BOOKS

The biography battleground

Are authors breaching ethical limits with judgmental profiles?

John Bemrose October 31 1994
BOOKS

The biography battleground

Are authors breaching ethical limits with judgmental profiles?

John Bemrose October 31 1994

The biography battleground

BOOKS

JOHN BEMROSE

Are authors breaching ethical limits with judgmental profiles?

It is now more than 200 years since a dissolute Scottish journalist called James Boswell befriended the London critic and writer Samuel Johnson. Reputedly the greatest talker of his day, Johnson could hold forth so eloquently that his listeners readily disregarded his ungainly body and scrofula-scarred face.

Boswell took notes, prodding his friend with endless questions that sometimes enraged Johnson with their lively frivolity. He once asked the great man what he did with his orange peels. “Sir!” bellowed Johnson, “You have but two topics, yourself and me. I am heartily sick of both.”

Fortunately for posterity,

Boswell persisted. In 1791, he published his Life of Samuel Johnson, the most widely read and beloved biography in the English language. It stimulated a public appetite for books about the great and famous that has not abated since. Today, booksellers are devoting more shelf space to biographies than ever before, and literary biographers such as Michael Holroyd (George Bernard Shaw) and Richard Holmes (Shelley and Coleridge) are considered serious artists. This fall, a bumper crop of literary biographies has hit the shelves. Scores of massive tomes—books about writers seem inevitably to be thick—chronicle the triumphs, failures and, of course, the sex lives, of figures from Virginia Woolf to F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Verbal wars have erupted. In England, swords are currently drawn over a disturbing new biography of novelist Graham Greene that claims the author of The Power and the Glory was a devious sadist. And in Canada, Elspeth Cameron’s book, Earle Birney: A Life, (\fiking, 684 pages, $35) has evoked a picture of the poet as a confused and egotistical womanizer. At least one reviewer has suggested that Cameron did not go far enough in condemning Bimey’s behavior. But poet AÍ Purdy has lashed back at Birney’s detractors, claiming in a letter to The Globe and Mail that reviewers have turned Birney “into some kind of near-criminal, given to the sexual harassment of women, reacting violently to the slightest criticism, the model and replica of a complete failure.” The rising popularity of biography is mirrored in Toronto’s acclaimed Harbourfront International Festival of Authors, a 15-yearold annual event featuring readings and discussions. In 1988, biographers appeared on the roster for the first time: there were only six. This year’s 10-day event, which ended on Oct. 22, featured 21. Says festival director

Greg Gatenby: ‘When people read two or three books by the same poet or novelist, they often develop a hunger to know how she or he lived and worked.” Michael Coren, the Canadian biographer who acted as master of ceremonies for the biography series, points out, ‘You can enjoy a book without knowing anything about a writer’s life, but there are certain things you will not understand. You can’t understand Virginia Woolf without knowing something about her feminism, about Bloomsbury, about class structure at the time.” Several of the Harbourfront biographers brought disturbing news about their subjects. American scholar John Fuegi’s book, Brecht and Co. (General, 732 pages, $45.95), maintains that many of playwright Bertolt Brecht’s major works were largely written by three of his closest women friends. Fuegi claims that Brecht—famous for his support of Eastern European communism—was a self-serving chameleon with fascist sympathies. As Fuegi spoke of these issues during one of the Harbourfront sessions, several members of the audi-

ence became agitated. Asked one: “Can anything be salvaged of Brecht the left-wing ideologue?” Commented Fuegi, sardonically: “You can probably salvage something of Brecht for any position you want.”

The Brecht book reflects a growing tendency among contemporary biographers to concentrate on the darker side of authors’ lives—writing what American novelist Joyce Carol Oates has disparagingly termed “pathography.” In England, Andrew Motion raised hackles with his 1993 book about Philip Larkin, which exposed the poet as a bitter misogynist. But Coren, himself the author of an unflattering study of novelist H. G. Wells, views biographical controversy as part of a necessary winnowing process—fun in itself, and useful in the long ran for getting at the truth. And he upbraids Canadians for not, on the whole, getting excited enough about their own writers’ lives. ‘Take Lucy Maud Montgomery,” he said. “Thanks to her diaries, we now know she was not just a writer of attractive children’s books, but someone much larger and more complicated than that.” Coren believes that Canadian biographers should be scrapping over the details of Montgomery’s life—and that their feuds should be reported in the papers. Instead, what Coren calls “a deafening silence” surrounds the major biography currently being written by University of Guelph English professor Mary Rubio.

Meanwhile, hard questions are being raised about the morality of what biographers do. Is it possible to write with complete accuracy about another human being? Is it fair to judge people of other eras by current moral standards? And when does a biographer’s speculation cross the misty borderline into falsehood and slander? Those issues came to a boil in 1993 during the trial of

iz Janet Malcolm, a writer for The New Yorker § magazine, who was charged with libel by I one of her subjects, psychoanalyst Jeffrey o Masson. In a 1983 New Yorker article Mal| colm had attributed statements to Masson £ that he claimed he had not made. The case provided great entertainment for the public as details of Masson’s busy sex life emerged: he allegedly slept with more than a thousand women before he was 30. Malcolm, who eventually lost the case and is currently involved in another court proceeding to assess damages, has responded to her judicial ordeal with an increased sensitivity to questions of biographical morality. Her recent book, The Silent Woman, is a subtle meditation on the way in which biographers and the press have manipulated the case of Sylvia Plath, the American poet who committed suicide in 1963. In it, Malcolm writes that “the biographer at work is like the professional burglar, breaking into the house, in-

