When I interviewed Edmund White for a newspaper profile, that supremely gifted photographer Jane Bown came along to take the pictures. In a swift stroke of impromptu genius,she turned the straggly greenery behind a London hotel patio into an antique bower, with White as a sprite – half-Puck, half-Pan – grinning out from between the leaves. If mayhem and upheaval often follow in his spirit's wake, then their passage will leave, beyond the heartbreak and bewilderment, happiness and even some hilarity behind.
It was Private Eye's anonymous critic, reviewing a Yann Martel novel, who warned of the dangers of writing about animals and allegory. He (or she) could usefully have gone on to advertise some of the perils of writing a biography of a living person. First, there is the problem of getting the subject on your side and keeping him there, never mind the threat to your objectivity that this relationship may nurture. Then there is the task of cajoling people who know him (who may regard the enterprise as a vanity project) to talk. Finally, there is the thought that most of your conclusions will necessarily be provisional, as the person may have two or three decades of vigorous existence still to live.