Mapping Lives: The Uses of Biography.
This book might have been more accurately entitled 'Mapping Literary Lives'. Nevertheless, it is one of the best contributions to the life-writing critical industry of the last decade, and has much to say about biography generally. Compilations of essays too frequently produce an intellectually incoherent project. Here the editors have done a brilliant job of shaping their text. Historical/descriptive scholarship lays the ground of the form in Europe from the ancient Greeks to the eighteenth century, when the term 'biography' took on its modern usage. The biographical traditions of Italy, France, England, Germany, and Russia are examined in detail and, around the midpoint, with Avril Pyman's examination of the Russian Formalists' guilty predilection for literary lives, theory kicks in. Ann Jefferson's brilliant analysis of Sainte-Beuve is typical of the scholarly and sensitive attention to detail throughout. And as the book approaches the present day, the 'new biography' of Lytton Strachey raises fundamental questions. Is biography fiction? Should its research be presented chronologically, with detailed reference, or selectively, allusively? Is biography akin to archaeology? Is there an ethics of biography? How have developments in psychoanalysis, film, and gender studies influenced the form? Is it an art or a craft?
Richard Holmes's elegant disquisition acts as a preface after the editors' introduction, and is also an act of autobiography. He wrote it after being offered, but before accepting, a chair in Biographical Studies at UEA, while hesitating over the ancient 'stand-off between gown and town' (p. 8). The English tradition of biography, he had always felt, in its 'essential spirit [...] has been a maverick and unacademic one' (p. 7), quite different from the French, German, and American. But now the academy was beginning to recognize and to study biography. What would be the function of such studies, what its canon if the classic portraits were, and should be, constantly redrawn? No such canon, for instance, could exclude the 'experimental novel-biographies' (p. 16): Woolf's Flush and Orlando, Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot, or those biographies introducing fiction such as Ackroyd's Charles Dickens. As he says, 'All good biographers struggle with a particular tension between the scholarly drive to assemble facts as dispassionately as possible and the novelistic urge to find shape and meaning within the apparently random circumstances of a life' (pp. 16-17). Ultimately, he believes, it comes down to the 'moral role' of such writing, that it 'might teach us simply how to understand people better', 'to exercise empathy, to enter imaginatively into another place, another time, another life' (p. 17).
This might sound rather Leavisite to the post-structuralist academy, and indeed we learn that it was something which, in pre-humanist culture, informed life-writing from Suetonius to medieval hagiography and beyond: the rehearsals of 'greatness' as models for imitation, a tradition continued in the French eloge (Peter France). With humanism, Romanticism, and then with Freud, came 'the displacement of the past in favour of the present' (p. 44), the introduction of vernacular writing, the introduction of the free-standing life rather than the collections of brief lives, the turn from the public stage to the theatricality of self-fashioning (Martin McLaughlin). The history of modern biography, then, parallels the development and redefinition of European humanism. The lives of artists become as important as those of saints and statesmen. But in all modern versions, Holmes's edict applies: biography becomes an empathetic art rather than an encyclopaedic craft.
No short review can do justice to the subtlety and range of the arguments presented in this book but Ian Donaldson's fascinating analysis of English Restoration memoirs, drawing attention to the 'arts of memory' (p. 71) and to the Act of Indemnity and Oblivion, might serve as a focus. For biography, he reminds us, is as much an act of forgetting as of remembering. Leslie Stephen's and Sir Sidney Lee's DNB largely excluded women. The 'cult of genius' (p. 109) was perhaps to blame for this, as was the function of biography in the mapping of national identity (Roger Paulin). But, despite the fact that from its earliest days biography has also recalled the lives of the insalubrious, despite Russian Formalism and Roland Barthes, the cult will not die, expanded as it now is to include both sexes, all gender orientations, and those (previously) beyond the public gaze. Few of these essayists care much for 'psychobiography'. Most, however, seem to believe in the educative function of life-writing. And while artists from Flaubert to Updike may rage against the 'biografiend', the form has stout defenders here, theoretically sophisticated, critical of unethical procedures, but willing to celebrate its complexity and self-reflexivity. Clearly, as far as the British academy (and the British Academy) is concerned, literary biography is here to stay.
UNIVERSITY OF LEICESTER
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|Publication:||The Modern Language Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2004|
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