A biographer in-spires

I have just read a long article by Ruth Scurr, ‘Lives, some briefer than others’, in last Saturday’s Guardian Review (28 February), which I thoroughly recommend to followers if they can get it, along with a piece by Stuart Kelly, ‘Enter John Aubrey’, which can be accessed through the TLS Blog link on the right (go to ‘More recent pieces from the TLS’). Both articles arise from the imminent publication of Ruth Scurr’s ‘biography’ of Aubrey, John Aubrey: My Own Life.

I may have missed something, but it seems to me that Scurr’s essay is the most wide-ranging and stimulating contribution to the subject of modern biography to have appeared in the British press since a piece by Michael Holroyd about ten years ago. As Scurr says, ‘biography is an art form open to constant experiment’; to stay alive, it has to keep reinventing itself. Holroyd’s view, as I remember it, was that biography had to move closer to the novel and that’s what readers wanted. At the time, I was actually contemplating a novel about George and Kittie Calderon entitled Golden Square. This was because although I had access to all their extant papers, there was still a huge amount I would have to imagine, wanted to imagine, and I thought their story more ‘human’ than ‘biographical’. As more and more documentary evidence emerged, however, the balance in my mind shifted. Even so, in the past seven months two followers of this blog, perhaps beguiled by the runs of days when I can tell the Calderons’ story in ‘real time’, have asked me whether I have ever thought of writing such a novel.

Scurr’s essay is positively inspiring, at least to this biographer, because it touches on one vibrant issue of biography after another; issues that whizz around in your head as a practising biographer but perhaps have ne’er been so well expressed. I can’t address many today, but here are a few.

‘Novelists can write what they want to happen,’ Scurr says, ‘but biographers must write what actually happened.’ This may seem trite, but it isn’t. ‘All biography is fiction,’ Donald Rayfield wrote of his monumental life of Chekhov. I found this a worrying thought as I read it, but literarily, formalistically, it’s indisputable (he added: ‘but fiction that has to fit the documented facts’). As I have said in this blog several times, I try to write George’s life ‘in real time’ as though it is happening, which for stretches perhaps brings it close to a novel, a work of fiction. I rejected footnotes for that very reason. But of course everything in it still has to be evidenced from the past. It is all too easy to forget that. For instance, it was an informed guess that George moved back to Brockhurst on 3 March 1915, it is speculation that whilst he was convalescing he worked on the synopsis of Tahiti that would enable Kittie to publish the book if he didn’t return from the war, and it is pure speculation that he did nothing after 4 August 1914 about finding a producer for The Brave Little Tailor. Those are examples from just the last week’s posts! How right Scurr is to remind us of Defoe’s warning against ‘a sort of lying that makes a great hole in the heart at which, by degrees, the habit of lying enters in’ — in other words, against appropriating your subject’s life so much that it becomes fiction. The chance discovery some months ago of a pocket diary of George’s for 1907 completely blew away several assumptions about events in his life that I had already written into my biography of him.

It is because readers do want ‘the true facts’ of a person’s life, whether out of sheer curiosity or for extraneous purposes, that there will always be a demand for the ‘traditional’, ‘linear’, ‘boring’ biography. And what is wrong with that? It still has to be written well enough for the reader to want to turn the pages. But I have to say that for me these words of Scurr’s come closer to home: ‘The fundamental problem is always the same: how to find a narrative form that fits the life (or lives) in question.’ Personally, I found the narrative form of George Calderon: Edwardian Genius through what I call, quoting a poem of Graves, the ‘tourbillions of Time’ in Calderon’s relatively short life. If ‘editors’ aren’t going to like the fact that there are two more chapters after George’s disappearance at Gallipoli, they are going to like even less that he hardly features in the first chapter, that his story starts in 1898, flashes back to Russia 1895-7, then 1868-95, then returns to 1897-1906, then there is a set of chapters that are really thematic (synchronic), then the last three are purely linear (diachronic)…

Here are some more warning words of Scurr’s that I agree with: ‘Like scholars who have “mastered” a particular topic or archive, the biographer can come to feel he or she owns their subject.’ As I said in my post about the American biographer Park Honan (21 December 2014), I believe biography is an act of intense empathy, but you have to come out of the other’s self again to write the biography. Further, ‘if there is no such thing as a definitive biography,’ writes Scurr, ‘there might at least be a groundbreaking one, offering something that has never been seen or heard before. It is in the hope of thwarting such life-hunters that people resort to burning letters and journals.’ Oh dear, there is certainly a suspicion in my mind that that is why Kittie willed so many of her letters and George’s papers to be burned. Perhaps she intended Percy Lubbock’s 1921 George Calderon: A Sketch from Memory to be ‘definitive’, literally the last word?

Inevitably, one will not agree with everything Scurr says. She begins by talking of Aubrey’s ‘child’ being ‘the publishing phenomenon of our time’ and suggests it is outselling history in the bookshops. But this is true only sensu lato. To claim it, she elasticates ‘biography’ to include autobiography, memoir, celebrity stories and ‘innovative books such as Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk‘. Nothing in this world or the next, I believe Eliot said, is a substitute for anything else. ‘Biography’ is a genre — ‘traditional’, ‘starting at the beginning’, ‘linear’, ‘boring’ — and autobiography, memoir, celebrity stories, faction, are other genres of their own. The challenge is to develop and deepen the genre ‘biography’, possibly by hybridization, but not to pretend it includes other, discrete genres. In my next post I will touch on why biography sensu stricto is actually not all over the bookshops and in publishing terms, I believe, is almost at a standstill.

Scurr says that her John Aubrey: My Own Life, which is published by Chatto on 12 March, is ‘written as a diary’. This suggests it is a work of fiction. But perhaps it is ‘fiction that has to fit the facts’, as Rayfield put it. Judging by Kelly, who has evidently read it, Scurr’s ‘centoic, diaristic method’ actually employs only Aubrey’s own words, taken from the vast corpus of his writings. But how do we know?! Presumably Scurr explains that in a preface. Similarly, can a biography sensu stricto be written not in the third person? If it is written in the first person, is it not by definition subjective? Where is the sense of objective factual detail, contextualisation, evaluation; of the outside ‘other’ who is the biographer? Doubtless all these questions will be resolved when we have read Scurr’s ‘biography’ of Aubrey, which clearly we must rush out to buy.

Next entry: Who was George Calderon (again)?

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About Patrick Miles

I am a writer who specialises in Anton Chekhov and is writing a biography of George Calderon.
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