BOOKS / Artists of the Lives: This extract from a new book considers 'The Future of Political Biography' in an anti-heroic age, and argues for nothing less than a literary revolution

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WHAT IS WRONG with British political biography? The obvious answer is very little. 'Read no history, nothing but biography', wrote Disraeli, 'for that is life without theory.' In a nation traditionally suspicious of theory, many people seem to agree. Since the 1970s there has been a remarkable outpouring of 20th-century British biography - characterised by close attention to unpublished papers, the more or less systematic use of interview and a large number of reference notes.

Yet biography is both the most flourishing and - in intellectual and cultural terms - the least confident form of political writing. A glance at the subject index in any library reveals the lowly status of the political biographer's art. Literary biography has an honourable, if meagre, place: political biography, apart from a handful of essays, almost none at all.

One reason why biography is so often dismissed is that it is a hybrid. Though firmly basedin the historical method, it frequently involves the use of psychology, sociology and much else. Unlike, say, a medievalist or a post-structuralist, the jobbing biographer is not an expert. Yet this should scarcely be grounds for an inferiority complex. For biography's most important relationship - and the one which is central to its claim to separateness - is with another literary form that is no less dilettante, yet escapes the charge: the novel.

'Biography is fiction,' Aneurin Bevan is alleged to have said. It is possible strenuously to deny the accusation, and yet tocelebrate the actual link of biography with what is, undoubtedly, its first cousin. In biography as, typically, in the novel, there is narrative characterisation, birth, love, death and moral dilemma. In biography, as in the novel, the author often succeeds by providing a central figure with whom the reader can identify. Many novels - from Jane Eyre to Ulysses to The Satanic Verses - are fictionalised biographies or, very often, only lightly fictionalised autobiographies. If biography combines academic disciplines, its authors often straddle cultural ones. It is a sign of the intimacy of biography and fiction that biographies are as often written by novelists as by historians.

Of course, there are also important biographers - though less frequently readable ones - who consider themselves scientists, pursuing knowledge about an individual with the kind of rigour that a microbiologist devotes to the study of a cell. Such biographers, in their insistent demand for evidence, set standards for the rest of us. Yet for all their belief that biography is about telling the truth and nothing but the truth, their dependence on the novel is greater than they appreciate. Bernard Crick castigates Wyndham Lewis for declaring that good biographies are like novels - his point was to criticise an older type of mellifluously written biography in which evidence was a minor extra. But that battle is won. Biographers need now to show their independence by holding firm to the historical method, yet seeking to emulate the novelist's imagination. It is truth that gives biography its poignancy - what Virginia Woolf called 'the creative fact; the fact that suggests and engenders'.

Yet that is the only difference. Everything else is mere convention, and convention exists to be broken. It is convention that seems to compel so many biographers to regard a life as a race-track, to be followed in a straight line from birth to death. It is convention which labels some matters as 'public' and others as 'private'. It has recently become a convention to see the biographer as a kind of super sleuth with a duty to ferret out, by fair means or foul, the 'whole truth' about a character. It is convention that requires the biographer, somewhere along the line, to make moral judgements. It is convention that seems to make so many biographers take on the role of literary nannies, alternately clucking at their charges for minor transgressions, and stoutly defending them for major ones.

The biographer is tied by the truth, and has a duty to seek it out and not suppress it. But that does not make him primarily an investigative reporter. Newspapers, publishers and possibly the public have an appetite for the new; but biographers should not confuse this demand with their own artistic responsibility. With many public figures, indeed, shortage of material is not the problem: there is often quite enough already in the public domain. The main job of the biographer is to tell a story that will make the reader happier, sadder, even a bit wiser. Here his purpose is no different from that of the novelist, and this is the only convention that matters.

Story-telling is the one consistent convention of biography, and it may be as old as language itself. We cannot consider the future of biography without a glance at a history that preceded the parvenu novel by millennia. Originally, all biography was propaganda. The first Western biographies are to be found inscribed on Hittite and Egyptian tombs. Biography provides the core of Homer, as of the Nordic legends. The Christian religion is based on four sometimes complementary, sometimes competing, biographies. In the Middle Ages, the lives of saints and kings provided the bread and butter of historical scholarship, and the tradition of uplifting, or exhortatory, biography long survived the Reformation. If Foxe's Book of Martyrs in the 17th century constitutes the vulgarisation of hagiography, the biographical writings of Isaak Walton provide its apotheosis.

Samuel Johnson was the first in the British tradition to suggest that biography should explore, and not necessarily praise. Yet, despite Johnson and despite Boswell, in the following century biography seemed to return to an older, reverential mode. The Victorian era was a time when the popularity of the massive, multi-volume biography threatened to suffocate the art with complacency. 'How delicate, how decent is English biography,' wrote Carlyle, 'bless its mealy mouth.'

