I’ve been so sad today after hearing that Noel Vose has died at 94. I’ve come to know him while working for eight years at the seminary named after him; he’s also been curiously tied up for me with my biographical quest.
I’m an admirer of Julia Baird, host of ABC TV’s The Drum. She has taken on the powerful Sydney Anglicans over their attitude toward women more effectively than most. She is an interesting and balanced presenter, quick-witted and incisive. If she shares the political affiliation of her brother (NSW’s premier) and her father (a former federal MP), maybe there’s hope yet for that party. She’s also a biographer. I read that The Drum gig is what she’s doing because she used up her advance on her long-awaited biography of Queen Victoria.
(This is the fourth and final in an interview series with John Burbidge, author of Dare Me! The Life and Work of Gerald Glaskin.)
Biographer-in-Perth: Any advice for a biographer starting out on the journey you’ve just taken?
John Burbidge: A few miscellaneous thoughts-
Biographer-in-Perth: It’s been interesting and valuable for me to learn about John’s journey as a biographer. Thank you so much to John for sharing his thoughts. I know they will be of value to other biographers, as well as offering fascinating insights into a biographer’s work for readers of literary biography.
(This is the third of four in an interview series with John Burbidge, author of Dare Me! The Life and Work of Gerald Glaskin.)
Biographer-in-Perth: What was your experience dealing with that perpetual dilemma of the literary biographer: deciding how to relate your subject’s writing to their life?
John Burbidge: Actually, it was not so difficult to relate his writing to his life because so much of it is quite autobiographical. He tended to write his fiction based on real-life experiences and locate his stories in places in which lived (Henrietta Drake-Brockman admonished him as a young boy for not doing this in his early short stories, and he never forgot it.). No End to the Way is perhaps the classic example of this, but it is also true of books like A Lion in the Sun, The Beach of Passionate Love, The Man Who Didn’t Count, A Bird in my Hands and others.
I decided to let theme guide me and tried to relate particular books to certain themes. When I did this, some works fell more easily into certain chapters than others, e.g. his trilogy on lucid dreaming clearly belonged in the chapter on dreams and Glaskin’s fascination with the paranormal. Of course, reading all his published and unpublished works was a prerequisite for this and took some time (Glaskin had more than 100 short stories published, as well as 20 books and a number of unpublished manuscripts as well.)
To help me manage this complex task, I created a chart that was a cross between a timeline and a matrix. Across the top of the page I listed all the chapters (as they emerged) that roughly corresponded to a chronology of his life. The side categories were Opening Quotation, Basic Premise, Key Elements and Related Books. Naturally, I moved things around a bit, merged columns, deleted others, and so on. Although it might appear to be a highly structured way of coming at a biography, I found it to be a useful framework that allowed for a lot of fluidity and kept me from drowning in the sea of data, opinions and ideas that swamp you when tackling another’s life and work.
I also created a life timeline for Glaskin to which I kept adding information as I came across it. Across the top, by year, was his age and place of residence and down the side were Events, People, Books Written, Books Published, and Other. It allowed me to keep the big picture in front of me as the details kept adding.
Part 4 tomorrow: Advice for New Biographers.
(This is the second of four in an interview series with John Burbidge, author of Dare Me! The Life and Work of Gerald Glaskin.)
Biographer-in-Perth: I felt I could perceive your struggle to know what to do with the anger and bitterness in Gerald Glaskin’s personality. Did you find it difficult trying to keep on the right side of all the people you’d interviewed, and their varying opinions of him?
John Burbidge: I sometimes wonder if I gave undue emphasis to Glaskin’s more negative traits, but having talked with dozens of people and read hundreds of letters (his and others), I found it was something that came through very strongly and repeatedly, so I couldn’t ignore it.
One early reader of the manuscript and a close friend of Glaskin’s thought I had overplayed this aspect of his personality, at the expense of his more endearing and positive qualities. I took this advice to heart and tried to ensure that I presented a fair and balanced appraisal of the man. (I later deleted an entire chapter because it was essentially just another example of his belligerent nature, so it seemed redundant.) At the same time, I did not wish to downplay something that seemed to be a critical factor in answering a primary question of this biography, namely, what contributed to Glaskin’s poor reception as a writer in his home country?
During interviews, naturally I tried to remain impartial and let people say what they wanted, regardless of whether it was pro or con Glaskin. I had no axe to grind or theory to prove, but was simply trying to paint the most honest and comprehensive portrait of the man and his work that I could. One way I attempted to do this was to reach out to a broad cross-section of people who knew him in various capacities and at different times in his life, then put together the pieces of the puzzle as they revealed themselves. Most people came across as honest and upfront, but I sensed a few held back from revealing aspects of Glaskin’s life they didn’t wish me to know about. I accepted that as one of the limitations of interviewing and trusted that further research would help fill in the blanks, which it usually did.
When I came across the paradigm of ‘Glaskinitis’, I felt it was a breakthrough because it not only confirmed what I had perceived from many other sources but it put Glaskin’s more antagonistic traits in the wider context of a family behavioural pattern.
Part 3 tomorrow: The Works and the Life.
At the Perth Writers’ Festival in February, I discovered John Burbidge’s Dare Me! The Life and Work of Gerald Glaskin, the biography of a significant Perth writer often overlooked in his home country. I had the chance to introduce myself to John at the book-signing and he has generously agreed to answer my questions about literary biography to share on this blog. John’s answers – a series of four over the next four days – are splendid reflections on the theory and praxis of writing a biography. You can find more about Dare Me! on John’s website about Glaskin; find out about John’s other work as an editor and writer at http://www.wordswallah.com, including a page on his memoir, The Boatman, to be published in Australia later this year.
