Friday, July 27, 2012

The Lives of Others

I find it hard to disabuse myself of the notion that the biography is a secondary art. It takes the stuff of other peoples’ lives, mostly the salacious bits, and tries to make a conclusive narrative out of what is essentially fragmented. Those who can’t write their own material, become biographers. Or even worse, become writers whose sole metier is autobiography: those often shapeless (or alternately, deformed with over-significance) baggy monsters. I don’t feel that way about published journals. Journals seem fundamentally more honest. It is where self-knowledge, if possessed, gives itself away.

At an Oxfam booksale a few months ago I picked up a copy of Richard Holmes’ Footsteps , an autobiography of his experiences as the biographer of Romantic figures like Mary Wollstonecraft and Shelley. I recognized Holmes; his huge Shelley and Coleridge biographies are still well thought of. It was in reading about Holmes’ younger years as a waifish biographer, living hand-to-mouth in Europe and following the exploits of his subjects with a detective-like inclination for a story, that I began to reconsider. Holmes writes of himself as a young man possessed by his subjects, living with them as his intimate companions as he tried to stitch together what happened between Shelley and Clare Clairmont in Italy, or Mary W. in Paris during the Terror.

The author divulges his subjects’ experiences at the same time he describes his own travels: ‘In Italy my outward life took on a curious thinness and unreality that I find difficult to describe. It was almost at times as if I was physically transparent, even invisible.’

And later

‘The Shelleys’ life in Rome was, in a sense, much more real than my own. My life was a figment of my own imagination, whereas theirs was to me an absolute, historic reality – no detail of which could be invented or falsified, not even the weather.’


(Severn's posthumous portrait of Shelley)

Holmes is – of course – a stylishly confidant writer. There is never a pure chronology, a straight forward listing of the facts. Life is what is reported, and it is reconstructed – idealistically perhaps – from an intimate knowledge of the subject: an exhaustive knowledge of private correspondence, personal testimonies, public personae, printed ephemera, published works. It is an exercise in supposition.

Holmes describes it thus:

‘Essentially, the dramatic nature of the biography – its powers of re-creation – are fatally undermined. The literary illusion of life, the illusion that makes it so close to the novel, is temporarily or permanently weakened. In short, where the biographical narrative is least convincing its fictional powers are most reduced. Where trust is broken between biographer and subject it is also broken between reader and biographer.

‘The great appeal of biography seems to lie, in part, in its claim to a coherent and integral view of human affairs. It is based on the profoundly hopeful assumption that people really are responsible for their actions, and that there is a moral continuity between the inner and outer man. The public and private life do, in the end, make sense of each other, and the one is meaningless without the other. Its view of life is Greek: character expresses itself in action: and can be understood, if not necessarily justified.’

This has made me reconsider my relation to biography and those who write in that mode. It’s possible to have writers like Holmes who have a pure sense of their vocation, a belief in biography as a significant (and perhaps ultimately doomed) exercise. In response, I’ve got his Shelley bio on my shelf and I’ve ordered his history on the Romantics’ approach to science, The Age of Wonder.

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Also, Neuman’s Traveller of the Century is fantastic. More to come.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Selection

I went to Blackwells this afternoon to buy a unit of fiction and I found choosing extremely difficult. I am always plagued with the feeling that the same book is being written over and over – a novel during wartime London; a tale of young women vying for the stage in the 1920s; an affair set in the present day; an old man remembering his first sexual experience; a historical romp beaded heavily with elaborate camp; stories of young male vagabonds whose consciousnesses disintegrate while walking the streets at night. Books on shelves – with their bright loopy covers and vibrant letters and bumptious puffs - seem to mean nothing. Perhaps this is a result of not reading contemporary fiction for so long. The hackneyed book news, the schools of fiction, the masters writing classes, review readers, Costa and Orange awards; what do they mean? It took me two trips and at least an hour of choosing and then discarding everything and clinging to Diego Marani’s Finnish Grammar and thinking At Last I Will Buy It. This is my raft. This will save me. And then tossing everything out to buy Andres Newman’s Traveller of the Century. It’s a Pushkin Press book, and was (sort of) endorsed by the late Roberto Bolano. Time will tell. Emily Dickinson needs a male companion.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A house, not in Paris, but covered in vines. I wake as early as I can force my body up – nearly noon – and scamper around the house, looking out windows and vantage points, photographing nooks, admiring sunlight in crevices or on the old chicken coop. C tells us later that there had been Easter chicks and a cock, and the woman who worked for them told them that the chickens had all been carried off by a fox. Strange, but no matter. More chickens were bought to raise. The next year, the same thing happened. All the chickens carried off by a fox. This, together with the fact that the orchard is full of healthy trees that never manifest ripe fruit, confirms C’s suspicion about the French in general and his housekeeper in particular. The French are lazy and try to get away with everything, he said with disgust, momentarily forgetting his thoroughly French heritage.

A and I walk into the village to buy baguettes. I practice the most important phrase I know, Est-ce que je peux prende deux croissants, and the women behind the counter consent. We eat lunch in the orchard, a glade on the side of the house clouded with trees and the sounds of humming insects. White butterflies zigzag and the grass shimmers like wavelets. I drowse in a low chair and feel Keatsian. The next few days repeats the process: most of the house wakes late, and we eat in the orchard. The humidity increases and nothing is more pleasant than a dip in the rocky-bottomed river. C’s favourite swimming spot is occupied by a young French fisherboy, and C curses him from what he perceives as our disadvantaged spot.

After two days in Joncy, the humidity builds up to an almost unbearable climax while we are at lunch trying C’s Ratafia, a heady local liqueur made of white wine, space, and fruit. The weather breaks suddenly, raining and then hailing fiercely. E runs about outside for a shower. Even the small arbour is no cover. We eat dinner inside and watch the storm with satisfaction. It appears that Burgundy cannot be satisfied without dramatics and we approve.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Au reservoir, Angleterre

The passport control in Dover was French and, despite me rocking back and forth, we had no problem leaving English soil. He smiled and waved us forward. And so onward: on to the ferry, that lumbering giant of duty-free shops and European tweens dressed in American sports paraphernalia and practicing their smoking and football hooliganism. On to the noticeably different French landscape, with its tall slim trees and wild underbrush, and tawny Van Gogh wheat fields. We drove into Burgundy after midnight in a lightning storm. I’ve never seen such violent electricity at so close a range, splitting the sky in several places at once, and lighting the vineyards which spread for miles on every side. C, our host, rolled down the window to crow. ‘Do you smell that?’ he said, breathing in the thick, humid storm-air. ‘That is the vines. That is the smell of wine.’ He continued to exclaim ‘vineyard!’ at every plant we passed. ‘Look at that? That field’s covered in vineyards. And on the other side? Vineyards.’

The small villages we passed through were idyllic: small clusters of cafes, boulangeries, and war memorials. A town named for frogs, Grenouille. And finally Joncy, where we pulled into the drive after four, hanging back in case the house was occupied by thieves and smugglers. C walked around the house cursing the locals who usually tend the house. ‘Typical French,’ he said. ‘We’ve been paying them all year. And look at the gravel! And the garden!’ He invited the men for a smoke in the orchard, and pacified E and I with a small thimbleful of Armagnac to send us into a deep sleep. When I finally laid down, the early morning air was filled with pastoral sounds: of cocks arising, of cows bellowing, of the lark’s motet.