Lead book review

Biography is a thoroughly reprehensible genre

3 March 2018

9:00 AM

3 March 2018

9:00 AM

I saw a biopic about Morecambe and Wise recently. The actors impersonating the comedians were not a patch on the originals — how could they be? You need a genius to play a genius. I often wonder if my own HBO Peter Sellers movie would have been improved if someone fiery, of the calibre of Gary Oldman or Sacha Baron Cohen, had been cast instead of Geoffrey Rush, who was muffled under prosthetic make-up. But my point is, biopics seldom come off, and nor do biographies.

Indeed, it is a reprehensible and misguided genre. Privacy is violated, creative achievements are explained away, and great men and women are unmasked as sneaky, predatory, cruel and ordinary. Humphrey Carpenter wrote all his biographies — of Auden, Britten and Ezra Pound — in this way.

The exhaustive and exhausting biographies of Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin and Anthony Powell nearly killed those authors stone dead for me, as each and every girlfriend and sexual conquest was connected to an incident in a novel or a line in a poem. Ever since learning that V.S. Naipaul was a bully I’ve not ventured near his books.

More than the deluge of personal detail, however, the chief problem with biography is that the fundamental precepts are wrong, the principles too rigid. For the idea always seems to be that by gathering and establishing facts, cataloguing testimonies and anecdotes, each life can be made a perfect whole — that the objective biographer will see to it that there has been a plan or pattern, and dignity is conferred.

I disagree. Why should a personality hang together? This will be why Saul Bellow got fed up with the interrogations of James Atlas, whose new book is a wry and slightly exasperated account of a professional biographer’s existence. Atlas even tells us that while at work on the Bellow project, ‘I gulped down a corned beef on rye and a can of black cherry soda’.

Each weekend, Atlas would bring his photocopied findings to Bellow in Vermont — old correspondence, bank statements, tailors’ bills, picture postcards, legal depositions from alimony battles — and the venerable Nobel Laureate would decide whether or not such information could be published in an eventual biography. ‘He said he felt like Valjean, pursued by Inspector Javert through the sewers of Paris,’ says Atlas.

Yet it wasn’t Atlas’s doggedness as a Recording Angel that would have made Bellow hate him, or his affected servility (he remained ‘Mr Bellow… I wouldn’t have dreamed of calling him Saul’ — even after 11 years on the job); it was the way Atlas as a biographer was determined to smooth everything out, link cause and effect, bring it all down to earth. Toiling at the biography, says Atlas, ‘was like being a psychiatrist with a single patient’ — and how tiresome, how predictable, that artistic gifts have to be ascribed to depression and schizophrenia, difficulties with girls and trouble with parents.

Few biographers have had the ability or wit to perceive and describe the Cubist jaggedness of a life. Accident, chance, reversals of fortune, betrayals, sudden eruptions, dreams and areas of darkness; the shifting layers of identity, the friction between public and private selves (which character will a person choose to play?): little of this rough texture is ever evoked. Biographers conduct the background research, but few write it up with any verve.

Instead, they can try too hard and go bonkers. Leon Edel gradually turned into Henry James, acquiring ‘the kind of mild snobbery’ for which the novelist was renowned. He also wore a signet ring ‘that had once belonged to the Master’. Norman Sherry, following Graham Greene’s footsteps, ‘contracted dysentery in the same Mexican village as Greene had done’. I was thrown out of a pub in Deal that had barred Charles Hawtrey. Does that qualify?

The best biographers are artists themselves. Atlas has interesting digressions about Greene on Rochester, Evelyn Waugh on Campion, Powell on Aubrey. I’d add Anthony Burgess on Shakespeare, André Maurois on Shelley, Stefan Zweig on Mary Queen of Scots, Nabokov on Gogol and A.N. Wilson on Iris Murdoch and John Betjeman. There is a personal investment in these works; the imagination is operating.

