Lesson 17: Part three: Elegy for Iris: Questions on Memoir and Autobiography
A questionnaire for you
In John Bayley’s memoir, the lines between autobiography, biography and memoir are blurred. As Bayley tells his story and Iris Murdoch’s story, we do get a picture of a famous literary figure’s life and that perhaps accounts for some of its interest.
Questions to consider:
1. What are the limits of biography?
2. What are the obligations of biography?
3. Do these questions matter for this memoir—in other words, are there limits for personal memoir and what should they be?
What do you think?
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If you’re interested in writing biography—or memoir, you might be helped by this book I found in my research: Biography as High Adventure: Life-Writers Speak on Their Art, edited by Stephen B. Oates, University of Massachusetts Press, 1986. Oates provides an overview in the preface and then specific essays by biographers—those who have done it.
He contends there are three types of biography:
The literary biography that employs fictional techniques without resorting to fiction itself. The biographer cannot invent facts, but he can give them narrative form to tell a story. The biographer attempts to narrate a life story. This type of biography he distinguishes from two other types: The critical study and the scholarly chronicle.
The critical study he says is a rather dry analysis by an academic type who compares his subject with similar lives in other eras, offering judgments about significance and consequence.
The scholarly chronicle, he says, “is a straightforward recitation of facts. The opening lines of Constantine Fitzgibbon’s Life of Dylan Thomas are typical of the approach: ‘Dylan Marlais Thomas was born on the 27th of October, 1914, in his parents' house, No. 5 Comdonkin Drive, which lies in that part of Swansea called the Uplands. He was the only son and younger child of D. J. Thomas and of his wife Florence Hannah, nee Williams.’ The narrative voice is dry and detached, the prose informative …. We read the scholarly chronicle to gain information about its subject, not to be swept up in a powerful story.”
Here are some thoughts from two of the biographers whose essays are in this book and which, in a sense, argue with one another about the limits and obligations of biography.
Paul Mariani wrote a highly praised biography of the poet William Carlos Williams, William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked (1981), nominated for an American Book Award for biography. He’s also an expert on the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
He says, “…[T]he biographer is as much the inventor, the maker, as the poet or the novelist when it comes to creating a life out of the prima materia we call words, the very stuff, for example, that I am directing at you this moment. Is it not, after all, the illusion of a life which the biographer gives in the process of writing biography, something carried on perhaps over many years, a process of reassembling tapes and letters, discarded drafts and manuscripts, directives and memos, testaments and check stubs, the feel of names and places revisited, people known perhaps still among the living, words, words transcribed, written, uttered, words, words, and more words, which the biographer must shape and select and reorder, until a figure begins again to live in our imagination?”
Mark Schorer, (1908-1977) a fiction writer who wrote a biography of Sinclair Lewis, Sinclair Lewis: An American Life( 1961) says, “Many of you know the anecdote about Samuel Johnson and James Boswell in which Boswell, with his obsessive concern for the accumulation of more and more details of Johnson's life and character, was questioning a third person about Johnson in Johnson's presence, when Johnson suddenly thundered at him, ‘You have but two subjects, yourself and me. I am sick of both.’
“Let this anecdote serve as my text, and in a more special way than the exasperated Dr. Johnson intended, namely, that biography itself has two subjects, and two subjects only—the figure whose life is being re-created, of course, and the mind that is re-creating it, the scrutinizing biographer no less than the object of his scrutiny.”
He adds, “A writer of fiction, turning to biography, discovers the difference immediately (later, he will discover the similarities as well); as a writer of fiction he was a free man; as a biographer, he is writing in chains, as it were. As a writer of fiction, he invented his subject, even when he modeled it on real events and real people, and was free to handle it as he pleased; as a biographer, he is given his subject and is obliged to stay rigorously with its facts. This is, of course, a burden, but often, one discovers, a burden that it is a pleasure to carry. For facts can be surprisingly friendly, and they have, not infrequently, an eloquence, even a kind of poetry, that may well go far beyond the inventions of imagination.”
He adds, “Let me give you another and a much briefer illustration of what I have called the friendliness of facts. Lewis died of what we would call a heart attack; but in the official records of the Roman hospital in which he died, the cause of his death is given in another terminology, presumably a commonplace in the vocabulary of Italian medicine: paralisi cardiaca. Could I possibly have invented it? Paralysis of the heart. This, in its metaphorical significance, I had long before discovered was the very theme of Lewis’s life and a major theme of the whole book, his incapacity for love. Is this not poetry? and more than that, magnificently, poetic justice?”
One thing seems clear. To write anything, the writer must know himself and be aware that he’ll be revealed in whatever he writes.
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A key book to help all writers and a questionnaire for you that will be revealing for your work follows.
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