Biographer-in-Perth: I was struck by the way you opened with a thematic treatment of the beach in Glaskin’s life as a way of introducing him – a good choice, I believe. (Did you mention you borrowed the technique from Nicholas Shakespeare?) I think it an approach with much to commend it, but obviously has its challenges, too, in separating events in the subject’s life which were actually close together. In my reading of your book, there is a loose chronology, but each chapter covers a theme across the whole of his life. What persuaded you to make the choice of this over a more conventional chronology?
John Burbidge: A life is such a sprawling, complicated, messy thing to try to capture in the few pages of a book that I felt it would be helpful if I could find something that could be a metaphor or sustaining symbol around which I could weave the narrative, to give the reader something to hold onto and return to. My model for this was Nicholas Shakespeare in his magnificent biography of Bruce Chatwin, in which he chose a cabinet in Chatwin’s grandmother’s house to play this kind of role in his book, as it did in Chatwin’s life. I found this a useful technique and when I tried to emulate it for Glaskin, I came up with his love of the beach, and one particular beach, Cottesloe, that played such a pivotal part in his life. I decided to start my biography there and return to it at the end, to give the story a sense of completion.
Regarding my approach, it is a blend of the chronological and thematic. I’m not sure how conscious a decision this when I started writing, but it emerged as I went along. With a biography, readers like to know how a person grows, absorbs from those influences around him, and responds to life’s challenges as they present themselves, which calls for a certain degree of chronology. In addition, with a writer, there will no doubt be a progression from his early works to his later ones, so this feeds that approach. But as I did my research (over a number of years), I found certain themes began to emerge and demand attention, so I decided to focus my chapters around those, while maintaining a basic chronological progression. It was a balancing and weaving act, with a few changes and false starts along the way.
Perhaps what cemented my choice to use this two-pronged approach was the fact that as I researched Glaskin’s life, I began to see threads that ran through it and I wanted to see if I could connect the dots over time. For example, his encounters with Aboriginal Australians and Asians from an very early age laid the groundwork for his later experiences with them as an adult and the inclusion of them as characters (usually heroes) in his novels. Or his knee-jerk reaction to threats, which exhibited themselves in his early run-ins with authority at Catholic schools and reappeared throughout his life in his aggressive behaviour whenever he felt poorly done by.
Finally, a biography is a story and needs to hold the reader’s interest like any good tale. Highly chronological biographies run the risk of becoming tedious. I decided to focus primarily on those aspects of Glaskin’s life that really grabbed me, and to mine those, on the assumption that readers, too, would be similarly affected by them.
Part 2 tomorrow – ‘Dealing with Glaskinitis’
What you encounter at last, after your metaphorical quest across regions of ice, might be not so much a visage as a sensation, an overwhelming feeling of frustration, of having been somehow tragically eluded; a feeling that includes the immense sadness with which the contemplation of an imperfectly glimpsed past suffuses the soul…
– Brian Matthews, Louisa, 296.
This is the great question that historians and biographers must face: is the past recoverable? Can we get past the fragments it has left behind to some sense of what it was?
I think of how differently people remember the same person who they all knew. Say, for example, rather innocuously, you get to talking about a former work colleague. To some, he could be a hero of sorts, a fine worker and a great contributor; to others, a man with a streak of nastiness. Who is right? I suppose both are right, but some might be more perceptive than others. How perceptive can we be about people we will never meet? And yet, the whole endeavour of writing and reading insists that we can, in some sense, know a person through the words they have left behind.
I probably read about the death of biographer Hazel Rowley in 2011, shortly before she was due to appear at the Perth Writers’ Festival, but I’d forgotten. She was still very alive to me, looking out from the back of her book on Christina Stead (1902-1983) as I followed her through Stead’s life. Being a biographer gives an illusion of immortality; the biographer sees a whole life before them, even the subject’s death. Rowley was only 59 when she died, and surely had many more important books to write.
This one is recognised as one of the great Australian literary biographies, and lives up to its reputation. Rowley writes engagingly, and gets the level of detail right, slowing down sometimes to describe particular days, summarising other periods. It’s a 500 page book, but Stead’s life was long and eventful enough to justify it. Rowley tends to use sections of a page or two divided with marks; it’s an effective way to move between incidents or topics within a time period.
Stead comes across as a writer who sacrificed everything for her art. After some moderate early successes, she lived in poverty for decades, blacklisted in America as a Communist and out of fashion as a writer. She and her life companion, William Blake, wrote incessantly, trying to make ends meet, as they wandered like nomads between the USA, London, and Europe. Blake is a fascinating character, sounding something of a genius himself, a man with a photographic memory and endless interests, who could write on anything at will, knocking out entire encyclopedias as well as historical novels and political analysis. Stead’s own work is intense, difficult and significant. She had a late season of recognition when she returned to Australia in the 1970s, after nearly fifty years away, but even this period was a time of loneliness and rootlessness. In Rowley’s account, she lived her whole life wounded by her father, who valued beauty and saw her as ugly.
Katharine Susannah Prichard is listed twice as a point of comparison, but there is no mention of them knowing each other; it’s a line of inquiry I will follow at some stage. There is a generation between them, but both were Australian Communist women writers who moved abroad to launch their careers. Prichard moved back and stayed put, and perhaps it saved her some of the misery Stead was to endure; Prichard also just seems a more optimistic, less difficult personality. It’s been a decade since I read Stead’s masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children, but she is a very different writer to Prichard, far more experimental, far less Romantic and sentimental, far less plot-driven.
Lisa Hill on ANZ LitLovers has a good review of the biography, summarising Stead’s life and work.