Dec. 30, 2015 5:33 p.m. ET
‘To be a biographer you must tie yourself up in lies, concealments, hypocrisies,” Freud wrote to Arnold Zweig in 1936. “Biographical truth is not to be had, and even if it were to be had, we could not use it.” Freud wrote this, doubtless, because for him the essence of life was in those secrets he believed all people harbor owing to the distortions of their infancy and the disruptions of their early childhood, which made for the necessary deceits of their later lives. For those non-true-believers of the Freudian gospel among us, we take what we can get in the way of biographical truth, always aware that even the most superior biography cannot be complete. Biographies may be authorized; they can be even impressively authoritative; but they are never, ultimately, definitive.
One hopes a biography will include what its subject has done to be worthy of a biography, what the world thinks of him, what his close friends and family think of him, and, not least important though sometimes most elusive, what he thinks of himself. All this might, with luck, render “the figure in the carpet,” as Henry James, in a story of that title, has a character refer to the authorial secrets embedded in a literary work. The biographical assumption ought to be that every life has a pattern—sometimes clear, sometimes hidden—that, like the design in a Persian carpet, gives that life its quality and character.
Autobiographers might well be more handicapped in telling the truth about their own lives than biographers. “Autobiography,” George Orwell wrote, “is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying.” “Know thyself” may be the first maxim of philosophy, but telling the truth about oneself is another story. “In any case, in talking of the past,” the novelistWilliam Maxwell wrote, “we lie with every breath we draw.” Yet one continues to read biography and autobiography because their subject is the most interesting subject there is: human nature as played out in the lives of extraordinary men and women.
A biography is an account of a man or woman from birth until death. An autobiography provides a similar account, without a proper ending, for no one, to date, has been able to record his or her own or death. Biographies of the still-living share this crucial flaw. No life can be justly judged until it is completed, for the gods have been known to enjoy a bout or two of Schadenfreude, and their favorite plot twist, as is well known, is peripeteia, or reversal of fortune.
I have been using the words “biography” and “autobiography,” but the new academic word for both and for affiliated modes of writing—memoirs, diaries, letters, blogging, instant messaging—is “life-writing.” The phrase first pops up in an extended essay by Virginia Woolf called “A Sketch of the Past,” her own scattershot attempt to produce an autobiography, which she took up when seeking relief from the pressure of writing her less than successful biography ofRoger Fry. “A Sketch of the Past” is itself an extended exercise in limning the difficulties of setting out the truth of any life, far from least one’s own.
“On Life-Writing” is the title that Zachary Leader has given to a collection he has edited of 15 essays on the nature, history and future of writing about others and oneself. (That hyphen in life-writing reminds me of a T-shirt I saw a few summers ago, across whose front was written, “Does Obsessive Compulsive Require a Hyphen?”) An American who has taken up an academic career in England, Mr. Leader is an anthologist and the biographer of Kingsley Amis; he is now halfway home—some 832 pages out to sea—on a two-volume biography of Saul Bellow.
The essays in “On Life-Writing” are mainly divided between those devoted to biographical and autobiographical writing. The quality of the essays varies wildly. Some are impressively rich, notably those ofJames Shapiro on Shakespeare, Hermione Lee on the meetings of famous writers, and Galen Strawson on whether lives may be said ever to have a coherent story or narrative. (He suggests there is no carpet in which to find a figure, leaving all of us in the condition of shag rugs.) Other essays in the book are covered with that magical dust only academic writers possess, which allows them to render unreadable even the most splendid of subjects.
One contribution, by Janis Freedman Bellow, the fifth and last wife and thereby the official widow of the novelist, is about being used as a character in other people’s—in this case, her husband’s—fiction. Mrs. Bellow’s essay is, so far as I know, unique in registering what it is like to have one’s life serve as fodder for a novelist, for she is plainly the model for the character Rosamund in Saul Bellow’s last novel, “Ravelstein.” She claims to have attempted to persuade her husband not to use her in this way. “Don’t do this to me,” she pleaded. “You misrepresent me. I’m not that woman: servile, prim, obedient. Is that the way you see me?” But on a later reading, she discovered that the novel is in part a valentine to her, for hers is the character that, in the novel’s last section, saves the novelist-narrator from death by food poisoning. Mrs. Bellow concludes that “Rosamund was never a slender figure” in the novel but an immensely impressive one, of whom her husband wrote: “Rosamund had studied love—Rousseauan romantic love and the Platonic Eros as well, with Ravelstein—but she knew far more about it than either her teacher or her husband.”
