James Boswell begins his famous life of Samuel Johnson by quoting his subject’s opinion “that every man’s life may be best written by himself.” Saul Bellow would demur. In Mark Harris’s biography manqué, Drumlin Woodchuck, Bellow goes on record that were he to write his own life, “There would be nothing much to say except that I have been unbearably busy ever since I was circumcised.” For such cases, the literary biographer is indispensable. If nothing else, he can add significant nuance to some reticent authors’ productive post-circumcision careers.
Novelists tend to be repulsed by and attracted to the literary biographer, who is both kindred spirit and antagonist, reviver and executioner, exalted Boswell, and the “lice of literature” (to quote Philip Roth from Exit Ghost). The literary biographer is a novelistic double whose diligent quest to flesh out a life mirrors the novelist’s “savage snooping calling itself literature” (again, Exit Ghost); he is also a monstrous interloper whose obsessive search for real-life parallels threaten the sanctity of the work of art, which in a world legislated by poets would be free from the insights — facile or penetrating, doggedly literal of irresponsibly speculative — of biographical criticism.
In her recent study of Philip Roth, Claudia Roth Pierpont notes the antagonistic stance of the famous writer in Exit Ghost as he “confronts a subject that had attached to his later years as inevitably and about as pleasantly as death: biography.” In that novel, Nathan Zuckerman is accosted by a young man, Richard Kliman, seeking to write a biography that will reveal a sensational secret about Zuckerman’s under-appreciated literary hero, E.I. Lonoff. Suspicious of what he calls this “rehabilitation by disgrace,” Zuckerman vows to combat Kliman and become “[t]he biographer’s enemy. The biographer’s obstacle.”
Roth portrays the “rampaging would-be biographer” in conspicuously virile terms; the hulking Kliman has the “tactless severity of vital male youth,” a youth and potency felt all the more by Zuckerman, who has been rendered impotent and incontinent by a prostate operation. But more often, fictional literary biographers are feckless ciphers pestering their elders for details long since forgotten. As noted by Penelope Lively in According to Mark, the “obsessive shadowing of another man’s life was one of the more bizarre ways to spend one’s own,” and such obsessive shadowing leaves little room for the cultivation of a forceful personality. A case in point is the self-effacing narrating biographer of Vladimir Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight: “As the reader may have noticed, I have tried to put into this book as little of my own self as possible.”
As the biographer becomes inextricably linked with his subject and surrenders his personality to what Roth calls the “insane rapaciousness of the biographical drive,” Nabokovian elements flourish: doublings, masks, farce, and meddlesome shades. This is an essay about how that drive manifests itself in fiction.
The “biographical drive”: to Eros and Thanatos is added a third (Boswellos? Biografietrieb?) that combines elements of love and death. The ideal literary biography is a creative, exploratory, and near-amorous engagement with an author’s life and work, a dance of “rhythmical interlacements” (Sebastian Knight). But the biography is also an elegiac, foreclosing, and (metaphorically) fatal document: “‘It’s a second death. It puts another stop to a life by casting it in concrete for all time,’” complains Lonoff’s widow.
In Kingsley Amis’s The Biographer’s Moustache, a young literary man on the make identifies a novelist “due for revival,” a term that speaks to the contrary impulses of the “biographical drive.” This “revival” breathes new life into a subject even as it provides him or her with an epitaph; a new life that also seeks to be definitive, that is, conclusive. Sebastian Knight’s narrator considers it his task to “animate” his deceased half-brother; by contrast, Bellow expresses his fear that “‘biography is for the man who is finished…I’m not finished, not done, not fini. I’m still groping.”
At its most basic level, the literary biographer novel plots the compulsion to ward off future intrusions of a “gossipy form,” as A.S. Byatt calls it in The Biographer’s Tale. Novelists expel their anxiety by satirizing those in thrall to the biographical drive, even deriving a small measure of sadistic satisfaction at turning the merciless biographer’s gaze back on himself. And thus in a series of satires, Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Lively’s According to Mark, Amis’s The Biographer’s Moustache, Nancy Mitford’s Christmas Pudding, and to a lesser extent Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (though that novel’s dominant tone is elegiac rather than satiric), the biographer himself is dissected, sometimes good-naturedly, sometimes stingingly. (Hollingurst’s biographer is of the latter variety, a “fantasist” and conniver who is subjected to a series of small humiliations and rebuffs all the while convincing himself that his presence is welcome.)
