-basin, with a water-jug to match, which his aunt always told Ernestine to empty on the day after his arrival, ‘because the child might spill it.’ On the mantelpiece was a clock muttering under a glass bell, so heavy that whenever the clock ran down they had to send for the clockmaker to wind it again; on the armchairs were little white antimacassars crocheted with roses, ‘not without thorns,’ since they stuck to him whenever he sat down . . .” and so on, in a strange but pleasing transposition of the Proustian world into our own. The schematic principle of the two “ways” whereby Proust organized his narrator’s massive pilgrimage is sharply brought down to earth. Painter writes:
“To the child Marcel the two favourite walks of the family seemed to be in diametrically opposite directions, so that no two points in the world could be so utterly separated as their never-reached destinations. Whether they left the house by the front door or by the garden-gate, they would turn one way for Méréglise and the other way for Saint-Eman. . . . In his novel Proust called Méréglise “Méséglise,” for euphony; and as the way there went by the Pré Catalan, which he had transformed into Swann’s park, he was able to say with truth that it was also Swann’s Way.”
The biography becomes, then, a way of re-experiencing the novel, with a closeness, and a delight in seeing imagined details conjured back into real ones, that only this particular writer and his vast autobiographical masterpiece could provide. Lovers of Proust will be inevitably drawn to Painter because it is more of the same, mirrored back into reality. Richard Ellmann’s superb biography of James Joyce, though also dealing with a concentrated and highly personal oeuvre, cannot quite offer us such a mirroring, though its chapter epigraphs, ingeniously chosen quotations from Joyce, make glittering reflective shards. We read Ellmann not only to revisit Joyce’s Dublin but to understand how Joyce, modernism’s wonder-worker, did it–how did he produce from the drab facts of the provincial, sodden, priest-ridden Irish capital such rare and comprehensive art as is contained in Dubliners
, Portrait of the Artist
, and Finnegans Wake
? What I remember from my reading, years ago, in Ellmann’s eight hundred pages is that Ulysses
first came to Joyce as a short story, one more sketch of a Dubliner, and that during its seven-year composition, even to within a few weeks of its publication day, the author in his European exile pestered his relatives and friends back in Dublin for local details. He wrote his aunt Josephine Murray, concerning the Powells and the Dillons, models for Molly Bloom’s family: “Get an ordinary sheet of foolscap and scribble any God damn drivel you may remember about these people.” He asked her such relentlessly circumstantial questions as “Is it possible for an ordinary person to climb over the area railings of no 7 Eccles Street, either from the path or the steps, lower himself from the lowest part of the railings till his feet are within 2 feet or 3 of the ground and drop unhurt.” Ulysses
, confronting the banality of modern life, compels quantities of drivel into a Thomistically schematic mold that parodies the incidents of the Odyssey
; an excess of matter is heroically matched by an excess of form.
Perhaps only writers are interested in the details of craft, and how others manage the cunning dishevelment of composition. But of literary biographies I tend to remember curious methodological details: Ivy Compton-Burnett wrote sitting at one end of a sofa and stored the accumulating composition under a sofa cushion; Edith Wharton wrote in bed and threw her pages on the floor for a secretary to pick up and transcribe; Joyce Cary worked at whatever scene of a novel came to him and trusted them to all tie up at the end; Hemingway wrote with freshly sharpened pencils while standing at a tall desk; Nabokov wrote on three-by-five index cards; John Keats would put on his best clothes before sitting down to write a poem; Henry James, after he suffered an attack of writer’s cramp, began to dictate to a typist, and his later style was born in the dutiful transcription of his spoken longueurs, qualifications, and colloquialisms.
The question How did he or she do it?
takes, in the case of William Shakespeare, the more drastic form Did he do it?
A few years ago I went out and–always a reluctant move for a writer–purchased a book, Dennis Kay’s 1992 biography of Shakespeare. I was interested to see what a modern scholar could assemble of evidence regarding the historical identity of the greatest writer in English. I was persuaded, as I had expected to be, that the son of a small-town burgess and high bailiff, an eldest son presumably educated in the strenuous Latin curriculum of the King’s New School in Stratford, and evidently enlisted in a shotgun marriage at the tender age of eighteen, might go to London and become an actor and playwright and, in a career little more than twenty years long, write the greatest plays and some of the greatest poetry in the language. Unlike certain devotees of the nobility, I have never had any problem with the idea that a child of the middling provincial gentry (Shakespeare’s mother was an Arden, a family of prosperous farmers) might enter the theatrical profession and spin a literary universe out of his dramatic flair, opportune learning, and country-bred street-smarts. Robert Greene’s famous calumny, of “an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers,” who “supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you,” fits the case perfectly. Shabby gentility has ever been the cradle of upstart writers. Nevertheless, there is a worrisome disproportion between the meagre verifiable biographical facts and the tremendous literary events associated with Shakespeare’s name. Something of the same disproportion affects the case of Jane Austen, another exalted literary performer about whom we seem to know too little, so that the recent biography by Claire Tomalin must pad its substance with a wealth of detail about the general period in which Austen lived.
Literary biography in all cases runs up against this limit of determinism: there is no clear reason why one secluded clergyman’s daughter should have been a literary genius while hundreds of others were not. Certain generalizations might be made, in retrospect, about the flowering of, say, Elizabethan poetry or Greek drama or the Russian novel, but the appearance of a great individual remains an indeterminate matter of microcosmic luck and will. The cultural situation at the turn of the last century might be said to have been sickly; but Yeats and Proust and Joyce all took their beginnings in it. To quote an old couplet of my own:
High-stepping Modernism, then went lame.”
We read literary biography, often, in a diagnostic mood, as if dealing with a ward of sick men and women. Psychoanalytical theories of compensation and Edmund Wilson’s moving essay “The Wound and the Bow” have alerted biographers to the relation of creative drive to human disabilities. Any biographer of Kafka must deal, for example, with his insomnia, his unnatural awe of his father, his ambivalence toward his own Jewishness, and his inability, until fatally weakened by tuberculosis, to achieve a liaison with a woman–the entire psychological paralysis, in short, dramatized in his grave comedies of modern bafflement. Our mid-nineteenth-century giants Melville and Hawthorne, linked by an uneasy friendship, challenge any biographer with the mysteries of their affective lives. Melville’s mental fragility, his homoerotic vein, his inadequacies as a husband and a father hardly fit with the humor and vigor of his best creations and the toughness that saw him through a longish life loaded with disappointments. And Hawthorne, who spent the years of his youth haunting Salem, writing in an attic, walking out mostly at dusk, chiefly consorting with an eccentrically shy mother and a strong- minded sister who was, it has been speculated, a virtual wife to him– how does this strangeness feed into the strangeness of his work, lending it a shadowy intensity and an evasive reliance upon whimsy and the play of fancy? The vocabularies of psychoanalysis and of literary analysis become increasingly entwined; though we must not forget that these invalids receive our attention because of the truth and poetry and entertainment to be found in their creations. A wound existed, but also a strong bow, and a target was struck.NOTES
 See pp. 504-14.
 “They don’t sell,” my friend the poet and book editor Peter Davidson has flatly reassured me.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Due Considerations by John Updike. Copyright © 2007 by John Updike. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.