Nicholas Murray gets involved in the debate about literary biography that continues to rumble 'round the 'sphere:

The always stimulating blog of Stephen Mitchelmore, This Space, is currently growling [correction: see Stephen's post below, he was not 'growling' merely demurring] at a recent defence of literary biography, citing Proust, who in his essay Contre Sainte-Beuve, attacked the famous French critic for his belief that the biographical method was the only one for critics. Proust disagreed, arguing memorably that his work proceeded not from the bundle of accidents that sat down for breakfast in the Proust household, but from "l'autre moi". Proust, it seems to me, was absolutely correct so how can I justify earning my living as a literary biographer? The answer is that biography cannot "explain" or account for a work of art but neither can criticism (more...)

The "anti-biographical" argument -- Dan Green of The Reading Experience has been doing much to advance a new New Criticism here! -- is against those who would claim that biography should be the first and foremost method of understanding a writer and their work. The argument has become sharpened because biography plus plot synopsis is the main method of reading and discussing a work that one sees in e.g. the Broadsheet newspapers or with a critic like e.g. Tim Parks. Biography has the virtue of contextualising a work, but biographical reductionism does violence to reading itself. One has to start with the words on the page. Any piece of writing is simultaneously about both itself and the relationship of the writer to the work expressed in and through that work -- so biography enters here, it has a place, but it should not be the primary prism. Biography should not be a substitute for careful rereading: rereading is the beginning of understanding, not scattered life-facts.

For sure, like so many readers, I can't help but be interested in the lives of those I come to know so little about via reading them. But I don't suppose I can understand their work any better just because I now know about their birth and schooling, their marriages and heartaches ...


Readers Comments

  1. Nicholas Murray Wednesday 07 May 2008

    Maybe it's all a matter of judicious emphasis rather than absolute prescriptions (or proscriptions). The key sort of question is: if we didn't know about Kafka's relationship with his family in Prague would we 'understand' "Metamorphosis" less well? The answer is probably No but, having the knowledge, it will be in our minds. We know (with all due respect to Shakespeare biographers) very little about WS but does that mean Shakespeare's work makes less impact than that of a well-documented playwright like Noel Coward or Pinter? Once again the question is probably no but other kinds of knowledge (theatre conditions and conventions etc) are genuinely useful in interpretation. This argument will run and run....

  2. I've a kind of related piece linked below, Mark. With any work of art, naturally all we have is that work. It is a universe of itself. Biography can certainly deepen our intellectual empathy, just as a novel or film set in our home town has greater possibilities of resonance. Strictly spaeking the biography is another work of art in itself, and we wouldn't start saying the artist's works help us understand the biography. They are separate books, each a universe of itself. Even this idea of 'understanding the work' as if it is a code to be unlocked, and voila, there lies its meaning... is an atrophied sense of the art experience. The utilitarian, causal sense of life- pure experience a matter of profit and loss, meanings to be acquired. And then one can move on to our next act of intellectual comprehension. A being trapped in a causal progression from A to wherever, rather than living simply in a present of direct immediate experience.
    I enjoyed Nicholas' Huxley biography very much, but i can't say I read it to help understand Huxley's works, more of a natural interest in the man and his life.An artwork is sufficient unto itself. Also reminds me of the wildl imaginative Victor Pelevin being asked what one or other of his pieces 'meant'. He responded that maybe they didn't mean anything.
    What they 'meant' wasn't something he was concerning himself as he wrote them.

  3. Andrew -- I like your "Even this idea of 'understanding the work' as if it is a code to be unlocked, and voila, there lies its meaning... is an atrophied sense of the art experience." I think that is absolutely right. This is an almost "totalitarian" drive -- to grapple and overcome the work, to conquer it, to tick a box and consider it "done". That, for sure, is a bad way to read -- but something, too, I think, that we need to be aware lurks somewhere inside all criticism / close reading.
    Reading is about levels of understanding: you can read and simply not read very well -- misunderstand things, get the 'plot' wrong; you can read more deeply and get all those things sorted/understood; you can then go to the next level and find wider metaphorical meanings which the work suggests to you; and then you can either get lost inside your own cleverness or you can abide with the work and allow it its own space.

  4. And within that space is where the true creative work has its source also- literature less obviously than music or the plastic arts, but still. And since art emanates from that silence, then the only possibility of 'understanding' in the proper sense of it resonating with ourselves, is to be as much of that silence or space ourselves into which it is allowed flow unimpeded.

  5. I find myself reading biography, memoir, autobio, interviews---anything I can get my hands on---whenever I dig into a reader that I really like. Once I get finished with the fiction, the nonfiction is a kind of natural progression. And on more than one occasion, the biography has ruined the fiction. Or: The biography has ruined the writer for me. Some writers are just terrible shits who write brilliantly. Sad but true, it's probably better not to know about them.

    Same thing goes for anyone, I guess. I challenge anyone, for example, to read Peter Manso's mammoth biography of Marlon Brando. I tried. It was pretty well done, but the details of the man's (hugely messy) existence were simply too exhausting. And twisted. And often gross.


    Interesting post.


  6. Nigel Beale Sunday 11 May 2008

    "Any piece of writing is simultaneously about both itself and the relationship of the writer to the work expressed in and through that work -- so biography enters here"

    Interesting string of comments, all of which I agree with. I'd only add that biography -- that of the reader -- also enters. That the importance of biography varies from work to work, and that the desire to read biography is directly proportional to the extent to which a writer 'speaks' to a given reader.

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