THE ART OF BIOGRAPHYThere’s a feeling in the book world that biographers - particularly literary biographers - aren't real writers. Biographers do it second hand. If you can’t write yourself, you write about someone who can. The arch literary snob Virginia Woolf (herself a biographer) argued that biography was not an art but a craft; a paste and cuttings job. More recently AS Byatt in her novel The Biographers Tale wrote that “The art of biography is a despised art because it is an art of things, of facts, of arranged facts.” It is “a bastard form, a dilettante pursuit. Tales told by those incapable of true invention . . Constructed by amateurs for lady readers who would never grapple with The Waves but liked to feel they had an intimate acquaintance with the Woolfs and with Bloomsbury”.
AS Byatt’s equivocal comments touch on the voyeuristic nature of biography - one that has given me some qualms. For it could be argued that even the best biography is really only literary lace curtain twitching, or even worse - upmarket tabloid journalism; an extension of our fascination for other people’s lives, or simply perhaps the impulse that makes Hello the best selling magazine. This desire to see into the private lives of our icons - to know their secret sins - glimpse the semen on the sheets, is a natural, though rather dubious, human instinct. Perhaps we need to know that they are real people like ourselves - imperfect, fallible. We excuse our curiosity on the grounds that we are looking for ‘the truth’.
But biography is rarely that. Even the ‘definitive’ biography seeking to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth is simply a story fabricated by the author out of facts. It is a viewpoint - an argument; the subject recreated as ectoplasm. A biography created only from certain fact would be very short. ‘S/he was born, s/he lived, s/he died.’ It’s a rare volume that doesn’t contain at least one conditional verb, ‘Could have, must have. . . .’ And, just as a biography is never wholly factual, a novel is never wholly fictional, its characters are avatars assembled from multiple body parts, its landscapes pieced out from memory and observation like patchwork quilts.
Those who argue that biography, unlike fiction, is not a literary art form are tacitly accepting that there is a clear division between the two. But this is not the case. Books have become increasingly difficult to classify. Where do you put Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes? Similarly Jung Chang's Wild Swans - which is history, biography and autobiography in a fictional style - appeared in the fiction section of many a bookshop when it was first published. Do we read a book differently if we are told that it is ‘true’? The best example of a writer manipulating our perceptions of fact and fiction to create prose that eludes traditional classification is the late WG Sebald, whose novels or memoirs - no-one seemed to be sure - appear as the product of his own remembered past - glimpses of people and incident imagined but made to exist as fact. The boundaries are invisible. However well researched and close to ‘truth’, biographies can never be more than fictional lives. And a good novel becomes a species of fictional biography. Jane Austen’s Emma has as much life as Peter Ackroyd’s Charles Dickens.
Virginia Woolf however, was convinced that there was an unbridgeable gulf between biography and fiction. Biography neglected imagination and worked at a ‘lower level’ than the ‘sublime art’ of fiction. But I’m equally certain that there is no logical, definable boundary between the novel and the biography. Their relationship is symbiotic - something well demonstrated by two contemporary books. In her novel Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood deploys all the devices of biography including illustrations, quotes, and letters to persuade the reader of her character’s existence. Maya Angelou, in her autobiography I know why the caged bird sings, uses all the narrative devices of the novel to make memoir into literature. As someone who writes both biography and fiction I'm perhaps more aware than most of the close relationship between the two - of the shadowy creative world inside my head where as a biographer I try to make real events live in the reader’s imagination and as a novelist make the figments of my imagination into real events. I’ve come to regard biography as a kind of ‘Found novel’ - similar to a found poem. As a writer you're presented with the characters and the plot - even some of the dialogue - it's up to you to arrange the material in a way that brings the whole to life. As in a novel you have similar narrative choices, similar structural problems. The differences are stylistic and presentational.
Biography long ago earned it’s place as a literary art form. It has a longer pedigree than the novel springing from the same root as poetry in the days when our ancestors sat around the fire and were entertained by a bard telling wonderful tales of heroes. The stories of the Trojan wars and the epic of Beowulf were as much faction as anything else - fact and fiction intertwined then as now. The historical development of modern biography comes from the medieval ‘great lives’ written as exempla. They didn't need to be true to life, only morally and spiritually true. Lives of saints were very popular - these weren't biography but hagiography, where the subject was glorified and their actions elevated to heroic levels. Later there was a craze for a kind of confessional autobiography - very popular among non-conformist sects. ‘I was damned but now I am redeemed’. An account of a sinful life reformed. They were often prurient - Moll Flanders is a good fictional example of the genre - and also a good instance of literary cross-dressing - fiction and biography feeding into each other.
