Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Posting Fool! The Biography

Wow, three posts in a week. I'm outdoing myself. Still no pictures though. Sigh.

After I finished writing up yesterday's post on Reardon's biography of M.F.K. Fisher, I began thinking about what a different animal the biography is from, say, the novel. Unlike the novel, where even when it's not about the author, it's ALWAYS about the author, a really good biography is about the absence of self. In the biography, the writer tries to step back and take a really clinical and hopefully unbiased look at the life they are chronicling. There were certainly passages in Reardon's book (and Moorehead's on Gellhorn) that had me raising my eyebrows at both women under study (neither of them would be in contention for a mother-of-the-year award), but the biographer really doesn't have that luxury. She/he can't roll her eyes and say, oh for heaven's sake: you take off for France when your daughter is clearly not mentally able to care for her toddler and you wonder why your sister--who has assumed your responsibilities--is miffed at you? The biographer just puts it down on paper and lets the actions speak for themselves. I'm sure that Ms. Reardon has opinions regarding Mary Frances and her too-apt tendency to throw her hands up and then board the next plane as does Ms. Moorehead--who was personal friends with Martha Gellhorn--and Martha's tendency to cut off long-term friendships with a precision and arrogance that is cruel, but neither of them let the self intrude.

When the self does intrudes, the biography becomes either a love letter or a hatchet job, neither of which is the stuff of good biography. I felt that way about the Muriel Spark biography that I reviewed, what, last year? Stannard was terrified and in awe of this woman and it came through on the page. He always had an excuse and an apology for her rotten behavior, which undermined what he was trying to say about her. I am at a loss to define Muriel Spark because her biographer wasn't honest with us. His self interfered. "Yes, she was imperious and demanding and often cruel, but, but, but, love her anyway," he begged. "Because I am so in thrall with her and I want you to be too."

I don't think we need to be in thrall of anyone. We just want to know what makes/made them tick.

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