A life devoted to the English vice

A taste for biography is not idiosyncratic, it is an essential comoponent of our national culture
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
NO ENTENTE cordiale has ever been reached with the French to establish what, exactly, the English Vice actually is. According to which authority you read, it might, historically, be hypocrisy or flagellation, though neither pastime seems a uniquely English preoccupation any longer, and I doubt they ever were.

Perhaps a more convincing candidate for the national vice, in French eyes, might be the creeping Anglo-Saxon culture of the free market and laissez-faire, a phrase French only in the most literal sense, and over which vast quantities of commentary have been spilled in recent years, to little effect. But I want to propose an odder candidate for the title of le vice Anglais; something which must, surely, seem extremely strange to Europeans, and which they have a tendency to look down on.

I am thinking of the taste for biography. It looks, at first, like a minor idiosyncrasy, but it reflects on a larger tendency in national life in Europe; a deplorable tendency, which we have managed to avoid, to let the intellectual life of the nation be directed by intellectuals of the most absurd and foolish sort. There can hardly be any other explanation for the curious fact that the taste for the popular, literate biography is a British phenomenon.

I've been reading Hilary Spurling's superb new biography of Matisse. It is full of surprises and revelations, but one of the biggest, and oddest, comes in the preface. Apparently, hers is the first biography of the artist, ever. Despite Matisse's huge popularity and his present position at the centre of 20th-century art, no-one has considered writing his life in any serious way until now.

The assumption that it was a dull and uneventful life hardly stands up to examination. No French writer thought it worth considering, and so, luckily for us, it has passed into Hilary Spurling's patient hands. The story, however, does not quite end there. Though Spurling's Matisse has found a publisher in France, biography is, on the whole, one of the most difficult of literary genres to sell abroad. It is not uncommon for a biography of, let us say, a great French or German writer to sell extremely well here, and still be rejected by every French or German publisher.

Not on the grounds that there is already a serious biography, written not by an Englishman, but by a compatriot of the subject; almost invariably, the response in Europe is "Nobody here is interested in biography; nobody would buy it; it is not a serious genre". And so lives of Flaubert, or Thomas Mann, continue to be written by Englishmen, in English, and remain in English.

The fascination with biography is a distinctly British phenomenon. Although itis a classical form, in modern times the form was defined by the greatest of the genre, Boswell's Life of Johnson.

And since then it has never stopped fascinating the reading public in England, and, unlike literary criticism, it has a reasonable chance of surviving; Mrs Gaskell's Charlotte Bronte, J T Smith's Nollekens, De Quincey's or Strachey's biographical essays continue to be read even when better- informed or more scrupulous biographers come on the scene. But there is very little in Europe to compare with this rich tradition, or anything which resembles the long shelves of biographical writing in any English bookshop or library. Here it is taken for granted.

I do not think we need seek for reasons why the English like biography; it is the simplest and most engaging of stories. But the question of why Europeans do not seem to like it is a curious one.

I cannot help thinking that it has a great deal to do with the stranglehold the intellectual elite hold over European life. For most of the century, academic theorists have been assuring the world that the life of an artist or writer has no relation to his work and is unworthy of serious study. Here, thankfully, we take very little interest in this argument and have come to the conclusion that sometimes the life is of relevance, and sometimes not, but is more often than not of considerable interest to the reader.

If it were just a matter of national taste, then it would hardly matter. But there is, surely, a link between the downgrading of the central, humane and rich tradition of the biography in France and Germany and the current poverty-stricken, feeble nature of their imaginative writing. A national culture not interested in the individual human life can hardly be expected to produce a great novel.

Perhaps we might start to wonder whether, whatever le vice Anglais is, the vice of Continental Europeans is to believe what they are told.

Comments