Tuesday, September 26, 2006

times of our lives, Part 1

Of course you all know how dearly I love the art of biography. For my money, it's hands-down the most intrinsically fascinating genre of writing there is. There's the grandeur of lives lived on a wide stage, and there's the peculiar satisfaction of the petty human foibles interwoven with all that greatness.

(needless to say, stevereads takes an exceedingly dim view of the current glut of autobiographies written by people who've done nothing, experienced nothing, sought after nothing, created nothing ... so all you Elizabeth Wurtzel's out there whose only claim to any kind of fame is that you're sometimes unhappy? Shaddup and sit down ... nobody on Earth is interested in what you have to say about, inevitably, yourself)

So here's a list! Since I'm tossing it off the top of my head, I'm not willing to call it definitive - I'll work on that. In the meantime, one axiom to keep in mind: this list doesn't include memoirs. Moss Hart, Benvenuto Cellini, Anthony Burgess, Robert Graves, Elias Canetti, Frank Harris ... none of them is here. That'll be another list.

So; here are some great biographies!

* Founding Father - Richard Brookhiser = Brookhiser is an endless talker and loves George Washington of all things, The result is incredibly readable and not a bit hagiographic.

*Longfellow - Newton Arvin - a marvelously empathetic of a great poet you should read more often, ya little bastids.

*The Nature of Alexander - Mary Renault
- Of all the gazillions of Alexander biographies out there, this is the only one written by someone actually in love with the subject. Renault is one of the century's best novelists, and her biography reads like one (in a very, very good way)

*Robert Louis Stevenson - Frank McLynn
- McLynn is a 'professional' biographer, a term of some obbrobrium in academic circles, but I say what's wrong with somebody deciding the genre they want to write is biography? The point is, McLynn is extremely GOOD at it, and with Stevenson he has a rich mine of great material.

*Some Sort of Epic Grandeur - Matthew Bruccoi - A wonderful biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald

*Power Broker - Robert Caro - a big, blustery biography of Robert Moses, the raper of Manhattan

*Seeing Mary Plain - Frances Kiernan - a fittingly intelligent and scrupulous biography of Mary McCarthy

*The Education of Julius Caesar - Arthur Kahn - Maybe only Jesus and Shakespeare have accrued more biographical crapola than Julius Caesar, but unlike those two other guys, there's a MOUNTAIN of source material for Caesar. That fact has drawn biographers like flies, and a large number of them are worth reading. I chose Kahn's because a) it's sharply, wittily written, and b) it suffers from none of the hindsight-awe that afflicts so many other biographies of the poxy debt-shirker.

*Mary Queen of Scots - Antonia Fraser

*The Queen - Ben Pimlott - believe it or not, the queen in question here is Elizabth II, not I, and there's not a hint of condescension in any of its 700 pages. Instead, there's an endless supply of smart, quotable prose and a clear-eyed assessment of what monarchy means in the modern world. It wouldn't always make comfortable reading for the Queen herself, but I think a copy of this wonderful book should be handed out to every moviegoer who lines up to see Helen Mirren's magisterial portrayal of the same august personage later this season.

*Leonardo - Serge Bramly - Leonardo too has had his legion of biographers, from Vasari on down, but Bramly's book beats them all for its sassy, cold, evaluative tone, at once knowing and questing. Bramly strips away all the larger-than-life accretions that have attached to his subject over the centuries, and Bramly seems as surprised as anybody when that doesn't serve to lessen the man's stature at all.

*Henry VIII - Francis Hackett - Well, likewise Henry, who's had hundreds of biographers. But unlike the other such cases, where I'm coming down in favor of my pick on the basis of some stylistic nuance or other, with Hackett things are much simpler: his book is better than any other on the subject. Better researched. Better paced. And hugely, infinitely better written. Those of you who know me are no doubt familiar with the passage I'm going to quote - steel yourselves, my little widgets! This blog is for the world.

So here's the passage, and oddly enough, it's not about Henry at all - it's about the death of Erasmus, and its offhand brilliance lies in the fact that it's the damn-perfect prettiest summation ever written of Erasmus, one of the hardest men in all history to understand (and damn hard to love, for all the immeasurable worth of doing so):

"Meanwhile rational Europe, trying to keep inflammable passion and mad peasant blood within decent bounds, had lost its greatest spokesman in Erasmus. He died in April. The torch of good reason was for the moment dimmed. Two firebrands, still obscure, were planning the conquest of mankind for a Christ of their own making, each asking their followers to immolate their reason and bind their will. In 1536 John Calvin published his 'Institutio.' In the same year a Spanish Basque, to be known as Ignatius Loyola, was finishing the studies at Paris that underlay the Society of Jesus. Henry's 'moderation,' on the terms of his own dominance, would push half-evolved Europeans along the road of the modern state, while Calvin and Loyola, borrowing statecraft and rousing the lust of warfare with the breath of the Eternal, would stir in religion precisely the same appetite for earthly dominance. Beside them Erasmus might seem a feeble creature, sitting by his open fire with a glass of Burgundy in front of him. But Erasmus had made the New Testament his labor of love. He was not a hero, like Loyola or Calvin. He was not an 'emperor' as Henry now called himself. He was only a humanist. Beside him the Jesuits, affirming liberty and vowing obedience, or the Calvinists, affirming predestination and applying the scourge, recalled very ancient priesthoods and glorious savage instincts that cry out from the caverns to be released, even if they must carry a Bible in their hand.
"Yet the Galilean Jew could not have despised the humanist: if he had rested by the fire with Erasmus, this book of the New Testament on his knees, and a glass of Burgundy before him, perhaps he might have raised those sad eyes to see that truth and charity had lingered for an instant at Basle, finding an honest welcome there, that the word was still alive; that the arm of war and the methods of torture, to which his own thin hands bore witness, were perhaps not the only way to prize the divinity in man."

