Flaubert said: ‘Emma Bovary, c’est moi.’ Can he be trusted? Should he be trusted? And if it were true, does it enhance the reading of Madame Bovary?
We live in the Age of the Individual. Personal experience reigns supreme. Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am, has become I AMTHEREFORE I AM.
One need look no further than memoir for evidence that the self and the individual have become the project par excellence. Memoir is thriving, and not just for those with a public life: anyone can and is co-opting the form. Publishers love memoirs – because memoirs sell. It seems that in these days of Facebook and the like, we can’t get enough of other people’s private lives.
Without a societal focus on the individual, without a significance accorded to the ‘truth’ of individual lives, the issue of author biography and its relationship to the author’s fiction and/or poetry, would probably not arise.*
Like many others, I believe that a poem or a novel needs to be able to stand alone, separate from its author, otherwise it will have no life. A glance at the work that has survived down the years: Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, both Eliots George and T.S., Keats, Coleridge, the Brontës, it is clear it is the work that matters. After all how many readers know about Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet who died at the age of ten? How many readers know about T.S’s conversion and his treatment of his wife Vivienne, and George’s sinful life with a married man? How many know about Coleridge’s opium habit and the Brontës difficult dad? And does it matter? This work lives on, the work thriveswithout knowledge of the author’s life.
The fact is, we humans have not fundamentally changed in the past 4 millennium – since we started writing things down. And those works that endure are those which explore and tap into fundamental – and enduring – human qualities: love, jealousy, joy, revenge, envy.
And yet there are certain classics in which knowledge of the author does help, and certain others wherein biographical fixing is essential for any significant understanding.
Much of Henry James’s work centres on wealthy and naïve Americans lost in the clutches of old Europe. It can enrich a reading of Henry James to know he was an anglophile and ex-patriot American – but it’s not essential.
It deepens understanding when reading Animal Farmand 1984to know that Orwell was a socialist, ardently and critically opposed to Soviet communism. It further helps to know that the left was polarised between Communists and anti-Communists. Of course, reading Orwell’s marvellous essays would provide all the information required.
It helps, in reading Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, to know that Mann opposed the Nazi regime and was forced into exile because of it.
In contrast, there ARE certain works in which the author biography is essential.
Much of Sylvia Plath’s work, for example, although in some instances the biography has overwhelmed the art.
And Proust. All those heated, sexless, obsessive loves with girls in A la recherche du temps perdu, these make a lot more sense when informed by Proust’s homosexuality. And this novel, deeply concerned with the aristocracy and social class, acquires greater meaning when Proust’s Jewishness is taken into account.
And Oscar Wilde’s DEPROFUNDISmakes no sense whatsoever without the biographical details (Bosie, Lord Alfred Douglas, the terrible trial and Wilde’s subsequent imprisonment).
SOCIAL AND POLITICAL CONTEXT
Rather than specific biographical detail, often what is required in deriving the most from a novel or poem is a knowledge of the social and political context surrounding the author. Pasternak and the other great 20thC Russian writers writing within the strictures of Stalin’s regime are prime examples; Dante’s Divine Comedy, with all those notable C14th Italians confined for all eternity in the circles of hell, is another; Coetzee’s Disgraceand Justin Cartwright’s White Lightning, make little sense if unaware of South African Apartheid and the post-apartheid period; an understanding of the poetry of Paul Celan requires a knowledge of the Nazi atrocities; the work of Kamila Shamsie and Mohsin Hamid makes little sense without a knowledge of the widespread persecution of Muslims; and full appreciation of books from indigenous Australians like Melissa Lucashenko and Tara June Winch requires a knowledge of the history of dispossession and discrimination against aboriginal Australians. Beyond the world of print, Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ and Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ symphony (premiered during the siege of Leningrad) as two works whose meaning is firmly attached to the prevailing social and political context.
But history is in trouble at the moment.
We live in an ever-present. The present shouts at us 24 hours a day. There’s the 24-hour news cycle. There’s Twitter. There’s an avalanche of notifications. A knowledge of history was, not so long ago, considered to be crucial for the well-rounded, well-educated person, but not any more. The phone is now the beating heart of the 21stcentury individual.
What history remains is often, blatantly, in service to the present. I know I am not alone in the irritation engendered by all those period TV series, more concerned with today’s mores than any sort of verisimilitude, depicting aristocratic dinner tables with black people sitting as equals with the white lords and ladies. We moderns might well wish it did happen like that back then – I certainly do – but it didn’t, and indeed, in some parts of the world it still does not happen. (It’s interesting to note that Britain was supporting slavery when many of these period dramas were set.)