fling through certain drawers and triumphantly bearing his loot away.” Canadian biographer Don Akenson sounds a warning about those biographers who claim to know everything about their subjects—including what they are thinking. “We know nothing about what goes on in that wonderful black box that’s in the human head,” he says. “All we can really know is words, actions—behavior.” Certainly Akenson, a professor of history at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., has been discouraged from indulging in the biographer’s chief temptation—speculation—by the fact that the subject of his new book, Conor (McGillQueen’s, 573 pages, $34.95) is still very much alive. Now 77, Conor Cruise O’Brien has been called “the greatest living Irishman” by British historian Paul Johnson. A scholar, journalist, parliamentarian and biographer (he has written a classic study of the British statesman and political theorist, Edmund Burke), O’Brien regularly shows up in Irish polls as one of the most hated— and at the same time, the most re-

spected—figures in the country. Over the years, he has taken the unpopular stance of branding the Republic’s claim to Northern Ireland as a form of colonialism, and he has bitterly denounced both Catholic and Protestant terrorists. Akenson believes O’Brien’s incisive commentary may even, at certain crucial junctures, have “prevented civil war.” Akenson’s book has a feisty, attractive urgency, conveying the sense that he has met the complications of O’Brien’s personality head-on. (The author spent several weeks at the hard-drinking Irishman’s Dublin home— visits, he said, which “had important implications for my liver.”) Conor does an excellent job of tracing the development of O’Brien’s thought, and it delivers plenty of anecdotal evidence of his brilliance. In 1966, O’Brien met the American historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in a public debate inspired by O’Brien’s accusations that a journal that Schlesinger and some of his anti-communist

intellectual colleagues had run, called Encounter, was indirectly funded by the CIA. Akenson’s picture of the rapier-tongued Irishman demolishing his overmatched, cosseted, academic opponent is unforgettable.

Akenson is as frank about O’Brien’s faults as he is about his virtues. He calls him “vain” and makes no attempt to hide O’Brien’s love of drink or his quick temper. Judith Skelton Grant, on the other hand, treads more politely as she addresses another living subject in Robertson Davies: Man of Myth (Penguin, 787 pages, $35), her biography of one of Canada’s most admired novelists. The Toronto academic has produced an energetic, solidly researched narrative that can only increase the esteem in which Davies is held. Some of her best chapters chronicle his early life in Thamesville, Ont., where he was bom in 1913, and in Renfrew, Ont., on the Ottawa River, where he lived for six years after 1919. The extremely sensitive child of two flamboyantly cultured, hypochondriac parents, Davies found smalltown life an ordeal. He took refuge in solitary fantasy, and by the time he enrolled in Toronto’s Upper Canada Col-

lege, he had begun to develop that defensive, heavily mannered persona for which he later became renowned.

Grant has rendered a major service by making clear the scope of Davies’s achievements. Long before he had become, in his late-50s, the famous author of Fifth Business, Davies had already been one of Canada’s outstanding newspaper editors (at the Peterborough Examiner), a humorous social commentator (his alter ego, Samuel Marchbanks, was beloved across the country), a respected literary critic (at Saturday Night magazine) and a playwright. He failed as a dramatist, but as Grant points out, his plays helped prepare the ground from which his novels later sprang.

Grant hints at a darker side to Davies’s personality—he has endured depression, and she suggests that he has enemies who accuse him of sexism, elitism and a certain manipulativeness. But she gives little sense of how these qualities—or Davies’s well-honed persona— have helped shape his fiction. Is it possible that Robertson Davies writes the kind of novels he does in order to sustain his belief in the reality of his own mask? Readers will have to wait for later, more psychologically adventurous biographies to find out. Despite Grant’s obvious carefulness in the book, her relations with Davies have had their troubled moments. In the biography’s acknowledgments,

Grant thanks Davies and his wife, Brenda, for reading a near-final draft and correcting factual errors. But after the book appeared, Davies told Michael Coren in a Saturday Night magazine interview that he had not read it. And he added that others had told him that Grant “hasn’t got me.” Later, Davies told Grant that he had been misquoted. Their friendship survives, but it is obvious that the relationship between a biographer and a living subject is a kind of cat-andmouse game—in which each takes turns playing the cat. In general, biographers write far more daringly about dead writers—for, after all, the dead cannot sue. In Virginia Woolf McMaster University English professor James King has produced a bold, sympathetic and moving biography of the English author of To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway. The wonder is that King dared to write this book at all: in 1972, Woolfs nephew, Quentin Bell, published a Woolf biography possessing an elegance and subtlety that made it an instant classic. But King has ac-

complished at least two tasks that Bell left unfinished. He has deeply explored the connections between Woolfs life and work. And he has laid a just and heavy emphasis on Woolfs heroic, lifelong battle with depression. King traces Woolfs depression to her unloving mother and to her girlhood sexual abuse at the hands of two half brothers. He argues that these experiences split Woolf from the sexual side of her existence—in effect di-

viding her brilliant mind from a body numbed with terror. Woolf channelled her sexual energy into gossip and creative work, while her physical relations with her husband and lovers rarely advanced beyond kissing and cuddling. Just before a mentally ill Woolf drowned herself in 1941, she told her doctor, “I never remember any enjoyment of my body.” Biographers wield tremendous power. They determine how their subjects will be seen by the public, sometimes for generations. Some biographers handle their responsibilities more conscientiously than others, but all are driven by the need to make a compelling narrative. Travelling with Johnson in Scotland,

Boswell arranged to have his friend served a cold sheep’s head for breakfast—just to see what he would do. By modern biographical standards, Boswell’s conduct was outrageously manipulative. But he knew what all biographers know in their heart: it’s the good stories that sell. □