At the moment I’m working on the 2018 bibliography of Australian literature for the Journal of Commonwealth Literature with my co-authors Van Ikin and Margaret Stevenson (previous year’s here – but alas it’s paywalled). It has led me to discover some Australian literary biographies I missed, including four from Australian Scholarly Publishing. Together with Monash University Publishing, they are holding up the genre! Generously defined, there were eight Australian literary biographies in 2018 by my count – up from previous years. I feel very remiss for having only read one so far. Continue reading
Leonard Cohen, George Johnston, Charmain Clift, and Mungo MacCallum walk into a bar on the island of Hydra… no it’s not a joke, it’s a fine group biography by Western Australians Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell and my review is on the Westerly website.
Bill Goldstein The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, and the Year That Changed Literature (Bloomsbury, 2017).
There’s so much potential in biographies of a year. I have one in mind for my next project, a somewhat random choice of a year in the life of a particular city through the eyes of a range of diarists, some famous some not. But in The World Broke in Two, Bill Goldstein sets the bar high for what makes a year worthy of a biography. And I suspect publishers require a very strong pitch for why a year matters enough for a book. His contention is that 1922 was a landmark year in English-language literature, the year modernism changed everything. As such, the book traces the literary breakthroughs of Virginia Woolf (Mrs Dalloway), E.M. Forster (A Passage to India), T.S. Eliot (“The Waste Land”) and D.H. Lawrence (Kangaroo – the case is less compelling here, but he was also made infamous when Women in Love was tried for obscenity in the USA). It was a remarkable year, though in my opinion arguing a thesis breeds hyperbole; as Goldstein makes clear, all of these writers are responding to James Joyce and Marcel Proust. But that is a quibble; this is a superb biography, a compelling narrative which succeeds in identifying small, telling details and larger arcs in the lives of its subjects. Forster and Eliot visit and correspond with Woolf, bringing three of them together, while Lawrence is an outlier, outside their literary circle and travelling to Ceylon, Australia, and the USA, but providing an interesting contrast. Each of their stories is interesting – and Forster’s particularly moving, as he travels to Egypt for a sojourn with his lover only to find him terminally ill. My understanding of “The Waste Land”, a poem I love, has also been much enriched. In focusing on a year, a different pace, closer to a novel is possible, especially in Goldstein’s capable hands.
It’s nearing the end of 2017 and I’ve only noticed three Australian literary biographies published. I counted five last year, and thought that a low number; perhaps it was actually a bumper crop. The three I’ve noticed are Bernadette Brennan’s A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work (Text); Kerrie Davies’ A Wife’s Heart: The Untold Story of Bertha and Henry Lawson (UQP); and Janelle McCulloch Beyond the Rock: the Life of Joan Lindsay and the Mystery of Picnic at Hanging Rock (Echo). What have I missed?
I haven’t read any of these yet but even at only three titles, they represent a good spread of Australian literature. Lawson must be the most covered biographical subject of any Australian writer, but Davies’ focus on Bertha is a new angle and apparently an innovative approach. The biography of Joan Lindsay gives us a solidly twentieth century writer; the title suggests the challenge of approaching (and marketing) a writer remembered for one book. And then Brennan’s biography is of a contemporary writer and sounds from the reviews as a work of biographical criticism, making it more possible to write while the subject is well and truly alive.
What a character Kylie Tennant was. Her strength and distinctiveness leap out from the pages of Jane Grant’s biography, right from the opening where she walks 500 miles at age twenty during the Depression to visit her university friend Lewis Rodd. Impulsively, they marry. Continue reading
I knew Truman Capote (1924-1984) was a shallow, miserable man, so why did I read his biography? It’s not that I think you should only read the biographies of the virtuous, but I do have an aversion to people who idolise celebrity and lack depth, which would put Capote high on the list of those to avoid. Yet Clarke’s 1988 book is a landmark biography and (speaking of shallow) it was on special on Kindle.