Yet so many of the works of the past, if they are to be appreciated fully, require some sort of social and political context.
So, rather than Orwell’s life, a knowledge of the times in which he wrote, the ardent communists and the equally ardent anti-communists, the pervasive influence of the Russian Revolution, the demise of imperial Britain, these flesh out his work immeasurably.
A good deal of Osip Mandelstam’s poetry makes much more sense when you know about his persecution and exile, when you know what the Soviet regime demanded of its artists – its most creative citizens.
Take, for example, Mandelstam’s famous poem about Stalin, for which the poet was cruelly punished. The poem makes no sense at all without the historical details. The ‘Kremlin Mountaineer’ in the poem, who comes from Ossetia, a region in Georgia, is Stalin.
MANDELSTAM POEM ON STALIN (NOVEMBER 1933)
We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,
But where there’s so much as half a conversation
The Kremlin’s mountaineer will get his mention.
His fingers are fat as grubs
And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips,
His cockroach whiskers leer
And his boot tops gleam.
Around him a rabble of thin-necked leaders –
fawning half-men for him to play with.
They whinny, purr or whine
As he prates and points a finger,
One by one forging his laws, to be flung
Like horseshoes at the head, the eye or the groin.
And every killing is a treat
For the broad-chested Ossete.
FROM THE CLASSICS TO THE MODERNS: and the new issue of CULTURAL APPROPRIATION
My second novel, Modern Interiors, was published when I was 41 – though, at the time, I could have passed for a good deal younger. The central character of that novel is 62-year-old Philippa Finemore. On several occasions when I gave talks or readings, people would come up to me afterwards and say how surprised they were to discover how young as I was.
The implication was clear: readers assumed that Philippa Finemore was based on the author’s life/experience. Why would a youngish woman be writing about a much older one?
The answer involves curiosity, exploration of certain ideas and the wonderful imaginative ride that is fiction.
Fiction is a work of the imagination – that’s what makes it fiction. To write about Caesar one does not have to be Caesar. A novelist has 2 or 3 or 4 years to write a book, which is ample time (and a gift, too) to explore what is not known or particularly familiar. However, the contemporary issue of cultural appropriation undercuts this fundamental quality of fiction.
Fiction and poetry are works of the imagination. They are made up. If a writer were forced to write from her own life and her own personal characteristics: white, Australian, Jewish, childless, sexually slippery – how dull and boring this would be. Fiction provides an opportunity both for the writer and the reader to go places they have never been, to enter the hearts and minds of people (characters) they would never meet, to time travel. That’s what fiction does.
The cultural appropriation argument puts the imagination in lockdown, it starves fiction and poetry of its essential fuel. As a writer I don’t want to be confined in this way. Currently I am writing a character from a Pentecostal family. Some Pentecostals might think I have no right. I would disagree: within the context of the novel, the Pentecostal character serves a narrative purpose. In my last novel, Invented Lives, the central character was Russian – I’m not. I created her family background through the Stalin years. I made her an immigrant to Australia – I’m not. I gave her the experience of exile – I have never experienced this sort dislocation. Fiction draws on the imagination.
I am less sure about this standpoint when it comes to writing from the point of view of a character who is an aboriginal Australian. As aboriginal writers have made clear to me, when you’ve been silenced for so long, when not simply your voices but your culture has been appropriated for reasons not yours, then a white Australian writer would be perpetuating old wrongs if she were to write an ‘aboriginal’ novel. And yet, as a writer whose novels are mainly set in contemporary Australia, I do not want aboriginal people to be absent from my books. (As I do not want Jews to be absent, and back in the days when being gay was still a criminal offence in some Australian states, I wanted gays in my books too.)
I had an aboriginal character in The Memory Trap. She’s a uniting church minister. She’s strong, her experience of grief is illuminating, it’s a positive portrayal. She has an important role to play in the context of the novel. I was comfortable writing her, and there’s been no criticism.
THE MAJOR PERSONAL CONNECTION WITH A BOOK, IS THAT BETWEEN BOOK AND READER – NOT AUTHOR AND READER.