Apart from its defensive aspect, the literary biographer plot seizes on the messiness of the endeavor: the struggle between a biographer’s passive surrender to another writer and the intrusive combativeness of a biographical reading; the necessary critical distance from and equally necessary absorption in the subject; the literal-mindedness of a researcher looking for parallels between real and fictional worlds; and that researcher’s fanciful or creative reconstructions.
The airiest work in this tradition is Mitford’s Christmas Pudding. A humorless young man of rather “weak” character, Paul Fotheringay pens a deeply felt sentimental novel, only to have the public view it as an uproariously funny satire. Branded as a comic author, he turns to the high seriousness of biography. Now to find a subject:
It would be hard, in fact, to find exactly what he wanted, which was a woman of breeding, culture and some talent, living towards the last half of the nineteenth century, who was not already the subject of a “life.”
Comic logic being what it is, Paul soon finds a poetess, Lady Maria Bobbin, who precisely matches this description and also happens to be his “affinity” and “ideal heroine.” Hatching a plan to gain access to her diaries by disguising himself as a school tutor, Paul embarks on the biography, which he deems an “ideal medium for self-expression.”
Mitford means this as a joke, but like most jokes there is an element of truth in it: Lady Maria Bobbin is as insipid and as unintentionally hilarious as Paul is. Her diaries mix mawkish tributes to her infirm dog (“As I write poor Ivanhoe lies at my feet. Dear faithful beast…how dreary, how different this house will seem without the feeble, friendly wag of his old weatherbeaten tail…”) with reminders to chide the cooking staff for disappointing her gourmand husband, who eventually dies from chronic over-eating. Lady Bobbin is a subject as convenient for the picky biographer as she is revealing about him. Both she and Paul strive for pathos and so remain mired in comedy.
The comedy in The Biographer’s Moustache is darker. A young, mustachioed literary man, Gordon Scott-Thompson, determines that Jimmie Fane, an older, snobbish novelist with a slew of ex-wives, is due for a biographical treatment. (This despite being a “frightful old arse-creeper of the nobility,” a “toffy-nosed old twit,” and a “massive and multifarious shit.”) The aged roué sees the “irreducible gap in [their] respective social groupings” as a means to experiment on his middle-class biographer — possibly even goading him into an affair with his wife, which gives new meaning to the phrase “unprecedented access.”
The ensuing war between biographer and subject, sometimes passive aggressive, sometimes outright aggressive, involves a skirmish over whether or not to shave the titular moustache, an overdetermined symbol that brushes up against class, sex, and the biographer’s urge towards self-concealment.
An equally adversarial relationship is found in Penelope Lively’s According to Mark, in which the biographer comes to believe that his subject is “meddling in and manipulating the lives of others from beyond the grave.” Adhering to Bellow’s definition of biography as “a specter viewed by a specter,” Lively playfully gestures towards the ghost story, as does Nabokov in his similarly haunted tale, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. “Blundering biographer” though he is, Nabokov’s narrator, V., is buoyed by the “secret knowledge” that his half-brother’s shade is trying to be “helpful,” guiding him along a “private labyrinth” which V. is half following and half constructing himself.
Sebastian Knight, Russian émigré and playful English novelist, is a particularly friendly ghost, “laughing alive in five volumes” and looking down on his half-brother’s investigations into his curtailed life with amusement. Though he has up till then written “one or two chance English translations required by a motor-firm,” V. nonetheless resolves to write Sebastian’s biography in his brother’s adopted English language, the first in a series of attempts to mimic his subject.
Predictably, Nabokov smuggles the most into the literary biographer plot. Sebastian Knight is a Künstlerroman; family drama; treatise on exile and national identity; parody of detective fiction; benign ghost story; aesthetic tract; “biographie romancée;” critical exegesis; and a very funny account of professional rivalry and the narrator’s “clumsy efforts to track down a ghost.” As these strands converge, the distinction between biographer and subject ultimately disappears: “I cannot get out of my part: Sebastian’s mask clings to my face.”