Which was not the case with Kingsley Amis on Kipling — in Swansea or Peterhouse lecturer mode, his comic spirit suppressed, Amis was dull. Traditional biographers are invariably dull. They are too respectful. Hermione Lee, for example, who has been awarded a CBE, DBE, FBA and no doubt other medals besides, is too bookish, too erudite, for my taste. She and similar operators have a handy omniscience — and what I always thought was a revulsion against actual human nature.

This charge cannot be made against Richard Ellmann, whose James Joyce biography ‘reads like a work of art’. Atlas was taught by Ellmann at Oxford in 1971. ‘There were no requirements, few lectures, no seminars.’ It was exactly the same a decade later — more insouciant, if anything — when Ellmann was my own doctoral supervisor, for a thesis that evolved eventually into my book about Anthony Burgess, which Faber has sold eight copies of in the past 15 years, and three of those were returned to the shop for a refund.

Ellmann, ‘a plump, slightly balding man, wearing black-rimmed glasses’, whose wife, Mary, was in a wheelchair and whose mistress, Barbara Hardy, was in London, though employed in academe, was no diligent academic. His inaugural lecture as Goldsmith’s Professor was said to have been identical to his valedictory lecture. He did the minimum he could get away with, and what he liked was the more or less free money (augmented by lucrative stints at Emory in Atlanta) and the laughably lengthy vacations, when he didn’t even have to bother to be evasive. For 30 years he diddled at a biography of Oscar Wilde, whom he interpreted as a kindly family man, hardly a homosexual at all.

A university sinecure, as Ellmann knew, at least salvages a biographer from the penury and ignominy of being a freelance literary gent, who is paid small advances. A.J.A. Symons, who wrote a biography of Baron Corvo structured as a detective story, gave up writing to found the Wine and Food Society and collect antique musical boxes. Most biographers, however, do become what Gore Vidal contemptuously called ‘classroom technicians’, or hacks churning out anthologies and editing learned journals soon defunct.

Atlas himself once laboured at a book about Delmore Schwartz, who’d inspired Bellow’s character Von Humboldt Fleisher. ‘No one outside the literary world had ever heard of him,’ says Atlas ruefully, save Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground, who paid for the upkeep of Schwartz’s grave, having once been his pupil at Syracuse.

When Atlas says, ‘I learned that biography is about death,’ he doesn’t only mean that Schwartz died of drink in 1966, aged only 52, or that Bellow croaked in 2005, aged nearly 90. He means that the world his subjects inhabited has vanished. The figures Atlas interviewed, the ‘fierce, irascible, antagonistic’ intellectuals of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s — Philip Rahv, Alfred Kazin, Maurice Zolotov, Dwight Macdonald, R.P. Blackmur, Glenway Wescott — the self-important and humourless fellows who once adorned fuggy Greenwich Village parties, whose book reviews mattered so much and who were in charge of dispensing grants and prizes, have quite entered oblivion, leaving not even footnotes behind. There is a lesson there, in their insignificance. Does anybody still read Edmund Wilson or Cleanth Brooks or Lionel Trilling?

Furthermore, the relationship between biographer and biographee is morbid. It is not a healthy existence, ‘spending long days in the company of someone I had never met but would come to know better than anyone else in the world’, confesses Atlas. I myself felt like one of Peter Sellers’s battered wives, and Britt Ekland is jealous of me even now, if the tweets she sends are any indication. It is the affair of ghosts, too, in the archives — what Atlas calls the ‘electrifying intensity’ of handling original manuscripts and love letters, which ‘may contain evidence of a secret assignation’, is reminiscent of Carter and Carnarvon in Tut’s tomb.

The necrophilia is evident in the form, also, as biographies inevitably hasten from birth and ancestry and conclude with last illnesses, the funeral and memorial tributes. I never thought this a very interesting way of telling the story. In my biography of Laurence Olivier, he doesn’t get born until the final page.

Atlas confuses Horace and Hugh Walpole, gets the characters in The Aspern Papers muddled, identifies Lady Antonia Fraser as ‘the distinguished English biographer of royalty’ (where to start?) and calls the Groucho ‘a pseudo-seedy Soho club right out of an Anthony Powell novel’. When not writing his two biographies he was the editor of the New York Times Magazine.

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