A poem or a novel must connect with the reader’s biography, their sensibility, their memories, their experiences, their longings and hopes, and the issues that are compelling their attention at the time of reading. Otherwise the book will have no impact. With this in mind, knowing an author’s biography can actually intrude and diminish the power of the work for the reader. We don’t want to fill in all the spaces, after all every reading is an act of freedom – and for every reader it is an act of the imagination.
We’ve all had the experience of picking up a novel and putting it down again. It simply does not connect. But three years later you pick up the same novel and it takes hold of you. And the reverse: novels that claimed us in our twenties but fall flat decades later.
Reading is a great intimacy. While you are reading there is the world of the book and your active imagination. It can be and often is an illuminating experience. And because different readers bring to the book different memories, different longings, different knowledge, different beliefs, so there are many different readings of the same novel. This connection between novel and reader, or poem and reader is the one that matters.
So why this drive to know about authors, indeed, any artist, or great scientist, for that matter. Why isn’t the work enough?
When it comes to the best work, the work is enough. But I think there is, as well, a desire to understand the creative mind, how it emerges, how it works. There were two books when I was young that I particularly loved. One was titled something like THE CHILDHOOD OF ARTISTS, and the other: THE CHILDHOOD OF SCIENTISTS. I read both these books over and over again. I wanted to know the soil of exceptionality, I wanted to understand the roots of genius, and I expect as an eight-year-old I wanted to grow up to be a great artist or scientist.
My ambitions might have changed, but my curiosity about exceptional people has not. I read biographies, I want to know about the people, these creators whose work I admire. But I don’t think that knowing the life changes the work for me, I’m not sure it even enhances it. But I do learn about creative lives, their highs and lows, the fits and starts, the exhilaration and the despair – and the mistakes both in the life and the art. (There’s a sense that if a famous person can act foolishly, then I should perhaps be more forgiving of my own similar sins.)
Or is this just high-falutin justification for what is essentially a desire to know the gossip and shenanigans? Is my interest nothing more than a desire to peep through the keyholes of those who are creative and intellectually exceptional rather than the rich and famous like actors and rock stars?
Or perhaps there is some innate hunger to know the other, but know it in safety, through the pages of a biography. The ‘meetings’ in a biography, satisfy our curiosity without demanding that we be witty and intellectually playful ourselves.
CAN THE AUTHOR BE FOUND IN THE WORK?
During the covid-19 shutdown, I had reason to reach for a biography of Thomas Mann. His opposition to Hitler and the Nazi regime had been briefly alluded to in a book I’d just finished and I wanted to know more. About three years ago I started reading a biography of Mann, one that filled its pages searching out Mann’s homoerotic tendencies in his novels. I put aside that biography in disgust. I know that often novels are effective disguises for who you are – so don’t go searching there for the author. This time I reached for another biography, by a German writer that had been well-received. Fortunately, there was no particular focus on Mann’s homoerotic sensibility, but nonetheless, this biographer still chose to portray Mann’s life through an analysis of the work. I did not finish that book either.
Of course, the author’s biography infuses the work to some extent. In my own case, the themes I choose to explore in my novels are autobiographical.
Around the time I turned fifty, I found myself reconnecting with friends from my childhood. We had gone our own way during the previous 25 years, they to making families and me doing what I did; but by the time we reached 50, many of the differences had lessened, and, crucially, I was far less judgmental than I had been. This change in my life started me thinking about the nature of enduring friendship. Reunion, published in 2009, reflects this.
The Memory Trap, a novel that explores the complexity of memory, a novel that has at its centre a character who is an international consultant on memorial projects, was written in the years immediately following the death of my partner. The connection is obvious. And Invented Lives, a novel that explores exile in all its manifestations, was written during a time when Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers was uppermost in my mind.
The themes are autobiographical. But, as I want to keep my friends and family, the characters are made up, the situations are made up, the narrative is made up.
THE CASE OF HELEN DEMIDENKO
It can be dangerous looking for an author in a novel, and in the case of Helen Darville-Demidenko, back in the mid 1990s, it can be downright destructive.
In 1993 the Australian Vogel award for an unpublished novel written by an author under 35 was won by Helen Demidenko for The Hand that Signed the Paper. Two years later, the novel won the most prestigious literary prize in Australia: The Miles Franklin Award. It was after the Miles was announced that the controversy began. It was long and heated and it divided the literary community.
Helen Demidenko purported to be the daughter of Ukrainian immigrants. Her family, so she said, had suffered in Stalin’s dread famine of the early 1930s; her family had also been involved in the massacre of Jews during WW2. She fictionalised these events in her award-winning novel. Crucially, the judges referred to the significance of her biography in their appreciation of the novel.
