15 June 2008

Biographies, part IV: Biographical Fictions

Back in nineteen-ninety-mumble, when I was doing honours in English lit, I took a course called ‘Biographical Fictions’. It ranged around quite a bit – from autobiographical fiction (The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath), to fiction that was biography (Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes), fiction that was fictionally autobiographical (Margaret Atwoods’s Lady Oracle), to theories and ideas about biography and autobiography, and ideas and theories about the self. It’s a fascinating area.

Sometimes biographers are people who like the idea of hanging out with people who would never deign to hang out with them in real life. Sometimes they are sycophants, sometimes they’re revenge-seekers. Though most of the time I think they are simply interested people who are trying to find some kind of truth and/or coherent story in the piles of untidiness that a life is.

I think one of the best books about the politics and practice of biography is Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman. Has anyone else read this? What did you think? It’s about the Sylvia Plath biography industry and, in particular, the ‘authorised’ biography Bitter Fame by Anne Stevenson – authorised by Plath’s former sister-in-law, with who she didn’t really get on. The Silent Woman is a wonderful mix of journalism, biography and autobiography. Last time I read it I decided it was one of the best books I’d ever read – though, weirdly, that wasn’t how I felt the first time (I seem to recall thinking it was mean-spirited, but I can’t any longer see why I thought that).

Another cool thing about the course was that for the major essay you could writing a piece of biography – though, being academic and all, you needed to explore some of the ideas about biography we’d been discussing in the course. I wrote what I called a ‘bio-autography’ – I stole the term from somewhere or other – about my friend Wiremu, who had killed himself when we were 18, and about the place where our lives – and his death – intersected.

I explored particularly that idea that when you writing about someone, you bring them back to life. Since he’d died, about three years prior to the essay, I’d been compelled to write about him. The essay was really cathartic – I healed a lot through writing it – I’d been carrying around his death with me every day for three years, but after that I was able to let it go.

I got a good mark too, but the lecturer, in his comments, did tell me he thought it was more of an elegy than a bio-autography, and that the greatest in English is Thomas Gray’s ‘Sonnet on the Death of Richard West’: ‘Take that simply as a reading recommendation; or as a subtle hint that Gray did it in 14 lines’! I've just reread the essay, and I have to say that he does have a point.


Mary McCallum said...

I have read Malcolm's work but a while ago now. I remember being fascinated by the way she re-arranged Plath and showed how others had re-arranged her, edited her, pre-empted her. Of course the real Plath will forever remain silent but a good biographer can give their subjects a voice albeit subjective. It's like studying history, I suppose, the best way is to read a lot of it and know what your historian (biographer)'s world view is before you start.

I have found Hughes' poems about Plath (published after Malcolm's book)and the collection of his letters published last year both very useful in re-arranging Plath yet again. The letter suggests she did not mean to die that final time. And Hughes feels he let her down by not realising how depressed she was or being there to stop it.

I love the idea of bio-autography and will read Gray's poem forthwith. Thank you, Helen, for a very interesting post and what looks like a fascinating blog.

Helen Rickerby said...

Hi Mary, thanks for your comments. I've just discovered your blog now also, and have been enjoying it. And congratulation on your shortlisting for the Montana!

I haven't read the collection of letters - but things like that really do remind us that people are people and not stories, don't they? That they're complicated and messy and we can't really know them just by reading a biography.