Stuffed as it is with games, the novel is not without feeling. Like Sebastian, Nabokov “use[s] parody as a kind of springboard for leaping into the highest region of serious emotion.” V.’s quest is motivated in part by nagging guilt: “Why had I kept away from him so stubbornly, when he was the man I admired most of all men?” Part of the answer is revealed in a disarmingly candid revelation near novel’s end. Opting to take a train rather than buy a plane ticket to attend his brother’s death-bed — an economy which makes him miss Sebastian’s passing — the narrator explains: “I took the cheapest opportunity, as I usually do in life.” Nabokov’s biographer-clown must make this damning and affecting confession of emotional, artistic, and spiritual stinginess before fully losing himself in his new persona.
Alan Hollinghurst is hardly Nabokovian in style, but The Stranger’s Child is as shade-haunted as Sebastian Knight. Hollinghurst’s novel illuminates the erotic aspect of the biographer-subject relationship, the sensual thrill of coming into contact with any trace — marmoreal, photographic, or graphical — of one’s subject. Paul Bryan, the biographer, is actually “turned on” when he first sees a statue of his subject, Cecil Vance, a “first-rate example of the second-rate poet who enters into common consciousness more deeply than many greater masters,” and comes to recognize Cecil’s handwriting as if it were that of a lover.
The Stranger’s Child begins with the erotic immediacy Hollinghust does so well — depicting a burst of sexual and creative energy as the satyr-like Vance, seducing men and women alike, descends upon a family before the First World War. In the late 1970’s, Paul embarks on a life of the poet at a time when “outing gay writers was all the rage.” Hollinghurst reverses the standard investigative process of literary detective stories. He presents us first with the full splendor of the novelist’s feast — Vance’s “mad sodomitical past” as depicted in detail during the opening section — then shows how biographers labor mightily to gather up the meager scraps.
Nonfiction accounts of the biographical drive are arguably more dramatically charged than fictional ones. Paul Theroux’s Sir Vidia’s Shadow is the more sensational narrative of embitterment, but Mark Harris’s earlier Drumlin Woodchuck is a quiet marvel that is at once a sneakily incisive critical study of Bellow and a ruefully comic portrait of the artist as would-be biographer. In Drumlin Woodchuck, the novelist Harris recounts sacrificing his friendship with Saul Bellow to pursue his biographical ambitions. The memoir is a paean to Bellow even as it mercilessly chronicles his endless “woodchuck” tricks, that is, his skill for evasion, beginning with Bellow’s refusal to acknowledge a letter in which Harris announces his plans to write his friend’s life. (The title refers to a Robert Frost poem, the wily creature of which is never without an unobstructed path to safety: “I can sit forth exposed to attack / As one who shrewdly pretends / That he and the world are friends.”)
By his own admission, Harris comes off worse than his resistant subject. Arriving in Chicago (a “very big meadow”) and unable to find Bellow (“an experienced woodchuck”), Harris tracks his quarry to a steakhouse, where he has him paged; he impersonates him on the phone to his three-year-old son; insinuates himself with Bellow’s wife, from whom he has just separated; and fantasizes about having his subject cornered in jail, where he will be forced to answer his questions definitively.
Many scenes take place in cars — Bellow chauffeuring Harris, Harris chauffeuring Bellow, Harris speeding toward Bellow, Bellow speeding away from Harris — which is to say that Harris’s memoir literalizes pleasures and perils of the biographical drive. Of one night out in Chicago: “Well, this was more like it. This was it — riding along with my biographee. Things were at last going right. Off to a party together, talking, rambling around from topic to topic, joking, gossiping, interrupting one another with opinions, expressing prejudices.” Bellow soon ditches him.
“Biographers,” a friend tells Harris, “cannot be choosers.” The remark refers to the biographer’s duty to avoid becoming disillusioned with his subject at the first discovery of a moral blemish, but the epigram also captures the sense of irresistible compulsion in the visceral attraction that spurs a fellow writer to examine another’s life so assiduously. These subjects alter their biographers, influence them, toy with them, or absorb them. It is a game of possession, to echo the title of A.S. Byatt’s famous novel of literary detection. But if literary biographers are possessed by their subjects, they also possess their subjects in turn. As Nabokov beautifully puts it, “any soul may be yours, if you find and follow its undulations.”