15 August 2009

Martin Edmond on biography - this weekend's quote

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you might remember my flurries of posts about biography, and might be aware how much I love them. I found this wonderful quote today in Martin Edmond’s Chronicle of the Unsung (which I can tell is going to become one of my favourite books, even though I’m only up to page 39):
I was actually more interested in the lives of artists than I was in their works. I would read biographies meticulously, as if by tracing the life I could, like van Ryssel or Schuffenecker copying van Gogh’s works, find out who I might be. The reading of biography requires that you imagine being the person it is about, which is impossible but no more impossible than the same imaginative act with respect to a character in fiction – yet wholly different for the very reason that in a biography you suppose yourself to be imagining the real. Is this always why you sometimes feel compelled to imagine not just being that person, but being, as they are, the subject of a biography yourself? Or is it a recognition of the fictional nature of any life told retrospectively and from the outside; and, following upon that recognition, a desire to imagine a similar retrospective fictionalisation of your own day-to-day existence? To read a life knowing how it ends is to read absolutely outside the consciousness of the person whose life it was, who, even if they knew the hour and manner of their death, still lived open-endedly. Radical misunderstanding of how people live may be consequent upon the passionate reading of biography. The most dangerous error is to attempt to live like the subject of a biography yourself.

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