Roger Lewis

Biografiends

Creative achievements are explained away, and great men and women are unmasked as sneaky, cruel and ordinary

I saw a biopic about Morecambe and Wise recently. The actors impersonating the comedians were not a patch on the originals — how could they be? You need a genius to play a genius. I often wonder if my own HBO Peter Sellers movie would have been improved if someone fiery, of the calibre of Gary Oldman or Sacha Baron Cohen, had been cast instead of Geoffrey Rush, who was muffled under prosthetic make-up. But my point is, biopics seldom come off, and nor do biographies.

Indeed, it is a reprehensible and misguided genre. Privacy is violated, creative achievements are explained away, and great men and women are unmasked as sneaky, predatory, cruel and ordinary. Humphrey Carpenter wrote all his biographies — of Auden, Britten and Ezra Pound — in this way.

The exhaustive and exhausting biographies of Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin and Anthony Powell nearly killed those authors stone dead for me, as each and every girlfriend and sexual conquest was connected to an incident in a novel or a line in a poem. Ever since learning that V.S. Naipaul was a bully I’ve not ventured near his books.

More than the deluge of personal detail, however, the chief problem with biography is that the fundamental precepts are wrong, the principles too rigid. For the idea always seems to be that by gathering and establishing facts, cataloguing testimonies and anecdotes, each life can be made a perfect whole — that the objective biographer will see to it that there has been a plan or pattern, and dignity is conferred.

I disagree. Why should a personality hang together? This will be why Saul Bellow got fed up with the interrogations of James Atlas, whose new book is a wry and slightly exasperated account of a professional biographer’s existence. Atlas even tells us that while at work on the Bellow project, ‘I gulped down a corned beef on rye and a can of black cherry soda’.

Each weekend, Atlas would bring his photocopied findings to Bellow in Vermont — old correspondence, bank statements, tailors’ bills, picture postcards, legal depositions from alimony battles — and the venerable Nobel Laureate would decide whether or not such information could be published in an eventual biography.

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