It took Clarke thirteen years to write and it deserves its reputation. It reads so smoothly, so effortlessly in a way which only a great biographer can achieve and only then with much sweat. It follows Capote from his troubled childhood in Alabama and the wounds his selfish parents inflicted on him to his emergence as a literary wunderkind in New York and the successes of his early and mid-career to the tragic descent into writer’s block, alcoholism, and exile from the circles of the wealthy and celebrities he had moved in. It’s a tragedy and it’s told with a restraint, clarity, and insight which make it compelling. Only in the 2010 afterword does Clarke reveals his friendship with Capote during those longs years of decline, something which explains his sympathetic treatment of Capote and credulity toward his stories, even if there’s moments in the narrative where Clarke suggests Capote is making things up.
It’s also a biography built on interviews. Not unsurprisingly, it seems to me that biographers often divide by background – journalists (like Clarke) tend to write biographies about the living or recently dead built on interviews, while historians will tend to write biographies of those longer dead built on archival research. I am a little suspicious of dependency on interviews; I think they still need to be backed by solid archival research. (And in this case, Clarke has definitely done solid archival research as well.) For my own biography, I would like to have a historian’s respect for the archives and a journalist’s hunger for a great story.
The great Australian artist Tom Roberts volunteered to serve in a London military hospital during the Great War. He ended up serving as an unofficial batman to Katharine Susannah Prichard’s future husband, Hugo Throssell, who was being treated for war wounds. I picked up Humphrey McQueen’s comprehensive 1996 biography of Roberts and found a lively account of their friendship. Another biography I wish I had the time to read. Each chapter has the name of a literary work from “Such is Life” to “The Good Soldier”. I love this acknowledgement at the back:
Paul Kelly for offering me a column in the Weekend Australian. The $585 I earned each week for two days work during the almost three years was the equivalent of a literary fellowship, without which this book would still not be completed. Rupert Murdoch let us get away with it until the week before the first draft went to the publishers.
One must always look for creative ways to fund the writing of a book.
Another note: McQueen’s great account of Roberts and Throssell is quoted or paraphrased at length in John Hamilton’s biography of Throssell Price of Valour without referencing. Mcqueen’s book does appear in the bibliography, but I don’t think that’s enough. Even “popular” biographies owe it to other writers and to the readers to acknowledge their sources fully.
The otherworldly figure conjured after her death in 1992 doesn’t do Angela Carter justice. Her biographer Edmund Gordon attempts a more accurate portrayal of a complex, sensual and highly intellectual woman
This is a great article in the Guardian from Angela Carter’s biographer, Edmund Gordon. He does a splendid job of creating a capsule biography of her in the article, giving a sense of her whole life in a few thousand words, while making it interesting to read and illuminated with revealing moments. This must be so hard to do after coming to know her life so well in its details and agonising over any summary, given any summary will tend to distort by simplification or omission.
He describes the mythology she has been reduced to and sketches something of how he reinterprets Carter. It takes insight and courage to successfully and fairly reinterpret a life. And there’s a pressure on biographers to do so – because if you’re not offering a new interpretation, why are you writing? (In this case, though, it is the first biography of her.) Another point of interest for me: how will he be received as a man writing about a woman?
Congratulations to Philip Butterss, whose biography of CJ Dennis, An Unsentimental Bloke, won the National Biography Award of Australia on Monday. A battered old copy of CJ Dennis’s Sentimental Bloke sat on my family’s shelf when I was a child, and my unsuccessful efforts to read it immunised me against him, perhaps rather unfairly. Continue reading
The metal bust of Mary Durack used to greet me each day at the entry to the Battye Collection during my year working at the State Library of WA in 2007. I saw it again yesterday, a couple of days after finishing Brenda Niall’s True North: The Story of Elizabeth and Mary Durack (Text, 2012). Busts make the people of the past seem so distant, but one of the achievements of this biography to make the Duracks feel quite alive again for a time. Continue reading