Tag Archives: Elizabeth Hardwick

READING LIVES: MORE THOUGHTS ON BIOGRAPHY

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.

BIOGRAPHICAL PLEASURINGS

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.