Monthly Archives: February 2015

Acute Misfortune: a review of Erik Jensen’s biography of Adam Cullen


Adam Cullen (1965-2012) was a controversial Australian artist who destroyed himself with alcohol and drugs. Six years ago, Cullen asked nineteen year-old journalist Erik Jensen to live with him for a year to write his biography. Last year, the book appeared – Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen, a story in which life and death do seem to have equal weight. Continue reading

“Dear Kattie, I hope you will allow me to be so familiar”: first-name terms in biography

The Guardian asks, “Should biographers be on first name terms with their subjects?” (hat-tip Tracy Ryan), which is very good timing, because it’s an ongoing question for me. Continue reading

No Limits: Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year


On Saturday, I heard Joanna Rakoff talking on a panel at the Perth Writers’ Festival called “No Limits” with Hannie Rayson and Ros Thomas. Ostensibly, they were discussing the question “when it comes to writing about yourself, are some things off limits?”. Yet the compere declared at the beginning he wouldn’t ask the authors what they had left out of their books, as obviously they wouldn’t want to tell us. Continue reading

“So let us put him in the thick of it”: reconstructing the unknown


I’ve just been to a Perth Writers’ Festival talk by two biographers, Hamish McDonald and Madonna King. The conversation around the process of biography was interesting. McDonald’s latest book, War of Words is the biography of a Japanese-raised European, Charles Bavier, born in 1888, while King’s is a biography of Australian politician, Joe Hockey. They are both journalists, but King’s book seemed particularly a work of journalism from the way she spoke about it. She interviewed three hundred people and wrote it intensively, seven days a week, over the course of a year. McDonald started his in 1982, when there were still were people alive who knew Bavier well, but it is inevitably a historical enterprise. Despite this, he said at one point that he wasn’t pretending his was a footnoted history. In the literal sense this is completely true – indeed it is not referenced at all (there is a bibliography), which seems a terrible lack to me. I may be an unusual reader, but footnotes reveal much about method, and can be fascinating to me. But he also meant it in another sense – his insertion of several scenes of reconstructions, where he imagines what Bavier was doing during historical events McDonald knew he experienced. Continue reading

Forgotten century?: the problem of preserving the past against obsolescence

News story on the Guardian today:

Piles of digitised material – from blogs, tweets, pictures and videos, to official documents such as court rulings and emails – may be lost forever because the programs needed to view them will become defunct, Google’s vice-president has warned.

In this story comes together all my hats: librarian; novelist writing about memoralisation; biographer using the traces of the past. In the long and often intelligent conversation in the comments thread, opinion seemed divided between those who agreed there was a problem (many of them Gen Xers and Baby Boomers); the technological optimists who think it will take five minutes to write a program to read anything in the future; and those living in a perpetual present who don’t even care if our worthless traces are obliterated.

In 2008, when I started working in the library I remain in one day a week, I was confronted with the problem of the Tape Collection, thousands of significant and insignificant public lectures and sermons recorded on decaying cassettes in a time-poor library. In the early 1980s, it was the pride of the library; they had to limit how many tapes anyone borrowed at once. They had a master version and a copy of each one. Thirty years later, we could never give the Tape Library the thousands of hours it required. We weeded. We began a digitisation program in between the gaps of just trying to get through the mountain of new material. IT issues ground us to a halt; there wasn’t enough server space to provide public access to the files. The digitised files are waiting for the right moment on a hard drive. But the majority of the data remains on tapes. And here, as far as I’m concerned, is the real problem. Not a limit of technology, but of time, in libraries and archives with mountains of Material Awaiting Processing, often measured in metres.

James Wilson’s The Dark Clue: A fictional biographer on the trail of J. M. W. Turner’s secrets


Spoiler alert

In James Wilson’s The Dark Clue: A Novel of Suspense (2001), Walter Hartright and his sister-in-law, Marian Halcombe, set out to investigate the life of the British painter J. M. W. Turner a couple of decades after his death. Walter has been informally commissioned by Lady Eastlake, supposedly to provide a more acceptable account of Turner’s life than a muck-raking biographer named Thornbury, who we never actually meet. With its subject and setting in London at the height of Victorianism, as well as borrowing its protagonists from a Wilkie Collins’ novel, it is a deeply Victorian novel concerned with respectability and repression. Walter sets about interviewing people who remember Turner, and learns contradictory things about the painter. Marian tries to unearth Turner’s early life through letters and journals. They are led toward dark secrets in Turner’s life, only to begin to suspect they are actually being used for other people’s agenda. The mania Walter finds in Turner’s life infects his own, as he unleashes his repressed sexuality and becomes, a little unconvincingly, something of a sex fiend.

It is an intriguing premise, and seems well-researched. However, its epistolary narration works against it, and the whole novel feels as if it is relating events at too far a remove as characters diarise or correspond about things which have happened to them. The most engaging scenes are those which shake off the pretence of being letters or diaries and just directly narrate.

I was drawn to it as an example of the biographical quest novel made famous by A. S. Byatt’s Possession (1990). Many bioquest novels are set in the present with biographers unearthing the secrets of past ages, particularly the Victorian or Edwardian ages. Yet The Dark Clue has an intra-Victorian setting – the mid-Victorian era interrogating the early-Victorian era. The passages most typical of the bioquest are the ones in which Marian uncovers archival secrets. The novel has the quest structure, yet resists the romance conventions of the genre – it has a darker heart, with the quest leading not to personal redemption for Walter and Marian but near-destruction and misery.

The biographical project itself is left quite unresolved, abandoned because of the effect on the biographers. Walter and Marian end up fearing they are being tricked into producing a biography which condemns Turner as a paedophile and murderer in order to get around a stipulation in his will requiring that a gallery dedicated to his work be built if the nation wished to retain ownership of the paintings. This central premise seems slippery to me. Firstly, isn’t the rival biographer, Thornbury, supposed to be the muck-raker? Secondly, and more importantly, Victorian biography avoided scandal. Would there have even been muck-rakers like Thornbury, let alone a gentleman like Walter publishing shocking allegations about a well-known painter? The biographer Froude was heavily criticised in the period for merely suggesting Thomas Carlyle was impotent. The abandonment of the project, at least, is realistic for the period if such discoveries were made. Interestingly, it echoes another bioquest from the same year, Barbara Vine’s The Blood Doctor, in which the secret is too shocking for the present-day biographer (the subject’s descendant) to continue.

I haven’t yet seen the recent film, Mr Turner, so I can’t make the obvious comparison to it, but I do half intend to watch it.