In my youth I was in thrall to a lover who derided biography as a form of prurience. This was a long time ago when I was extremely impressionable – particularly when it came to those whom I believed had serious intellectual clout. My lover, I was convinced, had the most serious of intellectual clout; I agreed with everything he said – the nonsense about biography was just the start of it. He was particularly scathing about those who would read the biography of a significant writer without having bothered to read the actual works. (This was during the major VirginiaWoolf-and-her-world excavations, when the Bloomsbury lives were devoured far more eagerly than the Bloomsbury writings.) As far as I can remember – and like many people, I demonstrate a dedicated forgetfulness when it concerns times that reveal me as a fool – he made no mention of the biographies of major non-literary figures: kings and queens, nurses and judges, revolutionary leaders and explorers who never held a pen for long.
‘Prurience,’ he said. And of course he’s right. Where he was wrong and where I was so stupid, was believing there was anything wrong with this.
I have, this very week, finished proofing the pages of my new novel The Memory Trap. The next time I see the novel it will be a book. Between covers – and rather fetching covers I should add, thanks to the art department at HarperCollins. One of the main characters in The Memory Trap is the American, Elliot Wood, a biographer of ‘big women’; Elizabeth Hardwick, Djuna Barnes, Elizabeth Bishop, Jean Rhys have been his subjects. At one point in the novel he describes biography as ‘the ultimate peering into closets not your own,’ and at another he reveals the intrinsic satisfactions of the biographer, in particular, the privilege of exploring a whole life intimately. And it’s a very particular intimacy, he says, in that it does not demand that he, Elliot, change and compromise like, for example, the intimacy in his far-from-happy marriage. He loves his big woman of the moment, he can’t get enough of her.
I’m fascinated by people: why they behave as they do, how they come to be as they are. I’m particularly interested in the flaws and frailties of people, including the illusions and delusions that pock-mark any life. But there’s only so much poking into the lives of real people – friends, family, acquaintances – that is acceptable.
Herein lies the great satisfaction of fiction that you can plunge into the thick of the characters’ loves and frailties, their strengths and burdens, their mistakes and delusions, and no one is the least concerned about your prying, or your voracious curiosity. This is the case for all good fiction, both for readers and writers alike. And, in fact, fiction is particularly drawn to characters with deep flaws. It is not by chance that the great figures in fiction include the likes of Macbeth, Faust, Medea – not such a wholesome lot, but brilliant to read about, fascinating to know.
And it’s the case, too, with good biography. I have just finished reading Ray Monk’s biography of Robert J. Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project, is often referred to as ‘the father of the bomb’. I’ve read a few biographies about him – I’ve long been drawn to the early nuclear physicists of the first half of the twentieth century, particularly the theorists, of which Oppenheimer was one. While most of these biographies are good, Monk’s is in a category of its own. Monk is interested in the complexities of the man, the seemingly contradictory actions that scored Oppenheimer’s life, and far more interested in these than, say, who he slept with. And Monk is also captivated by the science. This is the peak period of nuclear physics, when discoveries came so thick and fast, that it took the likes of an Oppenheimer to keep pace.
I first read Monk back in 1994. Dot gave me his biography of Wittgenstein as a birthday present. She had inscribed it ‘For A – Who doesn’t read biography, but who I’m hoping will make an exception for this one!!’ I was, at the time, still burdened with a few mad habits from old lovers. This gift for my birthday marked my conversion moment. I read Monk’s Wittgenstein, I couldn’t put it down. I was captivated by the portrayal of this complex man, in the same way as I would be caught by a complex character in a novel. When Monk’s Bertrand Russell came out a few years later – two wonderful volumes on another great and flawed man, I was similarly enthralled.
And now with his Oppenheimer.
What these three subjects have in common is their greatness, their uniqueness in fact, coupled with fundamental human frailties that in the end affected their work and the quality of life itself. Oppenheimer’s great flaw was his desire for acceptance and acknowledgement. This is a common enough desire, but it was its particularly American flavourings in Oppenheimer that unseated him. Oppenheimer’s desire was doused in patriotism – a deeply ironic quality given that the FBI dogged him for more than a decade convinced he was a Russian spy, and the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) finally withdrew his security clearance because of doubts of his loyalty. But in fact it was his loyalty and love for America that lead to his telling the lies that eventually were his undoing.
Oppenheimer is a fascinating man: great and flawed. And like Russell and Wittgenstein, he was an original thinker. This is another pleasure of Monk: he shows such a vigorous enjoyment in the technicalities of these men’s work, and he shares his joys and understandings with us.
Monk’s Oppenheimer, in fact all of his biographies, have started me thinking about great people, people who are at the very top of their profession, who do something they do not need to do – Oppenheimer’s lie about his friend Haakon Chevalier, Lance Armstrong’s taking of performance-enhancing drugs – and I am wondering how this behaviour would be manifest in a woman. What might her work be? Her family circumstances? The lover she has on the side? When and where might she live? I am feeling a strange pull to the 1950s.
I am, I realise, thinking about the next novel.
Ah, the freedom of it all.