There’s a review of Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike in this weekend’s Australian. It’s a biography which I felt relied far too heavily on Updike’s stories for insight into his life, unpicking the fictionalisation of each piece Updike wrote in an exhaustive and unilluminating way.
Yet, typically, in this review we get so little engagement with the biography itself. Instead, in this case as in many others, a review of a literary biography is a chance for the reviewer to reassess or recap the significance of the biographical subject. A review will draw on the portrait offered in the biography, and give some quick assessment on how good a biography it is, but it will not tend to properly discuss the book as biography. The concept of biography as a literary form is short-changed, and the significance of the biographer downplayed.
It’s understandable why this happens; it reflects the status of biography. Yet reviewing biographies as biography could be a major step forward in the development and recognition of the riches and potential of the genre.
In the first chapter of his biography of Charles Dickens (1990), Peter Ackroyd describes the death of Dickens’ infant brother and comments:
If the infant Charles had harboured resentful or even murderous longings against the supplanter, how effectively they had come home to roost! And how strong the guilt might have been. Might have been – that is necessarily the phrase. And yet when the adulthood of Dickens is considered, with all its evidences that Dickens did indeed suffer from an insiduous pressure of irrational guilt, and when all the images of dead infants are picked out of his fiction, it is hard to believe that this six-month episode in the infancy of the novelist did not have some permanent effect upon him. (18)
What are we to make of this technique, ‘might have been’? Probably, the ‘might have been’ will not be justified again (‘that is necessarily the phrase’) throughout the long tome of a biography. ‘Might have beens’ make for interesting reading – what is a biography without speculation? But ‘might have beens’ need to be made by a biographer who is fair and insightful and knowledgeable. (And I suspect Ackroyd has those qualities.)
Note also the appeal to Dickens’ fiction; every literary biographer does this; Adam Begley overdoes it in his new biography of John Updike, every scene from Updike’s life explained by a story or novel he wrote. It’s a dangerous business; so far Ackroyd does it in a suggestive and interesting way. But we’re all meant to know Dickens’ work, and he can refer ahead to characters like David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, etc – what of the writer people are not so familiar with – like KSP?