I am a sucker for biography. Right now, sitting on the bedside table, I’ve got David McCullough’s John Adams and Frances Wilson’s Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth, waiting patiently to be taken up. I’ve got to finish Jane Smiley’s Private Life, Peter Ackroyd’s Thames: The Biography, my third trip through Melville’s Moby Dick (it’s been twenty years, and I think maybe now I am old enough) and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, which I have never actually read, before starting anything new.
But the itch is there, intensified by this Wilson Quarterly interview with Michael Scammell, author of acclaimed biographies on Solzhenitsyn and Koestler. Excerpts:
Michael McDonald: How did you become a biographer?
Michael Scammell: A big question. Until I was in my early twenties, all I wanted to do was write fiction. I tried many times, but came to the conclusion that I didn’t have the stamina for it, so I turned to translation, putting the words of foreign writers into English—which is a kind of creativity: creativity with language but not with thought.
McDonald: How do you view the essential difference between being a novelist and a biographer?
Scammell: To paraphrase the British literary critic Desmond MacCarthy, the biographer is the novelist on oath. He captured both parts of what’s important. Where he was very astute was in recognizing that the biographer is using the same arsenal of devices as the novelist; that is to say, the biographer is using characterization. It’s not simply enough to take the sum total of people’s impressions of someone, to collect them and put them all down on the page; a biographer has to select, too. One has to be able to set a scene in such a way that the reader is drawn in and convinced by what one has written, and that too is a novelistic gift.
McDonald: Facts alone don’t convince?
Scammell: It depends on the genre, but facts alone can never convince the reader. At the very least, there has to be an argument. In a biography, if the facts aren’t artfully presented, you end up with a flattened portrait. Let me put it this way: Quite a bit has been written about the suspension of disbelief in fiction. My wife, who reads more novels than I do, has a habit of picking up a novel, starting it, and then all of a sudden she’ll throw it on the table or chair. I say, “What’s wrong?” She’ll respond, “I don’t believe in this anymore.” And the biographer has the exact same problem. It’s twofold: One, does the reader believe what the biographer is saying to him about the subject of the biography? And, two, does the reader believe that the biographer has found the best way to say it? Of course, biographers also rely heavily on the intrinsic interest of their subjects, often too heavily, in my opinion, but credibility is even more important in biography than in fiction, because fiction is made up.
McDonald: Given the oppressive weight of modern archives, how do you know that you’ve read enough?
Scammell: It’s a combination of things. Let’s just take a prosaic and yet important practical consideration. Biography is rife with examples of people who don’t finish for 20 or 25 years—or perhaps ever—and this is often a result of reluctance to stop researching. There’s always more to find out. But after a certain point in time, even they feel the pressure. Others around you (your agent, your publisher, your spouse) are pressing you to finish, and you begin to feel ridiculous. Another unheroic explanation is sheer exhaustion. You may feel there’s important information still out there, but you don’t have the strength or time or inclination to go further. But it’s more complicated than that, because research and writing aren’t completely separated from one another, and it’s not as if you come to the complete end of one before starting the other. There does, however, come that moment when you begin to grapple with the writing in a serious way. You grow impatient with the collection of material; you can’t wait to explore your notes and get your cherished insights down on paper. At the back of your mind is the fear of losing your freshness and growing stale. At last, you feel you’ve covered all the main bases, you’ve gathered up all the relevant material, and whatever else you collect is not going to change the picture you’ve built up in any significant way.
McDonald: Is there a code of ethics for a biographer?
Scammell: It’s very simple: Don’t lie. Of course, when you break that commandment down and start to analyze it, you realize it’s not that simple after all. You can, after all, without technically lying, create a false picture. Or you can try to force the reader to conclusions that are not truly justified by the evidence. I think that voice also plays a role here. Can you trust that person who’s telling you all these things and setting out the evidence for them, or is there something shady and evasive about it? The judgment is quite subjective, of course, and readers don’t always agree, but I have faith in the ability of most intelligent readers to spot the difference.
McDonald: Does the public have a right to know everything about a writer? W. H. Auden, for one, thought that a writer’s personal sins, sufferings, and weaknesses are of absolutely no interest.
Scammell: He wasn’t the only one. Thomas Hardy ordered all his letters and diaries burnt after his death, and virtually dictated a biography of the early part of his life to his much younger wife and secretary. James Joyce referred to biographers as “biografiends,” and then you have the famous Oscar Wilde quote about each great man having his disciples and how it’s the Judas among them who ends up writing his biography. There’s a long tradition of that, I think, and to a certain extent they’re right, for biographers do in a sense exploit their subjects for their own ends.
McDonald: Some say biographies deflate the novelist’s work—that they rob the work of its autonomy.
Scammell: Do they? In my experience, they almost always turn readers’ attention back to the work, not away from it, and I can’t really think of any great or good novel, poem, or play that I’ve read—knowing much more about the background of the work—that’s been diminished by a biography.
McDonald: Auden disagreed; but then he himself was a voracious reader of biography.
Biography is a marvelously complicated and crazy genre, once you start thinking about it. This interview touches on some of the reasons why. Scammell, for what it’s worth, adores Gerald Clarke’s Capote (agreed!) and doesn’t love Lytton Strachey’s work, because he’s cynical and condescending toward his Victorian subjects (also agreed). To the list of wonderful biographers I would add Richard Ellmann, whose mammoth biographies of Joyce and Wilde are can’t-put-downable, and Victoria Glendinning, who works on a smaller canvas, but whose biographies of Trollope and Elizabeth Bowen are absolute pleasures to read. Then there is also, of course, Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens. There is a long, weird experimental digression in the middle of the thing, but it’s easily skipped.
My own little essay on biography is here.