Like many of you during lockdown, I’ve invaded my bookshelves to reread or finish reading books that have accumulated dust. Among these I uncovered a couple biographies. I had started reading Deidre Bair’s highly acclaimed biography of Simone de Beauvoir some twenty-five years ago when it first came out, but for some reason, I had abandoned it before the part where Simone meets Jean Paul Sartre. I’m past that part now and realise that this is a worthwhile read, especially since the author interviewed her subject on several occasions, something historical biographers can only dream of. Some of the best books I’ve read on the life of Shakespeare have been more about the socio-cultural and political context of the time than on the bard himself (such as works by Anthony Holden and James Shapiro).
For me, the gems of these lockdown biographies can be found in biographical essays. I’ve recently read, from one of the musty half-read books on my shelves, an essay by Clive James on Mark Twain’s life as a journalist. Here you have the highly quotable James writing about the highly quotable Twain. Example:
‘Every subsequent American humour writer writes in the range of tones established by Twain. When Thurber says of his fellow economics student the football player Bolenciecwcz that ‘while he was not dumber than an ox he was not any smarter,’ he is in touch with Twain.’
Another biographical essay that’s come my way during the lockdown is from the New Yorker. Vinson Cunningham’s essay on playwright Lorraine Hansberry, best-known for writing ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ reflects on Hansberry’s life as a writer and political thinker, mixing biographical details with her writing output. Cunningham explains that when Hansberry discovered playwriting, ‘The theatre, with its urge to make the interior visible, and to force contradictions through the refiner’s fire of confrontation, was a perfect vehicle for her to develop both her politics and her art.’
Perhaps in their brevity, these essays have benefitted from needing to focus on one aspect or a certain time period of a person’s life. An issue I have with book-length biography and many a bio-pic is that they can suffer on trying to cover the full life, even the dull patches of childhood, in desperate attempts to explain how the notable person became notable. Clunky writing ensues.
When it comes to biographies, I’ve only dabbled in the essay form myself, including ‘Virginia Wolfe’s Teeth’ and an essay-type piece on C.S. Peirce for the Literary Encyclopedia. Even if the end product was small, writing such pieces was enlightening and gratifying. Despite having garnered no inspiration whatsoever from the lockdown itself, at least the circumstances have led to these stimulating pieces that make me want to pursue the biographical essay again.
Dear Reader, keep reading and stay safe.