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Deep-Sea Fish

The art of biography

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

‘Biographies’, John Updike contended, ‘are just novels with indexes’. Character, structure, background colour…you can see what Updike had in mind. No wonder so many fine novelists have turned a hand to life writing: Penelope Fitzgerald on Charlotte Mew, Margaret Drabble on Angus Wilson, Sebastian Faulks on three subjects in The Fatal Englishman (his best book, in my view). But Updike’s statement better explains the reverse phenomenon — why so many biographers turn to fiction. It’s like being let out of prison.

All biographies end badly, and the senescent years usually have, well, a dying fall. Michael Holroyd, to my mind unarguably the greatest biographer of the modern era, once told me that a life-writer should look for three characteristics when picking a subject: good handwriting, a single-barrelled name (to facilitate raids on indexes), and an early death. Hence, in this last case, the popularity of Keats and Chatterton on the biography shelves. Here lies a major problem, then: one of structure, given that inbuilt weak ending. But must the book be cradle-to-grave? Few writers have had the courage to tackle other models, anyway. Hermione Lee most famously did in her Virginia Woolf, which is at least partly arranged thematically. Writers who have set out on this route, though, have generally returned chastened to base, reluctantly beginning anew with the boring ancestors in chapter one and ending with leaves floating over the freshly dug grave before Finis puts both subject and writer out of their misery. It’s just too hard not to follow the chronology.

Novelists wrestle with structure, of course, but they do not have to face the biographer’s second and most intractable problem: what to do when the material vanishes. How does one write about chunks of time in which you have no clue what your subject was doing? You wake each day longing to type, ‘And so the years passed…’ before moving swiftly on to the next block of action. You can’t make it up; you can’t invite the reader to take her choice; you can’t ignore the hiatus.

When I am writing about someone (two full-length biographies so far and many biographical essays), I battle daily with the biographer’s need to impose coherence, seeing so clearly that in my own life there is none. All I have usefully learned is that one must work out a way of conjuring the past without resorting to Updike’s fiction. In other words, although biography cannot invent, it can find other methods by which to bring a subject alive in the hearts and minds of the reader. I once spent many weeks in the tenebrous basement of the McMillan Library in Nairobi, reading beetle-chewed copies of the East African Standard circa 1925. I found the small ads riveting: did that sisal farmer think an Aeolian harpsichord would survive the climate of the Tana Delta? In another archive, in Cincinnati, while combing 1830s newspapers for references to Fanny Trollope (mother of Anthony, one-time Ohio resident and all-round superstar), I found notices offering rewards for specific runaway slaves. A detail can cast a long light, and this is especially true where there is an absence of material. Just as the seconds in one’s own life often count for more than the hours – even the years – the solitary detail can work hard.

Even when you have material it’s often wrong, or at least menacingly unreliable. Take the warpy reservoir of memory. When I was writing the life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard (infuriatingly double-barrelled!), one of Captain Scott’s men and the author of the 1922 classic The Worst Journey in the World, for the last restless decades of his life I relied on the testimony of his widow, Angela, a woman in her eighties who, like most of us, could not reliably recall what happened half a century ago (though she thought she could, she saw it so clearly). During the Second World War she and Cherry (as he was universally known) lived near Baker Street in London in a sixth-floor flat underneath Bertrand Russell, his third wife Patricia Spence, known as ‘Peter’, and their schoolboy son Conrad. Angela told me how Cherry, lost in the fug of what would today be called clinical depression, had become so enraged by the sound of the Russells’ piano-playing that he despatched his wife upstairs to ask them to desist. This was an intimidating task: a young, uneducated woman from the provinces issuing orders to one of the towering intellects of the Western world. When Angela havered, Cherry persisted, ‘I’d do it for you’, as if that situation would have been remotely comparable — he was a famous landed gent of sixty. Anyway, I wrote to Conrad, by then the fifth Earl, at the House of Lords, to ask if he remembered his grumpy neighbour. He did, and offered perceptive comments from a mature perspective. ‘But’, he concluded the letter, ‘we never owned a piano.’

In the absence of a primary source (a delivery note from the piano company), what is one to do? Had the now late Lord Russell not replied to my enquiry, the temptation to deploy unreliable memory as if it were fact would have been irresistible.

It’s hardly surprising, given the dilemmas endemic to the form, that biographers so often want to include themselves in their books, or, more particularly, to write a Quest biography. They long to tell the story of tracking the quarry, of haring down cul-de-sacs and of uncovering vital new material while searching for something else entirely. To them, after all, it is the most engrossing tale ever told. The High Priest of this beguiling form remains A. J. A. Symons, whose The Quest for Corvo (1934) is a biographical model that will never be surpassed. It’s hard to pull off, though Jenn Shapland’s 2021 My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, which weaves the stories of hunter and hunted, hugely impressed me. This tendency towards Zelig-style self-insertion has leaked into almost every form of what the academy now officially calls Creative Nonfiction. And why not?

Caro on Moses, Frank on Dostoevsky, Huntford on Nansen, Morris on Reagan, either Maurois or Holmes on Shelley: at its best, biography is the best, and Updike was wrong in his condescending dismissal. As for the problem of unreliable or non-existent material discussed above, an absence of sources is not necessarily a handicap. Hilary Spurling produced her brilliant second volume on Ivy Compton-Burnett from a half-full shoe box of engagement diaries and a few letters. For Barracoon, her groundbreaking life of Cudjo Lewis, Zora Neale Hurston had no written material at all. And whether you actually write about the quest or not, you’d better accept that although you think you are going to possess your subject, it is always she who possesses you in the end.

Biographies take wing only when they are released from the tyranny of the index. Those that stand the test of time combine scholarship with imaginative storytelling (Michael Holroyd’s Augustus John, David Cecil’s Lord M, about Melbourne). It might be a truism to say that the reader doesn’t need all the facts, he needs the fertile ones, but if so it is a truism with which many life-writers appear to disagree — I refer to the laundry-list model. Look at Carlos Baker’s authorised Hemingway. It achieves the impossible. It makes Papa boring. As Roger North, the eighteenth-century translator of the inestimable Plutarch’s Lives, put it, ‘What signifies it to us, how many battles Alexander the Great fought. It were more to the purpose to say how often he was drunk.’ The subject’s inner life is the one we care about. Now I come to think of it, a gap in the material is a useful metaphor for the inner life. Gaps represent the fundamental, immutable isolation of one human being from another. Whom do we really know? Each day the biographer wonders, why did my subject do that? But motive – mine, yours, everyone’s – is a deep-sea fish, blindly patrolling the dark unknown.

Sara Wheeler is a prizewinning nonfiction writer and broadcaster whose ten books include the international bestseller Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica.

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