11 June 2008

Biographies, part II: the ones I haven’t liked

Some of biographies I haven’t enjoyed, and sometimes (gasp) haven’t even finished, have been ones that are badly written in a particular dull kind of way. There have been surprisingly few of these.

The other kind of biography I haven’t liked are the ones that have such a strong ‘angle’ on the person that clashes with my own. Though you probably need to have read quite a bit about the subject to recognise the angle.

A few years ago I read pretty much everything about Katherine Mansfield. Apart from my own interest in her (and I’d read most of these biographies already because of that), I was also working with Sean on a screenplay for a biopic about her (which we will rewrite at a later date, when we’re better writers).

I ended up disliking all of the biographies, because of the way each biographer ‘owned’ and presented Mansfield. Anthony Alpers has his patronising ‘isn’t she a naughty monkey’ thing going, while Jeffrey Meyers clearly thought she was a bit of a grumpy bitch. I forget the problem with Claire Tomalin's, but she did keep on going on an on about that plagiarism thingy. Anyway, by that stage, after all the reading and thinking and writing and interpreting, I felt that I knew understood Mansfield – or rather, Katherine, as I was referring to her by then – better than those biographers. It’s kind of hard to stop yourself from feeling like you own your subject.

By the by, two of the KM books I most enjoyed were LM’s (aka Ida Baker) Memories of LM, in which KM really did come across as a bitch, and John Middleton Murry’s first and only (he never did finish the rest) volume of autobiography, Between Two Worlds, which I decided had the most accurate portrait of KM, simply because it was one I liked. I felt LM that at least they were entitled to their points of view, because at least they actually knew her.


Tim Jones said...

I completely agree with you about biographies with an "angle". The most annoying literary biography I've read is Edwin Williamson's "Borges: A Life". Here's how I described in my LibraryThing review:

"An interesting yet ultimately irritating book, this seeks to cast Borges' entire life and work in terms of the opposition between the "sword of honour" of Borges' patrician maternal ancestors and the "gaucho's dagger" that symbolises his father. Dispensing with the formal concerns usually ascribed to Borges' fiction, this biography asserts that most of his stories enact the author's conflicts with his parents and his lovers (or would-be lovers). This biography serves, I suppose, as a corrective to those who paint Borges wholly as a bloodless man of letters, yet I became increasingly irritated at the author's attempts to squeeze the large achievements of Borges into a very small Procrustean bed."

I suppose you could say that I had my own angle on Borges, and found Edwin Williamson's angle not to my tste; or you could say that I just got sick of that accursed sword and dagger!

Mary McCallum said...

The book of essays about KM's men (called Mansfield's Men perhaps?) was interesting in that it gave little snippets of her through her relationships and through different prisms that added up to an interesting whole. What did you think of that book, Helen?

Helen Rickerby said...

Thanks for your comments Tim and Mary.

Mary, I haven't actually read the book, but I did see/hear the talks that the chapters are based on. I really enjoyed them. My favourite, I think, was Harry Ricketts's talk about John Middleton Murry - he gets a hard time, and he certainly did seem to be a bit of an odd fish, but it was nice to hear about his good points.