The 20th-century anarchist was Lytton Strachey, whose Eminent Victorians and life of Queen Victoria exploded a large bomb beneath the decorous architecture of the elegant apologists of great statesmen, the Morleys, Moneypennys and Buckles. Yet Strachey's lesson has only been half-learned. The point about Strachey is not that he took the lid off the old hypocrisies, but that his work belongs to the author, not to the subject. Strachey's portraits are aesthetically confident. They are 'true' because they are wickedly pleasing. Strachey's camped-up Victoria with her middle-class habits and Highland passions is obviously not the whole truth. His Victoria succeeds and survives because it uses the facts as he knew them, to present a personality at once engaging and intolerable, who is both believable and symbolic of attitudes that needed to be challenged. Like the markings on the pyramids, it is propaganda, but propaganda of the best kind: it persuades us. The result, as Virginia Woolf puts it, 'is a life which, very possibly, will do for the old Queen what Boswell did for the old dictionary maker. In time to come, Lytton Strachey's Queen Victoria will be Queen Victoria, just as Boswell's Johnson is now Dr Johnson. The other versions will fade and disappear.' In my opinion, that, and not a proliferation of footnotes, is the mark of biographical achievement.

Strachey was a political and social iconoclast - whether he was a successful revolutionary is more doubtful. An important name in post-war biography is Michael Holroyd, whose own biography of Lytton Strachey broke down some of the barriers of reticence which Strachey had undermined. Where Strachey had hinted, Holroyd laid bare. Holroyd's achievement was to introduce private details, including hitherto well-hidden sexual ones, in order to explain, without diminishing, his subject. It was a major breakthrough, but not one which has changed the direction of biography.

Holroyd's Lytton Strachey - to be republished this month in an updated, rewritten version - is likely to be, and remain, Strachey, just as Strachey's Queen Victoria is Victoria. But (at least as originally presented) it does not make one feel critical of the Bloomsbury Circle in the way that Strachey makes us critical of the Victorians. If anything, it leads us to romanticise them. If the effect of Strachey's Eminent Victorians was to knock a whole mausoleum of Establishment idols off their pedestals, the effect of Holroyd's Strachey has been to inspire a succession of biographies of ever more minor actors in the Bloomsbury soap opera. What we have today is a new species: the warts-and-all hagiography, in which the warts are redefined as engaging quirks or even as beauty spots. Most modern biographies, indeed, for all their revelations of promiscuity and personal disorder, have barely departed from the Victorian, and medieval, tradition of praising famous men.

In death, as in life, public figures are jealous of every aspect of their reputations, and so are their executors. 'The widow and the friend are hard taskmasters,' Virginia Woolf wrote.

'Suppose, for example, that theman of genius was immoral, ill-tempered and threw the boots at the maid's head. The widow would say, 'Still I loved him - he was the father of my children; and the public must on no account be disillusioned. Cover up; omit'.' Robert Skidelsky, who is definitely post-Holroydian, makes entertaining use of Woolf's comment in the introduction to his own splendid life of Maynard Keynes. Keynes, he points out, had many widows - including a whole school of disciples, who had a collective interest in preserving his reputation and presenting him to the world in unsullied, heroic clothing. These guardians determined the choice of the official biographer, Roy Harrod, who conceived his role as that of an evangelist of the faith and of its messiah. In Harrod's book any reference to Keynes's homosexuality is avoided, and the hero is deftly rescued from his various financial and political scrapes.

Another example, which takes the principles of the academic school of biography to its limit and possibly beyond, is that of Philip Williams's enormous, invaluable, and in some ways magnificent biography of Hugh Gaitskell. Williams was a passionate Gaitskellite, who had spent many years actively fighting the Bevanite heresy; he was also a dedicated and meticulous scholar, who deplored what he saw as the casual use of evidence in Michael Foot's life of Aneurin Bevan. Williams, therefore, produced a book of great detail and erudition, in which every sentence is accounted for with a reference, and which contains a novel scholarly device - the two-tiered endnote. It is impossible to fault Williams's scholarship, yet his book is, in the outcome, quite as prejudiced as Foot on Bevan, and it casts a discreet veil over Gaitskell's private life. Curtly, in the preface, Williams explains that he is writing a 'political' biography - thereby absolving himself from any need to ask about his subject's private world. 'I think,' he writes, 'I have omitted no important influences on his intellectual and political development.' Well, that is a matter of opinion. We cannot automatically regard Gaitskell's relationship with a leading aristocratic lady, who mixed in high Tory circles, as irrelevant to his

thinking; especially as the Labour leader was, at the time,

involved in bitter controversies within his working-class party.

To press, with Holroyd, for lack of censorship, is not the same as equating revelations with good biography. Nor should we think that the unreserved biographer automatically escapes the clammy grip of the Victorians. Thus Richard Ellman's life of Oscar Wilde certainly does not spare his reader's blushes. Yet the book, paradoxically, is none the less a work of devotion. Ellman seems to take it for granted that his role is to defend his subject against attackers. In this he is out of time. Wilde, in death if not in life, can stand up on his own, without help from his friends. We live in an anti-heroic age: characters are more interesting, and hence actually more admired, if the author shows less anxiety to convince us.

