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Mission Impossible

Check out Bill Morris’ terrific interview with Scott Donaldson on the “Impossible Craft” of writing biography over at The Millions:

TM: Leon Edel, the biographer of Henry James, used to say that writing a biography is a little like falling in love. Would you agree with that?

SD: That’s a dodgy issue. If you fall in love with your subject, you can so identify with your subject that you lose something of your own self to it. The first two biographers of Malcolm Lowry, who was a suicide, they both killed themselves. Maybe they had that inclination to begin with. But there is this sense of falling out of one’s own personality into someone else’s. That can happen.

TM: There are also cases where the biographer comes to loathe the subject.

SD: Exactly.

TM: Look at Geoffrey Wolff writing about John O’Hara. That was a dark book. I saw Wolff give a talk in New York once, and he said he came to a point where he despised the man.

SD: I hadn’t heard that about Geoffrey, that’s interesting. Another case like that would be Jonathan Yardley writing a biography of Frederick Exley, and ending up hating the guy. There wasn’t much to like about him as a person, but he did some wonderful writing.

…TM: Why the impossible craft?

SD: Well, because if you try to construct the ideal figure for a biographer, you realize he or she has to be so many different kinds of things that no human being could possibly achieve. You’ve got to be a detective, you’ve got to be a drudge, tracking down every possible fact you can; at the same time you’ve got to be insightful as hell, you have to be psychologically acute, you have to take an objective view of things without losing sympathy for your subject. You don’t have to be unnecessarily tough. There’s a blurb from Peter Matthiessen on the back of my Fenton book that says I was tough where I needed to be. And that’s good. You want to be honest and tell the whole story, you don’t want it to be wrapped in any more concealments than are necessary, if any are. And let’s say that the most important reason of all it’s an impossible craft is that you cannot know what someone else’s life was like. You can try to come close. Charlie Fenton’s brother said to me recently that he thinks I caught Charlie. Well, that’s wonderful. That’s wonderful. That’s what you want to do.


Here We Go Round Again

Found a couple of intriguing posts about a new book, “On Rereading,” by Patricia Meyer Spacks.

First, from Nathaniel Stein at the New Yorker’s Book Bench:

“One cannot read a book: one can only reread it,” Nabokov said. I thought of that line while reading “On Rereading,” Patricia Meyer Spacks’s charming and strange blend of memoir, literary criticism, and scientific treatise. Spacks, a literature professor and a former president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, systematically revisits “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “The Golden Notebook,” the novels of Jane Austen, and other milestones of her reading life. She hopes to justify the usefulness—or at least to solve a bit of the mystery—of an activity that she loves but also, at times, doubts.

Few would question looking at a great painting twice, or watching a favorite movie again and again. But, perhaps because rereading requires more of a commitment than giving something a second look, it is undertaken, as Spacks puts it, “in the face of guilt-inducing awareness of all the other books that you should have read at least once but haven’t.” It engages, she fears in her darker moments, a “sinful self-indulgence.” Never mind Nabokov, or Flaubert, who marvelled at “what a scholar one might be if one knew well only five or six books.”

And here is Lisa Levy, over at The Millions:

In his often anthologized essay “On Reading Old Books,” William Hazlitt wrote, “I hate to read new books. There are twenty or thirty volumes that I have read over and over again, and these are the only ones that I have any desire to ever read at all.” This is a rather extreme position on rereading, but he is not alone. Larry McMurtry made a similar point: “If I once read for adventure, I now read for security. How nice to be able to return to what won’t change. When I sit down at dinner with a given book, I want to know what I’m going to find.” In her recent study On Rereading Patricia Meyers Spacks uses McMurtry as an example of someone who rereads to stubbornly avoid novelty, and unapologetically so. His refusal, like Hazlitt’s, to read anything new makes rereading a conservative if comfortable experience, vehemently opposed to the possible shock of the new.

Spacks herself feels slightly differently. She writes, “No reader can fail to agree that the number of books she needs to read far exceeds her capacities, but when the passion for rereading kicks in, the faint guilt that therefore attends the indulgence only serves to intensify its sweetness.” In Spacks’s scenario rereading is a forbidden pleasure, tantalizing and, contra Hazlitt and McMurtry, with an element of time wasted — an extravagance. The choice Hazlitt and McMurtry easily make weighs more heavily on Spacks, who knows she forgoes a new book every time she picks up an old one.

Yet there are far more positive spins put on rereading in Spacks’s book and elsewhere. Pleasure, after all, needn’t be a negative. Elsewhere in his essay, Hazlitt brings up a point which is raised often by rereaders: “In reading a book which is an old favorite with me (say the first novel I ever read) I not only have the pleasure of imagination and of a critical relish of the work, but the pleasures of memory added to it. It recalls the same feelings and associations which I had in first reading it, and which I can never have again in any other way. Standard productions of this kind are links on the chains of personal identity. They are landmarks and guides in our journey through life.”

I am not a voracious reader of fiction and have only read one novel, “The Sound and the Fury,” more than once. But I re-read non-fiction all the time, especially essays and articles. I like the idea of revisiting a novel, to see how my feelings may have changed but also as a way to remember where I was when I first read it.

Another project. I’m down.

[Photo Credit: Ashinine]

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