Much was said and written about the book, most of it critical: about the quality of the writing, about the impoverished sense of history, whether the book was anti-Semitic and/or anti-Ukrainian, and much much more. But there have been controversies about winners of prizes before, and it probably would have died down. Except that after winning the Miles, it was revealed, by the principle of Helen’s old school that far from being Helen Demidenko of Ukrainian descent she was, in fact, Helen Darville, daughter of British immigrants. (And why her origins remained secret for so long, why someone had not spoken out earlier, is mystifying.)
If the book had been worthy of acclaim, if the author’s purported biography had not been co-opted in enhancing the book, the deception would not have mattered.
I spoke and wrote against this book. I thought it was poorly written, I thought the history in the book read more like propaganda; the emotional flatness of the characters echoed the moral barrenness of the book, and, significantly, far too much was made of the author’s purported biography when the book, this apparent work of fiction, was being praised (and awarded prizes).
Below is an excerpt from an article I wrote at the time:
‘From the time The Hand that Signed the Paperwas awarded the Vogel, judgments of its worth have been inseparable from the biography of the author. When it was awarded the Miles Franklin, the judges made much of the multicultural significance of the book. If this novel had been written by a Helen Darville with no Ukrainian ancestry, on the judges current criteria, it would not have won. When historical inaccuracies in were highlighted, the author resorted to her family history to defend the book. Her grandfather, she says, was murdered by Jewish Bolsheviks – hard to argue against that….Whenever moral issues were raised, the author defended her work as a personal quest to come to terms with her family history.
‘A novel should stand apart from its author, yet Darville-Demidenko has consistently drawn on a family history – now shown to be false – to defend the book, and both she and her supporters have used what now emerges as false biographical data to bolster the book’s significance. Separate the author from this book, as the recent revelations have done, and what is left is the work: … a novel of questionable literary merit with severe moral and historical flaws.’
THE CASE OF HEATHER MORRIS AND HER BOOKS THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZAND CILKA’S JOURNEY.
Here the biography in question is not the author’s but the central characters, who were real people: Lali Sokolov, the Tattooist, and Cecilia Klein in Cilka’s Journey. Morris herself refers to both books as novels, novels based on real people, and actual events. Events she tampered with – with fictional abandon.
The families of the central characters in both these books, who assisted Morris in her research, believe their relative has been used and abused. Additionally, people (and/or their descendents) who were involved in the same events, Jews who survived Auschwitz for example, feel wronged, abused, but even worse, experience something akin to a denial of their horrendous experience. From their point of view, events that have scarred their lives have been distorted for entertainment, for material gain, and fame.
The problem here is a problem that besets most so-called FACTION. You can’t have it both ways: this hybrid form rarely does justice to history or to fiction. Morris has justified what she did by referring to her ‘composite’ characters. She takes no responsibility either to the families, who were generous informants, or to Lali Sokolov, the Tattooist, or Cilka/Cecilia.
When it comes to Heather Morris, the only aspect of her biography that interests me, is what it is about her that made her a ‘fabulist’ of other lives not once, but twice. I’m interested in this type of person, I’m not interested in her work at all.
Truth and fiction have had a long and successful co-operation. Many years ago, the biographer and novelist, Peter Ackroyd, when asked about the two different strands to his work said that he leaves his truths for fiction. This is something every novelist knows. I can explore complex truths using a variety of characters and differing points of view. Furthermore I can flesh out these truths by choosing particular narrative lines, particular scenes, particular setting. Truth and fiction work well together. But truth and fact are not the same.
As a reader, I also look for my truths in fiction – MY truths, not the author’s truths. I trust myself as a reader. And I will continue to read biographies, yes, in search of the springs of creativity, but also for prurient entertainment too. Diaries? Rare is the person who starts a diary entry: I’m so happy today. As someone once said to me about her own diaries, they were the site for emotional sewerage. But letters, they’re in a category of their own, straddling as they do the private and the public. I love reading letters of famous people. Letters are so revealing. They are generally written quickly and without undergoing several drafts. There’s lots to be found there about both the life and the work – and an intimacy often lacking in the rest of life.
* In this discussion, I will be concerned specifically with fiction and poetry. Clearly an author’s life is essential to autobiography and memoir. And modern history too, when that history occurs within the lifetime of the author, e.g. a history of the Vietnam War written by a veteran.