Our books today are six sterling choices from that strangest of all biographical sub-genres, the literary biography. A writer friend of mine (too soon gone, but his books live on, which is kind of the whole point, isn’t it?) summed up the strangeness rather well one day while we were prowling the Brattle bargain-carts when I playfully suggested that one day he himself would be the subject of a biography: “I sit at a table in my basement for ten hours a day, every day, smoking, sipping whiskey, and typing. Zsa Zsa Gabor I’m not.”
He had a point. Most writers are poor miserable creatures, hopelessly narcissistic and boring. It’s almost as though in order to render the flow of humanity with such fascinating vigor, they have to embody the worst of humanity themselves, to become resentful stenographers, overcompensating with whatever small notoriety life gives them for the fact that they don’t build bridges or lead troops into combat or raise families. And their daily toil is even less appetizing than their lives: there’s really only one way to grind out pages, and it doesn’t exactly lend itself to drama.
And yet, our curiosity about such creatures and their work is entirely understandable. If there weren’t bridges, we’d find some other way to cross the river, but without Pride and Prejudice or The Tale of Genji we wouldn’t adapt – we’d just be less. That entails a great debt, and it’s understandable that we’d want to know about the people who gave us those priceless things.
Hence, the burgeoning field of the literary biography! I’ve read thousands of these things, and I almost always notice a pervasive split-reaction: the actual lives of the authors in question are, as hinted, often grindingly mundane – and yet the biographers, borne aloft by their love of the writers’ works (what but that would have brought them originally to their thankless work?), often deck those biographies out with the best prose of their careers. That’s the heart of the split reaction: literary biographies are often the best, most engrossing kinds of biographies even though their actual subjects are often loathsome when they aren’t dull.
In a way, they themselves become characters in a larger story (I’ve always loved the bookstores that have murals not of romantic, heroic fictional characters but their pale, daub-headed authors), and those stories, when told well, can spell-bind almost as surely as the novels and histories and poems by their subjects.
So here are six prime choices, for your consideration!
Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee – Lee’s massive 2007 biography of the 20th century’s greatest novelist has everything in it, from groundbreaking archival research to irresistible narrative to – always a wonderful bonus – remarkably thought-provoking analyses of Wharton’s large body of work, not just the novels but the scattered nonfiction and huge file of correspondence. The result is a monumental last-word type of thing, a book I’ve enjoyed more each time I’ve revisited it since the heady year I first read and reviewed it. I enthusiastically recommend it, right after you’re done with Wharton’s great novels.
Erasmus by Preserved Smith – Did somebody mention a huge file of correspondence? The collected letters of the once-famous and now-forgotten 16th-Century “Prince of Humanists” fill an entire long shelf of close-printed hardcovers issued by the University of Toronto Press, and that was just the beginning of his written output – the rest of it would look prodigious even my modern electronic-word-processing standards and by the standards of his own time looks nothing less than miraculous. Despite nominally taking Holy Orders, Erasmus was purely a writer, living and breathing by his literary endeavors. It’s an utterly daunting amount of material to master in order to even begin to write about the man, and yet Erasmus biographers, those brave souls, have tried it anyway – and to my mind, none has ever done so brightly graceful a job of it as good gentle Preserved Smith half a century ago. Other biographers fill in more of the brawling Renaissance world where Erasmus lived than Smith does, but nobody manages to capture the silvery apothegms of the master as Smith. It makes his book a joy to read, which feels somehow fitting in connection with Erasmus.
Seeing Mary Plain by Frances Kiernan – Kiernan’s 2000 biography of McCarthy is a pricelessly bon vivant reading experience, enlivened on practically every page by the fact that McCarthy was always the best possible commentator on her own boisterous life. Even now, an unthinkable quarter-century since McCarthy died, it’s still the best – and safest – practice for a biographer to do a lot of stepping aside and shutting up in order to let the mistress of ceremonies do her inimitable yarning. Kiernan is winningly sympathetic (her subject could be, as Catholic mothers were wont to say, a bit of a trial) biographer, although even her wonderful performance in these pages couldn’t revive McCarthy’s rapidly-fading reputation, alas; as much as I’d hate to see the fiction-reading world forget even her strongest novels, I’d hate even more for her workhorse-perfect “occasional prose” to be forgotten.
Lord Rochester’s Monkey by Graham Greene – This 1974 biography of John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester (sometime-poet and the id to Charles II’s superego), is a sparkling example of that most paradoxical corner of the literary biography sub-genre: biographies of writers written by other writers (the celebrated example of the season is very good novelist Adam Begley’s biography of very bad novelist John Updike). I once thought that made them extra pathetic, but I’ve come to see them as doubly fascinating. On the surface, it’s a neatly proportionate idea: who better to understand the travails of a writer’s life than another writer, after all? Of course the whole thing usually falls apart – writers are peacocks, after all, and peacocks don’t like sharing the harem. But in this case it mostly works, helped by the fact that Greene and Rochester are such diametrically opposite personalities. You can practically sense Greene both admiring and envying Rochester’s scabrous enormities, and where the book’s researches at times grow inevitably thin, the difference is supplied by the quality of Greene’s paid-deadline prose, which is universally quite good. Rochester hasn’t exactly been showered with biographies in the centuries since his death, but he got a gem of one here.
Some Sort of Epic Grandeur by Matthew Bruccoli – Of course, when writing about writers, a biographer must always be prepared to write about ruin, perhaps a more personal and jarring kind of ruin than attends other biographical subjects. Prose and poetry are pulled from inside the person, after all, and those resources are seldom infinite except in hacks (I’ve avoided dealing with hacks in this entry, although they, too, get their share of biographers). In fact, I often wonder if that isn’t a secret part of the enjoyment that comes from reading author biographies: there’s something almost Greek-tragedy about the toll these geniuses pay to brighten our inner worlds. In any case, tales of wrecked authors are commonplace, and surely one of the highest peaks of that melancholy mountain chain is occupied by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who became a best-selling author and national phenomenon with his first book and had become a by-word for ruined talent and blasted health by the end of his life and career, not all that long after that best-selling debut. His was a dramatic, meteoric life and a tragic one, and it gets its best biographer in the indefatigable Bruccoli. In many ways Some Sort of Epic Grandeur is an anomaly of an author’s biography – for most of his career, Fitzgerald worked hard to hide the fact that he was working hard, and since Bruccoli for the most part faithfully reproduces this façade, what results reads like the opposite of the drudge’s-life my old friend at the Brattle described. I know many a young-idiot author who’d consider it an enviable thing to have the first ten years of Fitzgerald’s professional life even if they had to pay for it with the last ten years of it.
And there you have it – six quick lives of the scribblers! There are hundreds of thousands of others, naturally, and we’ll get to them all … but these are a good start.