Ruth Scurr’s exhilarating experiment

In my post of 6 March I discussed an essay by Ruth Scurr about biography that had just appeared in the Guardian Review. Her essay stirred up a whole hive of issues that the modern biographer should be aware of and needs to address. I found it deeply stimulating. Its promise has now been fulfilled by Scurr’s blockbuster John Aubrey: My Own Life, which I defy anyone not to be enthralled by.

Biographers like myself need to read everything that is coming out in the genre, in order to keep their ideas about their own work fresh and fermenting. I suppose the last very long biography I read was Steven Naifeh’s and Gregory White Smith’s Van Gogh: The Life (2011). It was revelatory in every sense and the amount of detail it marshalled imparted an ‘experience’ of Van Gogh’s life that was not less than visceral. The authors also discoursed on the wider contexts of Van Gogh’s life and painting, which gave their book multiple perspectives and depths. But the biography was traditional in the sense of being linear and told in the third person — except, of course, for quoted diaries and letters.

John Aubrey: My Own Life is a diary, but ‘constructed’ (her word) by Scurr herself from fragments long and short of Aubrey’s own voluminous writings, arranged chronologically. It is told in the first person. Formally, then, it is an autobiography. Yet, of course, one feels as one reads it that one is reading a biography, because one ‘knows’ that a third person is constantly at work here: Ruth Scurr herself, the author of last resort who may be invisible in the text but is alone responsible for the selection and ordering of the ‘I’-story. In a traditional biography, of course, the outside other is always there, telling, contextualising, evaluating, but in John Aubrey: My Own Life the outside other seems invisible.

This is what makes it so innovative and fascinating as an experiment in biography. Ruth Scurr has partly answered the question I posed in my March post — how do we know these are all Aubrey’s words? — by explaining in her introduction (p. 12-13) that she has used ‘as many as possible of his own words’ and by meticulously sourcing each cento in her endnotes. I found myself wondering whether the schoolmaster’s ‘cane’ and such words as ‘gravity’, ‘microscope’, ‘atomic theory’ and ‘romantic’ were anachronisms introduced by Scurr; but she even explains in an endnote that Aubrey was one of the first to use ‘romantic’, so I am reassured. If it transpired that Scurr had a major subjective input into Aubrey’s ‘diary’, it would, I fear, undermine the book’s sense of objectivity as a biography. It would approximate it too much to fiction.

The idea that the book is Aubrey’s and Scurr’s simultaneously is wonderfully intriguing; it adds a frisson to reading (and the story of Aubrey’s life is moving enough as it is). But the sense of dual creation is far from unknown in literature. Shakespeare’s history plays are creations by Shakespeare and Holinshed at once. A modern stage version of Three Sisters, for instance, mysteriously contains at least the voices of Chekhov and his translator. Whilst Pasternak was writing Doctor Zhivago, he wrote to a friend: ‘when I write poems at the moment, I always write them into this person’s notebook, Yurii Zhivago’s’ (i.e. they became Zhivago’s poems and formed the last chapter of the novel). These ‘second’ authors — Holinshed, a translator, Pasternak, Scurr — are textual Cheshire Cats.

Another beguiling feature of Scurr’s book is her repeated statement that she wants to create a ‘portrait’ of Aubrey. I don’t myself associate this word with biography, as a ‘portrait’ seems to me to be static (synchronic), whereas a biography has to move through time, the lived life of its subject (diachronic). However, Scurr has brought this off, too: the book is chronologically linear, i.e. moves, but definitely produces a portrait of Aubrey, i.e. stands. Aubrey is alive all the time on its pages, simply because he is the ‘I’ telling his life. Yet it is Scurr who enables him to tell this life — his own life. She concludes her Introduction with the words: ‘Ultimately, my aim has been to write a book in which he is still alive’, and she has succeeded. The very real risk of this book has paid off.

Even so, I find the questions that Scurr raises about modern biography almost as stirring and mind-focussing as her book. ‘How and why do we tell the stories of earlier lives?’ she asks. ‘What is the nature of the relationship between biographers and their subjects?’ ‘Do we honour or betray the dead when we write about them?’ She has obviously meditated long on such questions and has rich, sometimes anguished experience of ‘finding a narrative form that fits the life (or lives) in question’, as she expressed it in her essay. I hope that one day she will give us the benefit of her answers to such questions.

Reading John Aubrey: My Life and Ruth Scurr’s thoughts about biography has made me speculate about the Calderon project in a number of new directions, for which I am extremely beholden to her. Perhaps, for instance, the real theme of George Calderon: Edwardian Genius is the utterly unfashionable notion of Edwardian genius, which I think I have made a contribution to understanding. The unique nature of Edwardian genius certainly fascinates me as much as George Calderon himself. I deeply feel it has something valuable to say to us today. Perhaps a more innovative form of biography, then, would reverse the terms of the title to Edwardian Genius: The Case of George Calderon?

Also, the technique that Ruth Scurr found for her biography — pieces of text (centones), a discontinuous narrative (parataxis), real time, verticality opposed to horizontality — reminds me so much of what I have discovered since starting this blog, that I am now inclined to see the blog as a modest twenty-first century form of biography in itself…

Next entry: 6-8 May 1915: The Second Battle of Krithia

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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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