Tragically eluded: a quote on the fear of the biographer

What you encounter at last, after your metaphorical quest across regions of ice, might be not so much a visage as a sensation, an overwhelming feeling of frustration, of having been somehow tragically eluded; a feeling that includes the immense sadness with which the contemplation of an imperfectly glimpsed past suffuses the soul…

– Brian Matthews, Louisa, 296.

This is the great question that historians and biographers must face: is the past recoverable? Can we get past the fragments it has left behind to some sense of what it was?

I think of how differently people remember the same person who they all knew. Say, for example, rather innocuously, you get to talking about a former work colleague. To some, he could be a hero of sorts, a fine worker and a great contributor; to others, a man with a streak of nastiness. Who is right? I suppose both are right, but some might be more perceptive than others. How perceptive can we be about people we will never meet? And yet, the whole endeavour of writing and reading insists that we can, in some sense, know a person through the words they have left behind.

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About Nathan Hobby

At work on a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard for a PhD at the University of Western Australia. Also a novelist and librarian. View all posts by Nathan Hobby

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