Wrap-up of a year’s reading in biography

I wanted to read as much of a particular kind of literary biography as possible – heavily researched but gripping narratives of writers who have been in their graves a while. But I found myself reading well outside the boundaries I’d set myself, gravitating also to memoirs and hybrid life-writing which mixes biography and fiction. I don’t regret these digressions; even as an advocate and practitioner of that certain kind of literary biography, my diet must be more varied.

Of more traditional literary biography, Claire Tomalin inspired me once more with her account of the life of Samuel Pepys. Who would have known that so much could be recovered of a seventeenth-century life? Early in the book, she describes in evocative detail the smells of a house in London at that time, and I felt unexpectedly immersed in a different time and place. It is an engrossing, strange story so beautifully told and my biography of the year, thirteen years after she wrote it.

Britain seems to have many of the finest biographers in the world, at least the ones I aspire after, as my first readings of Hermione Lee in the last months have shown. In her biography of Virginia Woolf, she handles the ongoing tension for the biographer between the thematic and the chronological in the most elegant and sophisticated way I have ever read. Each chapter is a kind of “chronological theme” such as “the maternal” and “the paternal”, placed at just the right point in the unfolding story of Woolf, moving as required over the whole of her life and yet retaining the narrative sense of the years passing. I will be reading this book well into January, but given I’ve already read several hundred pages, I’ve got a good enough sense of it to include it in my favourite books of the year. I’ve also just finished her Biography: A Very Short Introduction and I think it’s superb. Despite being accessible for the general reader, despite touching on all the expected canonical texts, she makes the history and practice of the genre completely fresh and stimulating. She writes pedagogically, putting up examples and encouraging the reader to think for themselves about what they mean, before offering her interpretation. Her overall thesis, that the history of biography is far more shaped by recurring themes and questions than the standard “progress” account would have us believe, is compelling. Nigel Hamilton’s Biography: A Brief History (2007) is good, but this is even better as a primer.

The best biographies, in my opinion, are generally written by biographers who care about biography as a genre rather than biographers who are simply passionate about their subject. The demands of the genre are just too great; a good biography requires someone who has thought through its challenges and conventions. Particularly in Australian biography, there are a lot of biographies written by those who are not biographers (perhaps academics, perhaps enthusiasts) and with less concern for what makes not just for accuracy or comprehensiveness, but for a well-told story. The late Hazel Rowley was one of our great biographers, and it was an important exercise to re-read her biography of Christina Stead for a chapter of my PhD. On a close second reading, it seemed even better in some ways and perhaps a little rougher in others. Brenda Niall is one of the few professional biographers in Australia, and her True North was a stimulating read, as was Drusjilla Modjeska’s Second Half First.

Gideon Haigh (Certain Admissions) and Erik Jensen (Acute Misfortune) are two Australian journalists who seem to care a lot about the form of their “biographies,” although neither are writing literary biography. Haigh’s true crime story is the biography of murderer, John Bryan Kerr, but more than that, I wrote:”One of the book’s achievements is to perfectly integrate the author’s archival quest so that it doesn’t intrude or overwhelm the story but enhance it, opening our eyes as readers to the ambiguity of the evidence and the intriguing stories behind the story.” Jensen is even more involved in his story, living with his destructive subject, the artist Adam Cullen.

I read Cullen’s book after hearing him at the Perth Writers’ Festival; I also read Joanna Rakoff after hearing her there. Both she with My Salinger Year and Kate Grenville with One Life have written books which read like novels. Rakoff’s intriguing connection to Salinger would not be enough to carry her book; it’s the beautiful and perceptive writing about herself that make it excellent. Grenville’s plain, steady account of her mother’s life has a beauty which does depend on the knowledge that it’s built on the known outline of her mother’s life and the insights from her mother’s own attempts at autobiography. It moved me for the way it told so well the story of an ordinary life. I will be interested to see how similar it is to Drusilla Modjeska’s Poppy (1990) when I read that soon.