He hated fish-suppers and had his doubts about the Jews, he argued with his friends as often as with his enemies and was loved almost equally by both. And that little passage does more than whole biographies to convey the man.

The book is also chock-full of great stuff about Henry. You'll just have to take my word for it (or ask me to get you a copy).

*The Life & Times of Chaucer by John Gardner - As some of you may know, I consider Gardner one of the 20th Century's great, neglected authors (some others, being crowded off the podium by Philip Roth and D. H. Lawrence and Doris Lessing? Well, John Barth - Joseph Heller - Anthony Burgess - a list for a future date!). In this case, Gardner responded to a lifelong affection for Chaucer in the same way Mary Renault did: he stepped across the aisle and wrote non-fiction on the subject.

He does a fine, beautiful job. It's true that he doesn't have every last detail technically correct in the way that an historical expert on Chaucer would (sit down, Sebastian - I was referring to myself), but there aren't that many actually interesting details extant in any case. Any 'life' of Chaucer will be inextricably bound up in his works, and that's where it helps to have a novelist doing the writing.

It's all beautiful, and it could all be quoted here, but some of you out there will know which passage I'm going to single out. It's the very last paragraph of the book:

"When he finished he handed his quill to Lewis. He could see the boy's features clearly now, could see everything clearly, his 'whole soul in his eyes' - another line out of some old poem, he thought sadly, and then, ironically, more sadly yet, 'Farewell my bok and my devocioun!' Then in panic he realized, but only for an instant, that he was dead, falling violently toward Christ."

There are many, many great biographies of Chaucer out there, but this one is the most touching, the most personal, and the only one that stands as a work of literature in its own right.

*Mrs. Jack by Louise Hall Tharp - A wonderful, friendly biography of Boston's inimitable Isabella Stewart Gardner. Those of you who might be championing Jack Beatty's almost equally wonderful book on the same subject, 'The Art of Scandal'? Shaddup - he gets his place on the list, and in the meantime, there's a world of importance in that 'almost.' Those of you who've never read this book? You're in for a real treat. And: those of you who've never been to the Gardner Museum, the magnificent palazzo she built to house all the artworks she looted from around the globe? Shame on you. And if you actually live in Boston and STILL haven't been? Beyond-the-pale shame on you!

*The Rascal King - Jack Beatty - If ever a perfect subject met a perfect chronicler, this book is it. The 'rascal king' in question is of course legendary Boston mayor James Michael Curley, and the chronicler is the gleeful, razor-smart Jack Beatty, who would never let history get in the way of a good story. His biography of Curley is magnificently chatty and expansive, and the best thing anybody could say about it is this: its subject would have liked it.

*Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century - James Farrell - much as I hate to give the impression of an ongoing theme, you have to take my word for it: I didn't plan out the order of these entries before I typed them.

Nevertheless, this is yet another great book about an inimitable Irishman written by an inimitable Irishman.

*Hitler - Joachim Fest - For a bit there, I was worried that Fest's public personality might overshadow his biographical achievement. Once Gunter Grass announced that he'd been a member of the Waffen SS, Fest jumped up and down on him in public pronouncements, heightening suspicion that Grass only made his announcement in order to drum up interest in his new memoirs. And Fest's new memoirs, "Not Me," takes its title from the fact that Fest never joined the Nazis. But Fest just recently croaked, and I needn't have worried anyway: if ever a book was destined to outlive its author, Fest's 'Hitler' is one of them - this is the best of a very, very big bunch.

*City Poet by Brad Gooch - Gooch is a former model and a good novelist, and here, in a totally fortuitous meeting of author and subject, he writes an entirely winning biography of perennially underestimated American poet Frank O'Hara. Gooch is a sensitive reader of the poems, and he has a wonderful facility for conveying the feel of the times. O'Hara would have, um, scanned Gooch's verse any day of the week - and more importantly (well, maybe), he'd have liked this book.

*Captain Cook by J.C. Beaglehole - this is a wopping great big book that doen't have a single boring or thoughtlessly crafted sentence, which is something of a miracle in and of itself. Beaglehole examines every aspect of the life of England's greatest sea-captain (anybody got a problem with that? Nelson fans? Cochrane fans? Shaddup, alla youse).

