"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

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.


Stephen Mitchelmore said...

Well put Nicholas. I was surprised to see that I've been growling because I don't want to stop anyone writing literary biographies. I read them with the same interest as everyone else. Philip Davis' of Bernard Malamud is one recent example. Like you, I don't want biography to become the point in a writer's reception where the writer is explained or his work accounted for. We've seen this with the Naipaul book. The same goes for criticism, which is why I love Blanchot's criticism in particular. Still, I can't wait for Bident's biography to be translated.

NigelBeale said...

"And let us be candid: we are inescapably interested in our fellow human beings."

Once a reader has read and loved what a writer has produced, the natural next step is to learn as much as possible about the life...let the work stand on its own...but what great fun reading about Byron's 'real life' exploits.

Nicholas Murray said...

Quite, there is nothing wrong with being interested in Beckett's life in Paris for example. I think the argument is the degree to which it is useful as an interpretative tool for the work. With the qualifications noted I think it is of some use. But I also think the traditional academic idea that "chatter about Harriet" detracts from the proper study of Shelley, say, and that reading biography takes people away from the work is rubbish. Would anyone plough through John Felsteiner's "Paul Celan" if they weren't seriously engaged with Celan's work?

Mark Thwaite said...

Nice piece Nicholas. I've responded over on ReadySteadyBook -- it started out as a comment but grew rather too long ...