Michael Holroyd: The second golden age of contemporary biography

From the biographer's acceptance speech, on winning the David Cohen Prize for Literature, at the British Library

Share

Facts are as complex as atoms and sometimes it seems almost as dangerous. It is a fact that our biographical subjects tell lies, a fact that their lives are guided by fantasies - often fantasies of the lives which, because of this decision or that decision, they haven't lived, but which still shadow their actual living and enter their dreams as clues and signposts to a parallel existence. And we, their biographers, have our fantasies too which, like magic carpets, can carry us through time and give our readers sympathetic access to people they have never met, people whose temperaments and opinions may well be utterly different from theirs, strangers they may get to understand and with whom they may even feel an intimacy.

Facts are as complex as atoms and sometimes it seems almost as dangerous. It is a fact that our biographical subjects tell lies, a fact that their lives are guided by fantasies - often fantasies of the lives which, because of this decision or that decision, they haven't lived, but which still shadow their actual living and enter their dreams as clues and signposts to a parallel existence. And we, their biographers, have our fantasies too which, like magic carpets, can carry us through time and give our readers sympathetic access to people they have never met, people whose temperaments and opinions may well be utterly different from theirs, strangers they may get to understand and with whom they may even feel an intimacy.

These days, biographers are more than mere information gatherers. Information is merely one of the building blocks of modern biography and autobiography, a raw material that we try to convert into knowledge - something experienced, that is, through the imagination.

Early in the 20th century biography was woken from its slumbers by Lord Strachey, that enfant terrible of our genre, and then, at the end of the 1950s, it grew to full maturity and sophistication with the publication of Richard Ellmann's masterpiece, his life of James Joyce. Contemporary biographers have been working in an extraordinarily stimulating climate - a golden age some critics have called it, a second golden age after that of Johnson and Boswell.

"No species of writing," Johnson wrote, "can more certainly enchain the heart by irresistible interest... We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, and seduced by pleasure." That is surely as true now as it was then.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Whitehall Editor: The spurious Tory endorsement that misfired

Oliver Wright
 

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband hasn’t ‘suddenly’ become a robust leader. He always was

Steve Richards
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence