For the first forty years of my life I avoided biographies. I believed that to read them was to queer one’s intellectual purity (and would have said so in such pompous terms). My ideas about biography came to me from a friend and sometime lover whom I viewed with blinkers so large and glasses so rose-coloured it was a wonder I managed to stand and walk. My friend and sometime lover, whose intellectual prowess I never questioned, condemned the reading of biography as nothing more than prurience and despicable voyeurism. If I were to read the lives of people (whether I admired their work or not) I would be letting down the intellectual team. At the same time I would be relegating myself to the gold coast of lightweight thought. In those days it was hard to imagine a worse fate.
‘Read their work,’ my formidable lover commanded. ‘The work is what matters, the work is enough.’
I suppose it was – but then I didn’t know what I was missing. I would gobble up the biographical note accompanying a book and any introductory personal remarks. Only occasionally would I capitulate and read a biography, and then it was confined to the Bloomsbury crowd, in whom I was besotted almost to the same extent as I was to the forceful lover. But it was guilty reading: I knew I was letting the intellectual side down.
Lovers change, life changes, work and leisure change. The erstwhile friend and lover was replaced by my partner-poet – a great and unapologetic reader of biography. When I floated my views on biography to her she dismissed them as mad. So I began reading biography – uneasily at first, as if I were a peeping Tom, but soon with the same curiosity and pleasure that holds me in thrall to characters in fiction. And just like with fiction, there was identification and recognition with these biographical subjects, and elaboration of my own experiences in friendship, in love, with publishers and the literary world.
When I decided to make Elliot in The Memory Trap a biographer, it was an indication of how far I had transgressed my former lover’s intellectual rules and regulations. And if Elliot was to be a biographer, I would need to read a lot of biographies. I was familiar with the Partisan Review writers, but I was curious to learn more about the group, so I made Elliot interested in them too. I began with a memoir of the early Partisan Review days, The Truants by William Barret. An excellent biography of Koestler by Michael Scammell led me to an equally good life of Mary McCarthy by Frances Kiernan (where I learned that Koestler had made a move on McCarthy). From McCarthy I went to other big women (Elliot, I decided, would be a biographer of significant women), Victoria Glendinning’s Elizabeth Bowen, and then her Rebecca West. In lieu of a Elizabeth Hardwick biography (one is currently being written by Frances Kiernan, and my Elliot wrote one in The Memory Trap), I read Ian Hamilton’s gripping Robert Lowell (published in 1983 but wearing well). I rounded off the Partisan Review reading with Partisan View a memoir by William Phillips one of the co-founders and editors of Partisan Review. There were more biographies – of Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Bishop and Djuna Barnes. I was having a ball, and even if my research was no more than a high-brow version of the Who Weekly or Hello Magazine phenomenon, I really didn’t care.
Although it wasn’t the same. And it isn’t the same.
The people I read about are creators – and not just confined to writers and artists and musicians. For the past dozen years I have explored the lives and times of the early nuclear physicists. I have read about the Cavendish laboratory and the first particle accelerators and the Manhattan Project; and the great phycisists: Oppenheimer, Szilard, Teller, Meitner, Rutherford and many many others. I have steeped myself in these minds at their explosive best. I have known their moments of illumination. And, as with all good biography, it’s a very particular type of knowing. In the same way that you can look into a painting or listen to a piece of music and find yourself ranging through new and unexpected imaginative territory, so too with biography and autobiography. But with the latter there is, in addition, a peculiar intimacy that removes even the tiniest barriers to mind. You read for an hour or two and you come away with ideas you could not have dreamed of. And there’s a sense of privilege too, an entrée into heart and mind as special on the page as across a dinner table.