The Biographer as Enemy

In earlier posts, I suggested that biography is akin to fiction writing, both activities involving the taking of stray facts and hints about a life to make a narrative. But there is another sense in which biography is diametrically opposed to literature. Poets and novelists take the raw material of life and transform it into literature. Biographers take literary texts and, in a gesture of reverse-alchemy, turn them into evidence about life. If biography is, in some fundamental and inescapable way, anti-art, then it’s easier to understand why so many biographers seem to have a grudge against their subjects, an unstated animus that leads many non-fiction writers to find fault with creative artists. Good examples of this tendency are Lawrence Thompson’s biography of Robert Frost and Michael Shelden’s life of Graham Greene. As William H. Pritchard once noted, you can glean a great deal of Thompson’s attitude towards Frost just by looking at the index, which has entries like “Anti-intellectual,” “Baffler-teaser-deceiver,” “Brute,” “Charlatan,” “Cowardice,” “Depression, moods of,” “Enemies,” “Hate,” “Insanity,” “Pretender,” “Puritan,” “Rage,” “Retaliations, Poetic,” “Self-Centeredness,” “Spoiled Child,” and in a fine final flourish, “Vindictive.” As for Shelden, in his biography he raises that possibility that Graham Greene was the guilty party behind an unsolved murder of the 1930s.

In Philip Roth’s new novel Exit Ghost, Nathan Zuckerman ponders a proposed defamatory biography of his mentor E.I. Lonoff. This leads to some waspish ruminations on the relationship between biography and creative writing: “An astonishing thing it is, too, that one’s prowess and achievement, such as they have been, should find their consummation in the retribution of biographical inquisition. The man in control of the words, the man making up the stories all his life, winds up, after death, remembered, if at all, for a story made up about him, his covert brand of baseness discovered and described with uncompromising candor, clarity, self-certainty, with grave concern for the most delicate issues of morality, and with no small measure of delight.” But of course biographies are an inescapable part of our documentary-obsessed aged. Shortly before writing Exit Ghost, Roth made arraignments to allow a literary biography of his own life to be written by his longtime friend Ross Miller.

Post Script: Any discussion of Roth and biography should mention Alan Lelchuk’s 2003 novel Ziff: A Life in which a character very similiar to Lelchuk tries to write a biography of chararacter equally reminiscent of Roth. Of course since Roth has in the past portrayed a Lelchuk-inspired figure, we’re deep in a hall of mirrors or in the mouth of a self-consuming serpent. There was also an earlier Roth novel, The Counterlife if I’m not mistaken, where Nathan Zuckerman was confronted by the possibility of someone writing his biography. And Roth’s 1988 memoir The Facts includes a critique of the author’s retelling of his supposed true story written by his imaginary alter ego Zuckerman. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that Zuckerman’s first appearance was in the novel My Life As a Man (1974) , where he was created as a near-likeness by the equally fictional Peter Tarnopol. A prospective biographer of Roth will have to deal with the fact that he’s already blurred and multiplied his own life story by frequent and involuted re-tellings. Good writers have many lives inside them; Roth has one life that’s taken so many forms as to feel like a crowd.

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