It’s hard to know what this mix of biography is doing to my own writing; hopefully the reflections are having a good influence as I’ve been writing these last weeks about about the first half of Katharine’s 1916. I read as much fiction as biography, I should add, and listed a top five on my other blog. In 2016, the biography I’m most anticipating is Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow by Suzanne Falkiner. I heard, sadly, that the other biographer of Stow mentioned in Gabrielle Carey’s memoir has dropped out. Falkiner’s work, at 890 pages, is comprehensive and could well be a milestone in Australian literary biography.

1. Pepys: The Unequalled Self / Claire Tomalin (Britain, 2002)

2. One Life / Kate Grenville (Australia, 2015)

3. Virginia Woolf / Hermione Lee (Britain, 1997)

4. Acute Misfortune: The Death and Life of Adam Cullen / Erik Jensen (Australia, 2014)

5. Biography: A Very Short Introduction / Hermione Lee (Britain, 2009)

6. My Salinger Year / Joanna Rakoff (USA, 2014)

7. Certain Admissions: A Beach, A Body, and a Lifetime of Secrets / Gideon Haigh (Australia, 2015)

8. Searching for the Secret River / Kate Grenville (Australia, 2006)

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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

11 responses to “Wrap-up of a year’s reading in biography

  • MST

    I’ve read and enjoyed some of Tomalin’s other works but not the Pepys – will definitely add it to the TBR pile now, though. Thanks!

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    • Nathan Hobby

      No pressure, but it is a good read! Perhaps I enjoyed it so much because I wasn’t expecting to. Pepys is so remote to us compared to Tomalin’s other subjects, especially Katharine Mansfield, yet he was brought vividly to life.

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  • wadholloway

    I’m a Salinger fan so I might try the Rackoff. Meanwhile I’ve still got a few old Oz lit biographies to get through, and by the time I finish those you (and Michelle too, hopefully) will have something new for me to read.

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  • whisperinggums

    I loved this post Nathan. And I loved your point that “The best biographies, … are generally written by biographers who care about biography as a genre rather than biographers who are simply passionate about their subject.” I particularly enjoy it when the biographer engages with the reader about his/her challenges. I have read Tomalin’s Jane Austen, but have still to read Hermione Lee. As I recollect she has written on Edith Wharton and I’ve had my eye on that for a while, but Woolf would also be fascinating. I can really appreciate what an intellectual challenge writing a bio is, above and beyond the actual research into the life. I must say that while I found Philip Butterss CJ Dennis bio interesting, I didn’t find it engaging as a biography in the way that, I found say, Rowle’s Roosevelt bio or Niall’s Durack. It was drier, somehow, in style.

    Not really a biographer, and not really a “proper” biography, but a book I read a few years ago and enjoyed was Carol Shields “bio” of Jane Austen. She engaged continually with the reader, explaining the approach she was taking and why. It’s more an author’s bio of an author, but for what it was, I found it insightful. We’ll never know how accurate!

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    • Nathan Hobby

      Thanks Sue! Carol Shields must have had quite an interest in biography – the couple of novels of hers I’ve read touch on it in different ways, especially Swann. I’m sorry to hear the Dennis bio might be dry – I have been meaning to read it, especially after it won the biography award.

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      • whisperinggums

        Yes, I was a little surprised by the award, but maybe it’s just me. It was certainly well researched and interesting, but just rather, well, dry. With your interest in the topic I’d love to know how you see it.

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  • residentjudge

    I hadn’t realized that Suzanne Falkiner had written as much as she has- I read and enjoyed her ‘Eugenia’. Tomalin’s Pepys is wonderful, as is her Jane Austen, as Sue mentioned. I really enjoyed Richard Holmes as a literary biographer too (not the military historian one). I have Gideon Haigh on the pile, ready to go.

    Liked by 1 person

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