penguin gibbon memoirA good many of you responded favorably to that last “Six for the Scribblers” writer-biography round-up (and some of you pointed out that the entry didn’t, in fact, include six biographies but instead only five, against which my only lame defense is to note that this is “Stevereads” not “Stevecounts”), and since there are EVER so many more such biographies to choose from, I thought I’d go back to my shelves and pull down six (I promise this time!) more winners for your consideration.

The first is that most treacherous of all writer-biographies: the ones the writers write themselves. I have a bit of a weakness for these, even though they’re typically stuffed to the gunwales with gossip, self-justifications, and outright lies. I’ve read Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings and Anthony Trollope’s An Autobiography many times, even though I know the authors aren’t going to be so interesting as to include any personal revelations (I’ve also read all of William Dean Howells’ autobiographical writings many times, even though I know the author isn’t going to be so interesting as to leave any personal revelations out)(and don’t get me started on Theodore Dreiser’s autobiographical stuff). And because of the deep and abiding love I have for his great book, I’ve read Edward Gibbon’s Autobiography many times as well, usually in the spiffy 1984 Penguin edition, which presents the 1897 John Murray text, with the great Betty Radice doing the editorial duties and sounding off in her inimitable way about the author lucy reading byronhimself:

Language in all its refinements was never his interest, and, in spite of his ear for the rhythms of English prose, he shows no deep feeling for verse; perhaps because he was unmusical. But no one has exceeded his capacity for absorbing a subject and retaining it in a memory as well indexed as it was capacious, and no historian has achieved a better combination of assembled material and imaginative insight.

And then there’s the unmistakable prose of Gibbon himself, those rolling periods that did so much for the maturing of the English language, even when the actual sentiments they convey are just so much sheep-dip:

I shall not expatiate more minutely on my economical affairs which cannot be instructive or amusing to the reader. It is a rule of prudence, as well of politeness, to reserve such confidence for the ear of a private friend, without exposing our situation to the envy or pity of strangers: for envy is productive of hatred, and pity borders too nearly on contempt.

k - haymanGibbon had many predecessors, of course, in terms of sharpening English into a language worthy of French. One of the most forgotten of those predecessors today is the Tudor poet and diplomat Thomas Wyatt, whose 1929 biography by E. M. W. Tillyard still ranks as my favorite, even though it’s really just a biographical sketch prefacing a collection of the man’s verse. Even so, Tillyard is never less than quotable:

Wyatt was a man of action, swift in emergency, brilliant at initiating a move, one who delighted to have his intellectual faculties tried. The intrigues and delays of the court of Spain irritated him intensely: in the bustle and movement, the rumours and alarms of Charles’s journey through France, he was happy. He read Charles’s intentions with clear insight, and realizing soon that he could not influence the issue of events, he wrote home begging to be recalled. One cannot help admiring the way in which he faces the truth and unhesitatingly lets his master know the worst.

Scholars like Tillyard are hampered in writing a Wyatt biography by how many factual blank spots there necessarily are in any pre-modern life. To put it mildly, this isn’t a problem Lionel Stevenson has in his fantastic – and still very much unrivaled – 1947 biographylucy reading showma of vanity fair of William Makepeace Thackeray, The Showman of Vanity Fair. Stevenson includes almost every one of the thousand choice anecdotes generated around Thackeray in his lifetime, and he sums up his subject quite well:

At the age of fifty Thackeray had reached the fulfillment of all his dreams. The years of nomadic restlessness were at an end. Ever since he left India, when he was six, he had been essentially rootless – the various houses in London had been little more than caravanserais. Now he owned a home built according to his demands and handsome enough to fulfill his ideas of luxury. Having earned the thirty thousand pounds to replace the inheritance he had squandered, he was able to give up the wearisome labor of editorship and to see some promise of escaping even from the creation of novels, which had always been an agonizing strain upon his nerves. The placid writing of history had beckoned to him for years as the future solace of his retirement. He was at last what he had always yearned to be – a gentleman of independent means and literary tastes, dwelling in the mellow atmosphere of the eighteenth century and preparing to apply himself to a suitably elegant hobby.

