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Scavengers, vampires, grave-robbers, tarts - these are just a few of the choice epithets hurled at us biographers. And yet the biographies keep coming. And now we've gone one step further: books about biography are starting to abound, and here come two more.
Lives for Sale concentrates on the problems of biography, especially the moral problem of invading our subjects' lives. This is characteristic of biographers - when did you last read a collection of novelists agonising over the moral problems of novels? Yet they also use other people's lives; Graham Greene's line about writers having ice in their hearts was about novelists.
Fiona McCarthy reminds us that it is not just our subjects' lives we invade but other people's, and recounts one sad consequence. Lyndall Gordon and Andrew Motion tell wonderful, symbolic tales of biographical intrusion. Motion found Philip Larkin's letters to Monica Jones scattered all over their secret hideaway, as though Larkin and Monica had just walked out the door - on their bed, on an ironing board "with a half-ironed dress still draped across it". We understand exactly why he felt both "exhilarated and ashamed".
Gordon replays Henry James's story "The Real Right Thing", in which the ghost of a writer appears to his biographer. In the library at Harvard she opens a tall white box and looks down on James's death mask, "like looking into a grave". Like Motion she is ashamed, and speaks the truth: "What we do is morally indefensible." But she did not stop, and nor did any of the biographers in this book. Should they have?
No, surely not. If we cannot learn (at least a little bit) from other people's experience, what can we learn from? At least our subjects are dead. McCarthy's problem - the intrusion on family and friends - is more intractable. But I have a tip for them. Yes, biographers are as ruthless as all writers; but they are also vulnerable. If they're any good they're very vulnerable, with a necessary gift of sympathy. So if your friend's (or wife's, or husband's) biographer approaches you, do not refuse to see them. Meet them, befriend them, and they will be unable to ignore your living human claims.
The other problems rehearsed in Lives for Sale are technical ones: the unreliability of memory (Sara Wheeler), the ambiguity of documents (Lucasta Miller), the difficulty of estates (Jeremy Lewis), all of which also make terrific tales. But the one that spawns the best stories is the biographer's strange love affair with the dead: the longing to be the only one (Frances Wilson), the hopes and fears of an almost supernatural connection (Hilary Spurling, Kathryn Hughes, Miranda Seymour, Margaret Forster, as well as Gordon.)
They are all very aware of the danger, the narcissism that could unbalance one, or, worse, one's book. But held at the right distance, this sense that death has been banished is the best achievement of the best biographies - even, sometimes, for those invaded families, as Hilary Spurling's account of the Misses Compton Burnett movingly shows.
Biography is a British art. France and Germany have long biographical traditions, but largely as scholarly study, emerging only occasionally into general literature. In the US the two traditions have merged, with biography widely read, but mostly written by academics.
Hermione Lee belongs to that merged tradition, being a distinguished professor as well as biographer. She is, therefore, the perfect person to analyse biography, as opposed to posting anecdotes from the coal-face.
Lee's first question about biography is captured in her title and her first essay, which recounts the battle between Shelley's widow and friends over his heart. The question of who owns someone's death is, of course, the question of who owns the life. The family (Mary Shelley)? The friends (Trelawny and Hunt)? The biographer (Trelawny again) and posterity? Lee plays out the question in stories of war, over Hardy's heart as well as Shelley's, and over Thomas More's head, Napoleon's penis, Einstein's brain, Yeats's bones.
Her second question is related: how to cope with competing versions of a life, which occur not only because witnesses differ, but because biographers do. In essays on Jane Austen and the Gosses, father and son, she shows how different biographers come to opposite conclusions from the same evidence - even sometimes the same biographer, such as Anne Thwaite, who changed her mind about Edmund Gosse when she came to write about Philip. All this is fascinating, as is Lee's response to the distortions of Virginia Woolf in The Hours (both book and film), and to the fact that our image of Woolf is now fixed by these fictions, rather than by biography. She is philosophical: it matters, because accuracy to a real life is a moral responsibility, even in fiction; but it doesn't matter, because this version won't last either.
The third question is related too: given that the facts of a life are inevitably incomplete, how much responsibility do we have to stick to them, resisting both dramatic myths and our own theories? Here Lee is firm: the biographer must distinguish fact from fiction, as Judith Thurman does with Colette, or Richard Holmes with the death of Shelley. She just about forgives Thurman for forcing Colette onto the procrustean bed of a single interpretation, because she finds it convincing. But with biographers such as John Halperin on Jane Austen, or Carole Seymour-Jones on the first Mrs TS Eliot, who seem to her to distort the evidence, she is unforgiving. On the other hand, she is keen on the postmodern notion of the fluidity of identity, quoting Henry James on the living person as a "swarm of possibilities", which biography often closes down.
Here the theorist in Lee prevails, and I part company with her. We are "swarms of possibilities" only in childhood and youth; it is life that closes them down, not biography. What remains uncertain is not our identity but our knowledge of it. That is never complete, because the evidence is never complete.
But it is there; and it is legitimate to conclude as much as the evidence will bear. So what a great biographer like Claire Tomalin looks for are "the stories in someone's life". You must weed out the false ones in the evidence, and make your own as true as you can; but if you think that in principle no story can be told, you shouldn't be writing a book. The only way to show that a witness is unreliable is to adduce another; similarly, the only answer to a bad interpretation is a better interpretation, not no interpretation at all.
This is, in practice, the principle Lee follows, as when she prefers Judith Thurman's thesis to Carole Seymour-Jones's. So we agree after all, though I think Seymour-Jones's book is better than Lee allows, and it's bad luck on her to have her worst review preserved between hard covers. There's bad luck for me too, in Lives for Sale, which preserves a nasty piece about me by a rival biographer. Naturally, not a word of it is true.
Carole Angier's 'Primo Levi: the Double Bond' is published by Penguin
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