Time and the biographer

I have received a long and very interesting letter from John Dewey, author of the superb Mirror of the Soul: A Life of the Poet Fyodor Tyutchev (2010), commenting on my various posts over the last three months that touch on biographical matters. For information on this biography and John Dewey’s translations of Tyutchev, go to http://www.tyutchev.org.uk .

There is a resemblance between Dewey’s predicament as a biographer and mine in that ‘nobody knows who Fyodor Tyutchev is’, just as ‘nobody knows who George Calderon is’. There the resemblance ends, however, since Fyodor Tyutchev is actually Russia’s greatest poet after Pushkin! It is only in the West that comparatively few people have heard of him. Amazingly enough, now I think of it, in 1971 I was going to do a Ph.D. comparing Tyutchev with Samuel Coleridge, before Chekhov’s plays grabbed me.

On the question of how long one should take writing a full-length biography, Dewey writes: ‘Like you, when I started on the Tyutchev biography in earnest in 1999 I was aiming to complete in time for a significant anniversary (the 2003 bicentenary of his birth). This proved to be hopelessly optimistic, and in the event the project took the decade which, as you point out, Park Honan customarily found necessary’ (see my post of 21 December 2014). Most interesting!  But Mirror of the Soul is magisterial, exhaustive, and looks pretty definitive to me, which I can’t possibly claim for my biography of George. Dewey explains the stretching of his biographer’s clock thus: ‘It was not only because the material seemed to grow and grow, but because there were several frustrating unknowns regarding Tyutchev’s life and certain individual poems which I became obsessively determined to solve if at all possible. And I’m sure you’d agree that detective work of this kind is actually one of the secret pleasures of writing a biography.’

Certainly. However, I simply have to say that my biographer’s clock, or fuse, is shorter. I couldn’t contemplate spending ten years writing a biography, mainly for the reason I gave in my post about Honan: I need my own self back. I have written academic books, which generally took three years from start to publication, but I couldn’t face ten years and that is why George Calderon: Edwardian Genius is not footnoted, and not told as a scholarly linear narrative. I suppose what always made me want to write about George was his extraordinary life and personality, his ‘otherness’, and that’s really what drives me on to tell his and Kittie’s story. In a way, my book is not so much a chronology as a psychology. I will write more about this on another day, in connection with Ruth Scurr’s self-avowed ‘deep fascination with how and why we tell the stories of earlier lives’.

John Dewey also writes: ‘I was particularly struck by your discussion of a biographer’s feelings on reaching the death of his/her subject. Like you I experienced a mixture of relief and sadness at that point, and have often wondered since if this is typical. […] Your identification of the different “times” involved hadn’t occurred to me and is most illuminating’ (see my post of 9 February). If only! I still can’t rationalise this experience, but was extremely interested to read of Dewey’s own. I keep wondering if the most obvious explanation isn’t the most plausible: that we have grown very close to this person we have been writing about, and when he/she dies in the text one part of our brain triggers the ‘grief response’ but another part of the brain knows the person hasn’t ‘really’ died… I shall say more about the problem next week.

Finally, Dewey has just read A.N. Wilson’s ‘magnificent biography of Tolstoy, having thought beforehand that as a novelist he might take a novelistic approach [see my post of 6 March on Ruth Scurr’s essay “Lives, some briefer than others”]. In fact he does not, but rather deals with Tolstoy as one novelist discussing the life and work (incomparably greater, as he would be the first to admit) of another. It’s full of brilliant insights and delightfully ironic comments — highly recommended’. Wilson has to deal with what Stuart Kelly in his TLS piece about Ruth Scurr’s Aubrey ‘biography’ called the ‘Damascus Quandary’, i.e. why a person (in this case Tolstoy) suddenly rejects their past and radically reorients themselves. ‘Wilson gives some very convincing answers’, writes Dewey. ‘I had to confront a similar problem with Tyutchev, who seems eventually to have prized his Panslavist political writings above his lyrical verse, but I can’t say I managed to come up with a coherent explanation.’

There are ‘nervous prostrations’ in George Calderon’s life but not, I think, a single ‘Damascene Moment’, and hence no ‘Quandary’ for me as his biographer. Rather, most people seem to feel that the quandary is: why does Calderon appear to have radically reoriented himself so many times — from barrister to Russianist to short-story writer to novelist to anthropologist to dramatist to political activist to balletomane to soldier to… death? What, to rephrase Virginia Woolf in The Waves, is ‘the thing that lies beneath the difference of the thing’? That is the mystery in George’s case.

I am extremely grateful to John Dewey for such a stimulating letter.

Next entry: Weekend work: ‘The Lamp’

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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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