Naturally, when world-wide fame is mentioned in the same breath as authors, one particular author tends to come to mind, the one who “woke up one morning and found himself famous,” and Lord Byron has certainly not lacked for biographers. The best of these so far is Leslie Marchand, who finished a massive three-volume life of Byron in 1957 and in 1971 came lucy and wyattout with an extremely winning one-volume overview called Byron: A Portrait, which follows its famous subject at a very sprightly pace from birth to fame to scandal to exile to death – and a little beyond death:

There was something in Byron’s restless spirit that did continue to breathe when he expired, that moved his close associates to devotion to his memory and to contention with others, but scarcely ever to indifference. Few man have had a more far-reaching influence beyond the tomb. [John Cam] Hobhouse soon felt this. He wrote: “poor Byron – he always kept his friends in hot water during his life and it seems his remains will be of no easy management after his death.”

It would be hard to find a famous writer less like Byron than Franz Kafka, and yet they’ve both received an entire library section of biographies, ranging from the short and controversial to the long and definitive. Somewhere in the middle is Ronald Hayman’s fine 1981 study K: A Biography of Kafka, which sketches in all the well-known details and provides through it all a witty and slightly caustic running commentary that hislucy and james boswell subject might have appreciated:

At ten o’clock in the evening of 22 September 1912 the twenty-nine-year-old Franz Kafka sat down to begin his story ‘Das Urteil’ (‘The Judgment’). When he finished it at six in the morning, his legs so stiff he could hardly pull them from under the desk, he knew he had used his talent as never before. He had discovered ‘how everything can be said, how for everything, for the strangest fancies, a great fire is ready. They’re consumed and resurrected.’ The equation of destruction with creation is characteristic. He frequently destroyed his own writings, as if the less successful ones were weeds that could choke worthwhile work before it emerged.

Kafka made a biographer’s job a bit easier than some, since he was a voluminous letter-writer. But his conflicted instincts for self-revelation take a distant back seat to those of James Boswell, who wrote innumerable letters and, more to the point, kept scandalous, garrulous journals for virtually the whole of his life. In 1991, John Wain produced a wonderful selection from those wonderful books, The Journals of James Boswell, 1762-1795, in which we follow Boswell into every imbecility and folly he ever thought to commit to paper. Wain is a discerningly sympathetic guide, setting us at ease right away about the enormous, slobbering elephant in the room:

Strange, how many people feel obliged to go into a well-and-bucket act where Boswell and Johnson are concerned. If Johnson is profound, Boswell is a nonentity. If Boswell is interesting, then Johnson is a comic ogre. In fact anyone not in the grip of that particular compulsion can see that they were both interesting, both valuable.

lucy reading more writers livesAnd Boswell does the rest, merrily, handily, showing at once the artifice and the lack of self-consciousness that he somehow managed to wear side-by-side. Every page in these journals is every bit as entertaining as anything in Boswell’s famous Life of Johnson, and most of the entries do what the best of that big book does: makes us both admire and cringe at Boswell’s candor. Take the entry for Wednesday, 23 March 1768, for instance:

I had this morning been at Tyburn seeing the execution of Mr Gibson, the attorney, for forgery, and of Benjamin Payne for highway robbery. It is a curious turn, but I never can resist seeing executions … One of weak nerves is overpowered by such spectacles. But by thinking and accustoming myself to them, I can see them quite firmly, though I feel compassion.

I can whole-heartedly recommend these six author-biographies, and there are many, many more (for example, I’m sure, looking back on this particular list, that some readers are going to ask for – demand? – an all-female list to follow, and I can certainly oblige, as ridiculous as that is). Perhaps a regular feature? Stranger things have happened.

  • Robert

    I’ve been getting into Kafka recently. What would count as the best long and definitive biography in his case?

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