Toward the end of her biography of Randolph Stow, Suzanne Falkiner offers a beautifully expressed quote from Louis Menand:
How much one can accurately convey of a life lived so much on the interior is debateable. As the American academic Louis Menand has observed, in the matter of historical research (and by extension biography), what has been written about takes on an importance that may be spurious:
A few lines in a memoir, a snatch of recorded conversation, a letter fortuitously preserved, an event noted in a diary: all become luminous with significance – even though they are merely the bits that have floated to the surface. the historian clings to them while somewhere below the huge submerged wreck of the past sinks silently out of sight.
Suzanne Falkiner Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow (UWA Publishing, 2016) 726.
It’s more of a problem for a subject about whom little has survived – Shakespeare as an extreme example, the early Katharine Susannah Prichard as a less extreme example. Yet it subtly affects all biographies. Falkiner’s book would look very different if she her main source wasn’t Stow’s letters to his mother.
Much of this past has vanished from the landscape, and from memory. For Bottoms, one of the chief tasks of the historian is to re-create the texture of lost experience, or, as his great professional exemplar Robert Darnton writes, to “uncover the human condition as it was experienced by our predecessors.”
Nicholas Rothwell, reviewing Cairns by Timothy Bottoms in the Weekend Australian Review, 6 February 2016, 16.
He went down with Catherine to see his parents at the cottage in Alphington which he had found for them. “They seem perfectly contented and happy,” he told Forster. “That’s the only intelligence I shall convey to you except by word of mouth.” In that last sentence, of course, lies all the difficulty of biography, for how is it possible now to guess at what passed by mouth, by the sudden expression or by the unintentional phrase? The whole meaning of a life may be evoked in such moments which cannot now be reclaimed – like the life itself disappeared utterly, leaving behind just written documents from which we can only attempt carefully to reconstruct it. But the biographer does know some things which may not even have been clear to Dickens himself as eagerly he moved forward through the world, each day a new confirmation and extension of his being; we know that the parents were not happy, for example, and that John Dickens would soon be forging bills with his son’s signature.
– Peter Ackroyd, Dickens, 314.
In this excerpt, Ackroyd acknowledges the pain of the gap, of the clue in Dickens’ letter that he had something significant and sensitive to say which is now unrecoverable. (Ackroyd exaggerates; there are so many other difficulties too!) When Ackroyd talks of the ‘meaning of a life’, he is suggesting that the ‘true’ self is not the one presented in the documents which have survived. (But he probably means an inner state more than anything, and that may not be conveyed truthfully verbally either.)
Ackroyd also notes the consolation of a biographer – of knowing what will come, of knowing things about ‘characters’ in the subject’s lives which the subject does not yet know or may never know.
There is a deep resemblance always between a writer and his work, but it has nothing to do with his expressed opinions or sentiments; it is rather that the form of his work embodies the form of his personality.
– Peter Ackroyd, Dickens, 232.
It’s sentences like this that got Ackroyd in trouble with some reviewers when his monumental biography of Dickens appeared in 1990. It takes a boldness or carelessness to make pronouncements and generalisations like this one. I can think of possible ways in which he’s wrong about particular authors, but it also has a feel of truth; in this case, he is talking of the ‘variegated mixture’ of ‘humour; poetry; declamation; melodrama’ in not just Oliver Twist but all of Dickens’ novels. To extend the idea: Borges is enigmatic, brief, timeless. Auster is playful yet intense, full of life’s strangeness. Oh, this is getting very subjective. Counter-argument: we mainly know authors through their work; the ‘resemblance’ is inevitable and misleading. But maybe Ackroyd has a right to his judgement, given the preface tells us that he’s read every extant letter etc of Dickens.
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.
This is the temptation of the autobiographer: to put the past into the shape it should have taken; to make yourself cut the figure you should have cut. Likewise, the biographer, in relation to his subject, may behave as avenging angel, remorselessly straighening the record, or as a scourge, reducing the subject to insignificance or mediocrity. But it is less likely that the truth will lie so conveniently at one or other of those extremes than that it will be intricately ramified through the whole spectrum.
– Brian Matthews, Louisa, p. 103
If biography is ‘a definite region: bounded on the north by history, on the south by fiction, on the east by obituary, and on the west by tedium, according to one English historian, then literary biography is particularly constrained by the need to balance the life and the oeuvre.
– Louis Adler, review of Roth Unbound, The Age, 19 April 2014.
I think biography should attempt to give a sense of how the subject has lived their everyday life. Not in exhaustive detail, but well chosen sketches. Most of the attention of the biography, of course, needs to be taken up by the more dramatic moments, but a sense of the everyday gives some context for the dramatic.
As in a novel, a key way to convey such a picture is in long sentences summing up a long period of time by observing the patterns. In his biography of his mother, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Ric Throssell does it well at this point:
…and somehow contrived to write among the distractions of the city and the realities of the present: the war, the pot-boiling chores still necessary to earn her living; the political commitments she had accepted; friends who called unendingly to talk of art and literature, of world affairs and industry, and the personal problems of love, marriage, children and the state of their health — friends among the men of power in industry and radical politics; those whose names were to fade into obscurity; young writers who later achieved recognition; the known and once-famous, who drifted with the years and disappeared; the unimportant, insignificant, unaccomplished men and women who earned Katharine’s affection by simply being what they were.
Ric Throssell, (2012-05-23). Wild Weeds and Windflowers: The life and letters of Katharine Susannah Prichard (p. 120). Allen and Unwin. Kindle Edition.