Monday, 5 May 2008
The Uses of Literary Biography
The always stimulating blog of Stephen Mitchelmore, This Space, is currently growling [correction: see Stephen's post below, he was not 'growling' merely demurring] at a recent defence of literary biography, citing Proust, who in his essay Contre Sainte-Beuve, attacked the famous French critic for his belief that the biographical method was the only one for critics. Proust disagreed, arguing memorably that his work proceeded not from the bundle of accidents that sat down for breakfast in the Proust household, but from "l'autre moi". Proust, it seems to me, was absolutely correct so how can I justify earning my living as a literary biographer? The answer is that biography cannot "explain" or account for a work of art but neither can criticism.
This is what I was asked in 2006 by the Buenos Aires Herald in an interview, together with my reply: "What do you feel is the strongest argument for biography, and which the strongest against the genre?
The strongest argument for literary biography is that it surrounds the work with a nourishing stream of relevant background information that cannot fail to increase understanding of the text. In addition, I think that the record of how a literary life was lived is always instructive, it has an intrinsic interest quite apart from its hermeneutic value. And let us be candid: we are inescapably interested in our fellow human beings. The case against has been put - with terrifying persuasiveness - by Proust in Contre Sainte-Beuve where he says that the life and the work are independent of each other, that the work proceeds from l’autre moi not the man or woman we meet convivially in the street."
I would add to this that Kafka (one of my subjects) and the beauty and transcendent mystery of his work remains above and beyond any explication based on his biography but that if we know about his Prague background, his Jewishness, his relationship with his father, his frustrated love affairs, his existential fears, we approach his work a little better-prepared, a little less thick-witted, a little more alive to its textures and meanings. It's a modest aim (and some biographers in recent decades have been very immodest indeed) but it is, I would contend, a perfectly decent one.