Whether a modern biographer hides relevant facts or exposes them, he almost always sees it as his role to do as well for his subject as the facts allow. It may be protested, isn't that the gentlemanly way? Why else write a biography? If the object of biography is not to reveal the whole truth, and not to glorify, what is it? One answer is that the best biography - like the best play, novel or poem - must be the egotistical creation of its author. It is significant that 'portrait' should be the common metaphor. We have compared biography to fiction: let us now consider painting. The aim of the biographer is not to build an exact photographic likeness - that is logically absurd. It is to build an impression, using evidence as the paint. The impression should be recognisable and revealing; yet, as in painting, sitters, however grand, are in the end merely models, more or less idiosyncratic representations of the human species. Focusing on the subject, the author attempts to build, not a distillation of important facts, still less a logical argument, but a verbal image, using a pointillisme of detail and comment. The aim is to create a picture, not to display the paint. In the process of creating the image, public and private details will be mingled according to need and the artist's fancy. You do not leave out one colour altogether, because it might cause offence; nor do you feel a crusading urge to splash the canvas with scarlet, just because that colour is available.

In biography, as in portraiture, and as in the novel, the aim is not the abstraction of truth, except in the artistic sense, but the understanding of an individual life, the forces that shape it and the motives that drive it. If the quest is for truth, the biographer is liable to become diverted into an obsessive pursuit of sources - and biographies will get longer and longer, ad infinitum. But in the search for understanding, the biographer's and novelist's eye have much in common. As in the novel, the hero's life should be the focus of intensive study: yet also the vehicle for a wider observation of human nature and the human condition.

It is apparent that public and private facts cannot be put in separate boxes. Real life accepts no such partition. If it is relevant to a biographer of Churchill that he was a failure at Harrow, it is relevant to a biographer of Bevin that he was illegitimate and to a biographer of Lloyd George that he kept a mistress. If the quest is for 'truth' the biographer may decide to examine one category of truth, and separate it from another, and may feel a compulsion either to conceal or to reveal; if the aim is understanding, everything goes into the pot.

If biography is about 'understanding', it is both part of the discipline of history, and distinct from it. If, in the words of Carlyle, 'history is the essence of innumerable Biographies', and individuals are to be counted as significant for the influence they exert, then the interest of biography may be ranked according to the status of the subject. If, on the other hand, the Marxist view of history as the product of vast impersonal forces is accepted, then the truth-seeking chronicler of the individual has little to offer. But if biography is about understanding, then it matters little whether the subject is a prime minister or a labourer - provided the material for a story is there - any more than it matters in a novel.

The restriction is the market. Here the public differentiates sharply between novels, which can as easily be about dustmen or stockbrokers as about princes, and biographies, which have to be about the famous. Celebrity is the draw, quality is secondary. This market pressure helps to make the generality of political biographers valets to the famous, and - because the number of suitable subjects is finite - gives widows the advantage. But the limitation of subjects does not inevitably limit the imagination, and widows are becoming less prudish.

So what does the future hold? Publishers, reflecting public taste, continue to want orthodox lives spiced with colourful details, of orthodoxly famous people: the best contracts go to those who provide them. Meanwhile in universities, where many political biographers earn their living as teachers, academic pressure encourages humility, the thesis approach, an acceptance of the status of a disciplinary poor relation. Neither in the universities, nor outside them, does anybody bother much about composition, structure, shape, dramatic effect, sub-plot - kindergarten stuff for any fiction writer. Pick up any political biography, and you will find it built like a Wimpey house, with almost identical segments and proportions - as if, somehow, the Great Biographer in the Sky had ordained them.

If it is a cosy arrangement, it is also a risky one: biographers, I believe, are in danger of becoming complacent about their audience, public and academic, as our Victorian forebears were. We are in danger of regarding our activity as a minor, respectable branch of the public service. And our work, unless we do something urgently about it, is in danger of ending high on the shelves of second-hand bookshops - magisterial, dusty and forgotten. Yet biography can and will change, and may do so drastically. A single book could make the difference: what is needed now is a radical with the arrogance of a Picasso or a Joyce to smash our encrusted expectations. Such an innovator, and such a deliverance, may yet be produced by the present restless marketplace, in which the urgency of demand is met commercially, but not aesthetically, by the hectic expansion of supply. When the moment does come, the revolution will be rapid. It is possible that biography may then once again become the most advanced, instead of the most conservative, of the literary arts.

This is a shortened version of an essay in 'Frustrate Their Knavish Tricks: Writings on Biography, History and Politics', to be published by HarperCollins on Thursday at pounds 20

(Photograph omitted)