Biography tantalizes. Anyone who impresses us with their achievements, whether in the arts, the sciences, philosophy or politics, is the biographer’s target. Like children who instinctively take apart a new toy to see how it works, we want to know. What are the famous made of? Could we become an Albert Einstein or an Oscar Wilde if only the little confluences of our lives were in some way not dissimilar to theirs? Each year the biographies of important authors are published and sold, and while the learned lecture us that the best way to understand a writer is to read his work—and we sense the truth of this—all the same some lesser part of us wants to know.
Begin with François-Marie Arouet, born in 1694, later to take the pen name Voltaire. Satirist, the scourge of clerical tyranny, he led an incomparable life now brilliantly evoked in the soon-tobe-published biography Voltaire by Jean Orieux (Doubleday, $15.95). This is a biography written with the humor, elegance and skill Voltaire deserves. Son of an upwardly mobile family, Voltaire shocked his notary father by announcing at 16 that he would be a man of letters. “ ’Tis the condition of a man who means to be of no use to society, to sponge on his relatives and to starve to death,” declared his father. In nine cases out of 10 he would have been right. In Voltaire’s case it was simply to be in a condition of constant peril. In the France of Louis XIV and Louis XV the censor reigned supreme. The wrong thought could cost a man his tongue and two hands. Literary criticism was not an interesting argument conducted over wine and cheeses. It was a deadly game of pamphleteering that led directly to the king’s table—either at the palace of Versailles or the dungeon of the Bastille. None played the game better than Voltaire, or for higher stakes. Seeking protection from the fractured monarchies of Europe he played up to queens, courtesans and cardinals. He toadied. He speculated. He sought money, influence-and with it the freedom to speak.
The established church hated him. “Theology is to religion what poisons are to food,” he wrote. His enemies never forgot him, perhaps with good reason. (Author Jean-Baptiste Rousseau would show him the manuscript of his Ode to Posterity only to hear Voltaire remark that “I doubt if this ode will ever reach its destination.”) His own king would not receive him at Versailles. Louis XV never understood that Voltaire, the champion of the Enlightenment, had no desire to be ruled by The People—only a desire for an equitable rule of law to be administered by a wise king. Of course Louis XV might have sensed this would still exclude him.
Moralists, unlike Voltaire, are awkward people: they tend to thunder about abstract principles at teatime. Joanna Richardson’s biography Zola (McGrawHill Ryerson, $22.50) gives us a splendid example. The young Emile, victimized by a homosexual rape at age five, fatherless at seven and living in poverty with his mother for most of his teens, decided before turning 20 to become a famous poet. “I have no pity for the fate of the vanquished,” he wrote on one of the rare occasions he could afford a candle to work by, “when it is their weakness which is to blame . . . You achieve nothing without determination.” And oiling the wheels. As the publicity rep at a Paris publisher, Zola parlayed his position into one of influence. His career under control, the father of naturalism began to turn out the RougonMacquart novels that are the basis of his work: the “realistic” books that chronicle life in fin-de-siècle France.
In his personal life he enjoyed the prerogative of the accomplished and wealthy: breaking the rules. Zola’s faithful bourgeois wife was placed in one estate, and the peasant girl of his childhood dreams—and mother of his children—in another. But it was Zola’s journalism, rather than his novels or novel life, that electrified the world. Asked to look into the Dreyfus affair (the court martial and exile of a Jewish officer accused of treason) he did so, with some skepticism at first, and then with inevitable commitment. Dreyfus, he decided, was innocent. His famous newspaper essay J'accuse sent him first to trial himself on charges of libel and then, like Voltaire, to exile in England. Though Zola eventually returned to France he was never quite forgiven— which perhaps enabled him to join the distinguished ranks of those who didn’t ever get elected to the French Academy.
In the tidy Prussian world of Thomas and Heinrich Mann the flamboyance of Zola-style newspaper advocacy seemed unlikely. Born into the 1870s to a wealthy middle-class family in Lübeck, Mann père hoped his sons would take over his merchant shipping business. He was to be disappointed. By adolescence both sons had decided firmly on literary careers. The premature death of their father and the strictures of his will “to discourage literary aspirations” and guide the boys into more “practical” occupations were of no use. The South American Mrs. Mann sympathized with her sons, and after Thomas spent his apprenticeship at a fire insurance company writing his first novella, she permitted him to abandon commerce for composition. She was to watch with despair as her sons drifted quickly apart: Heinrich, the elder son, was becoming an outspoken Communist fellow-traveller, while Thomas held desperately to his apolitical convictions in the face of growing right-wing mili-
tancy in Germany. But the philosophical basis of their dispute seemed more a pretence for disassociation than a reason. Though his early novels would sell well, Heinrich would achieve real success only with Professor Unrat and then only secondhand: Joseph von Sternberg would turn it—and Marlene Dietrich— into stars in his legendary film, The Blue Angel.