The next vogue was for memoir - people putting themselves on record, many of them women like the seventeenth century Duchess of Newcastle, anxious to avoid the terrible anonymity of historical editing. She called it `Nature's Pictures Drawn by Fancies Pencil to the Life' and began the story of her life by making a daring statement of justification. "Some censuring readers will scornfully say, why hath this Lady writ her own life? Since none cares to know whose daughter she was, or whose wife she is? I answer that it is true, that ‘tis to no purpose to the Readers. . . but it is to the Authoress, because I write it for my own sake not theirs. . to tell the truth, lest after ages should mistake. . ." Margaret also wrote a ‘Life’ of her husband, the Duke of Newcastle, as a vindication of his conduct in the Civil War and her book inadvertently became a landmark in the history of the biography. Rather than just giving the details of his public life and heroic deeds she recorded such things as what he ate for breakfast and how often he changed his shirt.
The next milestone in its development was Boswell's Life of Johnson - an attempt at a full, well-rounded portrait of the man. But it was still deferential, influenced by the remnants of hagiography. And this is what Lytton Strachey set out to debunk in his Eminent Victorians, which of course leads on to the modern day where we want our biographies warts and all.
By the nineteenth century biography was serious and respectable, fiction still rather raffish. The novel was having trouble getting over the accusation that it was all lies and therefore rather sinful. Throughout the l8th century and early l9th century there are innumerable examples of novels masquerading as True Histories in order to gain respectability - taking on the cloak of the biography in order to deceive the reader. The title pages of many of these novels are nothing short of fraudulent. Pamela advertised itself as "A series of letters from a young lady to her parents" and Jane Eyre as "An autobiography edited by Currer Bell". Even novels such as Robinson Crusoe masqueraded as true lives. Defoe, of course, was trained in journalism and used the techniques of non-fiction shamelessly.
The Novel is a thief, borrowing its techniques from everywhere else. In it's early days it borrowed techniques from the Biography and mocked it's ambitions to reveal the life, the whole life and nothing but the life. Lawrence Sterne's Tristram Shandy for instance, where the novelist begins the life of his character with a detailed description of his conception and takes several volumes to get the hero to the age of about six. Since the end of the seventeenth century there has been a rich dialogue between the biography and the novel - a blurring of boundaries.
We are now in the golden age of biography, facilitated by the ease of mass communication and wealth of printed or recorded information on those in the public eye. The huge American archives filled with literary documents can be regarded as either a biographer’s dream or a nightmare. Faced with so much material the biographer's art has never been so difficult. You have the weight of academic discipline on your shoulders, the novelist's duty to recreate the character so that it lives for the reader, to weigh all available evidence like a lawyer and present it in an intelligible fashion and to argue the case successfully for your chosen subject.
Biography is a journey - both physical and intellectual, through archives, libraries and places - you never know quite where it's going to take you in the process of tracking down your quarry. Discovering and interpreting the life is also a detective puzzle you may never be able to solve even though you are given all the available clues. (Try The Quest for Corvo.) And then there’s the element of voyeurism to beware of. When Margaret Forster's book on Daphne du Maurier came out what people were really interested in was not the material relevant to Du Maurier’s career as a writer but the revelations of lesbian relationships.
And that's another of the biographer's dilemma's. How much do you tell? How much are you going to be allowed to tell? When the subjects are extremely dead, along with most of their friends and family you're probably safe, but if they're contemporary the constraints are enormous. Writing a biography is like making a film of the book - it's a seriously edited version. And there's another question, does the public have a right to know everything? They think they have. But do they? Should there be a law of privacy to protect the dead as well as the living?
In the end the art of the biographer is to take the facts at his or her disposal and weave a fascinating narrative that everyone will be compelled to read - to recreate a credible character as they might have been, to depict a way of life as vividly as possible, knowing that people are going to enjoy it all the more because they can tell themselves that it's all true. Quite a challenge, quite a responsibility. Lucky old novelist without all this hassle.
Biographies are big sellers these days - the literary sort as well as the life stories of popular icons such as Posh and Beck. Lorna Sage’s memoir Bad Blood made it into the non-fiction top ten even in hardback. It's difficult to explain the popularity of the genre at the moment - perhaps it's an indication of dissatisfaction with the novel, or perhaps in an age where so many people are news junkies addicted to ‘true life’ stories, people want to feel that what they read is respectably rooted in reality. Perhaps they also feel that the novel is too frivolous for the serious times we live in and the serious issues they raise. We live in the documentary age.
This has also influenced the kind of novels that have dominated the best seller lists over recent years. Factional novels such as Thomas Kineally's Schindler's Ark, which was published as non-fiction in America but won the Booker prize for fiction in England; J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, published as a novel but apparently an autobiographical memoir. This kind of literary cross-dressing is nothing new and an interesting comparison between the techniques of fiction and of fact can be seen in the work of Christopher Isherwood who wrote a fictional autobiography Lions and Shadows and then rewrote it as straight autobiography in Christopher and His Kind. With Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang in the best seller lists, it seems that faction - the point where biography, autobiography and the novel meet is here to stay.
© Kathleen Jones