Creative nonfiction is another recent academic neologism, which suggests that the use of characters drawn directly from life in romans à clef might go by the name of noncreative fiction. Such writing, judged as biography, can be highly unreliable. The previous Mrs. Saul Bellow, épouse quatre, appears in Bellow’s novel “The Dean’s December” as a charming naif, preoccupied with mathematics, sweet in the way of the unworldly. She shows up later, in “Ravelstein,” as a villainous character, withholding sex and affection, ungenerous in all her emotions, leading her husband into a den of Romanian fascists. Janis Freedman Bellow is perhaps fortunate that her husband died when he did, leaving her with a valentine instead of one of his more traditional poison-pen letters to ex-wives.
The essay by Alison Booth called “Prosopography and Crowded Attention in Old and New Media,” about the treatment of women in biography, gives a clear idea of the simultaneous opacity and predictability of contemporary academic writing. (Prosopography is the study of collective biographies, notably as practiced by such historians as Lewis Namier and Ronald Syme.) A report on her study of the collective biographies of women, Ms. Booth’s essay does not miss a feminist beat, including mention of the “person-hours” she has put into the subject of her study. The by now well-established truths of feminism, long ago conceded, when relentlessly reiterated, come across as boring, and their purveyors, however righteous, as prigs of self-virtue. One might think that by now even the choir would be fatigued by such sermons as Ms. Booth provides, and not much refreshed by sentences that begin, “The diverse possibilities for large-scale textual analysis, including topic modeling and stylometrics, are beyond the scope of this chapter,” which is a real break for her readers.
Things pick up with Hermione Lee’s essay on significant encounters among artists, especially “the moment of an encounter which changes a life.” Hers is perhaps the richest essay in the book, featuring meetings between Puccini and Arnold Schoenberg, Willa Cather and A.E. Housman, Edith Wharton and George Meredith,Isaiah Berlin and Anna Akhmatova. Ms. Lee’s essay is a reminder of two distinct ideas about how lives progress. Some do so through sudden meetings and dramatic episodes, such as one finds in the novels of Dostoevsky and Conrad. Others, more ploddingly, proceed step by step through the acquisition of habit that breeds strength or weakness of character, such as one finds in the works of Dickens andTolstoy.
Blake Morrison supplies an essay on confessional literature, whose subject, as he nicely puts it, is “the worst things that people do, or—no less important—have done to them.” Confessional literature—memoirs of having undergone child abuse, of having had alcoholic mothers, unfaithful or incestuous fathers or husbands, of having been oneself an abuser, boozer or cruiser—is, in a nation of victims, very much à la mode. As Mr. Morrison, who has written revealing memoirs of each of his parents, points out, feelings dominate confessional literature, not ideas. Self-dramatization is integral to it, and the emotion-cleansing ideal of therapy is its chief reason for being. He concludes: ”If literature is the enemy of discretion and conformity, if its value lies in resisting obfuscation and euphemism by means of truth-telling, then confessional memoirs may be the truest literature of all.” For those of us who would deny that literature is any of these things and would as lief have our thumbs removed than read a memoir about incest, W.H. Auden’s advice about confession remains in force: Be blunt, be brief, be gone.
Patrick Hayes’s “Human 2.0? Life-Writing in the Digital Age” provides a defense of autobiography as it comes through Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging, blogging and the rest. A writer on the subject named Philippe Lejeune is quoted remarking that online writing “has constraints and resources that are just beginning to be explored. It is a new frontier.” Mr. Hayes gives examples of the use of characters who live through the Internet in the novels of Gary Shteyngart, Dave Eggers and Denis Cooper. He attempts to fend off the arguments of Sherry Turkle and others about the power of the Internet to “banalize and distract” us from the main business of life. The essay ends extolling the wildness of the Web, which as Kevin Kelly, the former editor of Wired, puts its, “smells like life.” In his final sentence, Mr. Hayes writes: “Seen through the lens provided by some of the more experimental directions in contemporary fiction, it also emerges as a place for exploring, regressing, fantasizing, and pleasurably losing yourself.” One has, I guess, to want to get lost.
“On Life-Writing” does not address the question of why we read biography and autobiography. In “Contemporary Biography” (1934), Mark Longaker wrote: “The present-day reader most often goes to biography because he is most interested in himself.” One gathers that Longaker meant that one reads biography in search of models of behavior, to discover the secrets behind the facades of public figures, and to compare one’s own life to those of the great and famous. An equally compelling reason for reading biography is that it can reinforce the belief in the power of men and women not only to shape their own destiny but to rise above what seem irresistible trends in politics, economics and social psychology to lead lives of dignity, elegance, achievement and sometimes even grandeur. Well-written biographies and autobiographies remind us that in the end men and women, not impersonal forces, are the true measure and motor force of history.
—Mr. Epstein’s “Wind Sprints: Shorter Essays” will be published in April.