With the events of the ’20s and the rise of Hitler, the two brothers united to fight nazism. By the time Hitler took power both were exiles despised in their homeland in spite of Thomas’ 1929 Nobel Prize. If Nigel Hamilton’s biography The Brothers Mann (Book Centre, $21.25) has much value it is in the thorough chronology of the brothers’ lives. But Hamilton’s personal sympathies for scientific socialism bog the book down with dogma and inconsistencies. Still, since he records the facts faithfully, the essential humanity of Thomas, author of the Joseph quartet and of Doctor Faustus,
emerges: to save a hostage friend he readily humiliates himself by an empty telegram of apology to the Third Reich. Safe in exile like his brother, Heinrich, the fellow-traveller, refuses.
Born in Bombay in 1865, his early years spent in a miserable and lonely childhood in England, Rudyard Kipling’s creed allowed for enjoyment of neither money, fame nor success. Writes Kipling at 24:
“Surely ’tis as selfish consciously and deliberately to work for that Trinity as to lay siege to a woman or
a glass of porter! Where I come from they taught me (with whips of circumstance and the thermometer at 110 in the shade) that the only human being to whom a man is responsible is himself. His business is to do his work and sit still.”
Kipling’s tales of India took London by storm. A half-blind, unattractive boy, looking far older than his years, Kipling’s bellicose words hide his poor manners and shyness. His brilliant verse, the appeal of the Just So Stories, the novels and essays bring him the Nobel Prize. But his disgust at the manipulation of politics, the betrayal of the British soldiers who fought the Boer War by a Liberal Parliament that reverses the war’s outcome while simultaneously gerrymandering the South African elections, turns him further and further away from democratic politics. He is no fascist, as Orwell points out in his brilliant essay on Kipling, but he becomes a man flirting dangerously with the fascist impulse.
largely by the cement of British rule, was accurate enough, at least in the short run. Lord Birkenhead’s biography Rudyard Kipling (Random House, $19.50) gives readers a wide enough selection of Kipling’s writing to allow them to see what was Kipling’s essential error. He failed to understand in his concept of the “White Man’s Burden” that people prefer—and have the right to prefer—self-government to good government.
In our times, for those who hold the categorical imperative dear, all moral and philosophical roads lead to Albert Camus. The romantic figure of the pieds-noirs in Herbert Lottman’s Albert Camus (Doubleday, $21), born in Algeria, brought up by his illiterate mother and butcher uncle, an impoverished youth, he has been revered-and reviled. Never free from the tuberculosis he suffered as a teen-ager, spitting blood together with his first philosophical insights, the 24-year-old Camus was expelled by the Communist party in 1937 for his inability to change positions with appropriate expediency. Camus had the moralist’s inconvenient belief in right and wrong.
As a man he was adored and pursued by women—as much as he adored and pursued them. His early marriage to Simone Hié, an upper-class Algerian girl addicted to high heels, cigarette holders, no underwear—and morphine-made them the beautiful couple of the community. Camus died in a car accident in 1960. Though he, too, had won the Nobel Prize, the author of The
Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger had his literary and personal life thrown into confusion and doubt by the vicious rejection of those he considered his friends. His courage in occupied France had made him a philosopher whose actions were never inconsistent with his words. His uncompromising stand on the evil of totalitarianism—whether of the left or the right—would make him enemies on both sides. And in the end this may have been his most important legacy.
The enemy of Voltaire had been the authoritarianism of the right. Down through the ages the spectre of rightwing repression and dictatorship had been fought by Zola, Mann, and their near contemporaries like Silone and Orwell. Camus himself had risked everything to defeat nazism. But by the time of his death with the red jackboots marching through Eastern Europe, it was Camus who realized the new enemy was from the left. It was ironic but true that by the ’60s it would be his onetime friend Sartre, and his followers, who would come to represent, sometimes unwittingly, the worst threat to the human spirit. Perhaps it is not surprising that habit and a long tradition of danger from the right blinded so many intellectuals to this fact. But Camus’ greatness was being stronger in his vision than in his habit. Barbara Amiel
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.