*Dutch by Edmund Morris - I said it at the time, and I say it still: this weird and disjointedly garrulous book is, in the end, entirely stunning. No greater literary tribute has ever been given to a living president than this one to President Reagan. It isn't anything close to a conventional biography, even though all the biographical facts are there. Rather, this is ... well, I don't know what to call it - impressionistic? Pointilistic? Regardless of WHAT we call it, the fevered, almost hallucinogenic sensation of reading it perfectly mirrors the weird experience of living through the Reagan years. And the prose is gorgeous, often for dozens and dozens of pages at a time. That combination of factors wins out for me over the more straightforward books about the Gipper.

*Somebody Else by Charles Nicoll - Nicoll's masterpiece is undoubtedly 'The Reckoning,' his book about the en who murdered Christopher Marlowe. But this book, about the Rimbaud who went to Africa and sold guns and never, so far as we know, wrote a line of poetry again, comes in a very close second (and is more presentably biographical). Nicholl here is at his investigative best, piecing together hundreds of disparate clues about what has to be the starkest literary transformation in the history of literature.

*Tolstoy by Henri Troyat - Troyat too is a professional biographer, and here he has a whopper of a subject and acquits himselfl admirably. It's no coincidence that Tolstoy's life reads like something out of one of his own novels (there's a fruitful dissertation to be written on WHICH authors this is true for and WHY), and Troyat captures that very well.

*Jack Aubrey's Brief Lives - I know, I know - this isn't strictly a biography of one person, but I REALLY wanted to plug Aubrey's book, since it's one of those endless treasure-troves of a book, a huge collection of sometimes incredibly brief and almost koan-like sketches (sometimes not even a page - Aubrey asked Dryden to supply a page-long biographical sketch of himself, and when the poet didn't come through, Aubrey dutifully put the blank page in his book). The edition to get here is the Penguin, hands down - the long, introductory essay there is a work of art all by itself.

*Emerson, the Mind on Fire by Robert Richardson - Emerson might very well be the hardest American to biographize ... his writings are utterly unforgettable and unlike anything else in the country's canon, but ... and here's where the problem comes in ... he was COMPLETELY BARKING INSANE. Richardson not only tackles this problem, he triumps over it and makes it look easy. Emerson would have ... well, he'd have read the first ten pages, misunderstood them, and then parsed them into a 150-page Platonian meditation on the vitality of mortality. But the rest of you will really like it.

*Son of the Morning Star by Evan Connell - The story of the Battle of Little Bighorn is inherently dramatic, an endlessly transformable, but even so, nothing can fully prepare the reader for the harrowing, magnificent job Connell does with his subject. His narrative spirals upward toward its pre-ordained climax in several separate strands. As good as they are, none of Connell's other books (across their charmingly broad spectrum) comes close to this one in sheer, beautiful power.

*Queen Victoria by Lytton Strachey - how could we contemplate a biography screed without mentioning Strachey! His book on Queen Victoria is predictably brilliant - wry, incisive, and crammed with more witticisms than a whole season of 'The Simpsons.'

*In the Presence of the Creator by Gale Christianson - This is a stately, keenly detailed biography of Isaac Newton, and Christianson is especially good at painting a broad background. It's a shame it's out of print, but then, you kids are probably all about the eBay, aren't you? Maybe one of you ungrateful little sprouts will think to shell out an extra $5 to get a copy for old reliable stevereads, who lost his own copy in a HORRENDOUS FIRE that destroyed ALL HIS WORLDLY BELONGINGS...

*Admiral of the Ocean Sea by Samuel Eliot Morison - Hard, very hard, to pick from all of Morison's great biographies, but this one, about Christopher Columbus, wins by an edge, mainly because it's Morison's most personal book (you'll all notice that I obviously consider this an important element of writing biography), even moreso than the ones he wrote about men he actually knew - I think because he felt a kinship with Columbus, voyaging into the unknown on tried vessels using a matchless ability to read the sea. This is one old salt yarning about another, and it really isn't to be missed.

Well! I'm tossing great biographies off the top of my head, and even so, just LOOK at the size of this entry! Clearly, I'm going to need to revisit this subject!

I'll do two things: first, I'll get to work on a definitive 'top 50' list, and in the meantime, I'll come back later on and do another one of THESE, these windbaggy annotated thingees, with a few more titles. Will that satisfy you all, you bloodthirsty little ewoks?


sam said...

Wonderful! I've read only the Connell, which I loved (it's also great because Connell studies all the other Custer biographies and legends that preceded his, brilliantly contrasting and splicing them with his own life of Custer). Thanks for the other titles.

(The pictures did not overlap on my screen)

steve said...

All well and good, but don't YOU have anything to say, Beepy? This entry, after all, was in part written for YOU ....

john said...

Steve, that was fantastic. I've read only "City Poet," and "Mind on Fire," but they were both fantastic, and, weirdly enough, both opened entirely new worlds in Boston and Cambridge, places I know well but didn't know at all one hundred years ago or fifty years ago. I fear we don't measure up.

steve said...

speak for yerself, sparky! I measured up then, and I measure up now!

Beepy said...

Sorry, Steve. The manatee mind is, as you know, a slowly paced one. I enjoyed the list and in a day or two, when I've come out of my work induced coma, I might actually think about reading some of them. I'm starting to have my fill of fiction.