Two cheers for biography
Biography doesn’t always get a good press. It has been Said to have “added a new terror to death”, while Oscar Wilde remarked that “[e]very great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography.” Not that this is enough to deter biographers, and New Zealand biographers are no exception. In this issue, Kim Hill reviews Carole van Grondelle’s life of Nola Luxford, and Barry Gustafson, himself the biographer of Prime Ministers Savage and Muldoon, reviews Tomorrow Comes the Song, the long-awaited biography of Peter Fraser, jointly authored by Michael Bassett and Michael King. These books are an important addition to what is now a distinguished tradition of biography writing in New Zealand.
It is a tradition that includes such luminaries as J C Beaglehole (with his monumental three-volume The Life of James Cook), Keith Sinclair (who produced biographies of William Pember Reeves and Walter Nash), as well as Michael King himself, whose contribution has been twofold. He pioneered the biography of major Maori figures, publishing Te Puea in 1977 and Whina in 1983, and then switched to the full-scale literary biography, with Frank Sargeson: A Life in 1995, and, just last year, the much acclaimed Wrestling with the Angel: a life of Janet Frame.
So biography – and especially the historical and literary biography – has become a fundamental part of our literary landscape, as fundamental as fiction or poetry. Justifiably so, and not just because of the media attention it might receive on publication. Biography has long been a literary genre in its own right, reaching back to Plutarch and Tacitus in Classical times, and including in its more modern manifestations writers like Voltaire, Dr Johnson, Boswell, Mrs Gaskell, Lytton Strachey, and recently, Richard Ellman, Hermione Lee, Michael Holroyd, Jenny Uglow and Richard Holmes.
Why this should be is not difficult to establish. First, any person’s life provides a ready-made plot, a story with a beginning, middle and end, or, if you prefer, a drama with exposition, development and denouement. However dull a biographical subject’s life might seem, the resourceful biographer can always fashion a narrative that the curious reader will want to follow. The reader’s curiosity is of two kinds. One, naturally, is the back-fence gossip kind – most of us want to know what’s going on in other people’s lives, and the more outrageous the better. As Lytton Strachey wickedly put it, “Discretion is not the better part of biography.” The other is the desire to learn what it is that makes a significant human being “tick”: their heritage, their motivations, their strategies for achieving. So most biographies are also psychological studies. And for readers, there’s always the faint hope that a biography will provide that elusive key to the greatness they themselves might aspire to.
Then there’s the quality of the writing itself. The most enduring biographers are fine stylists, who have a gift for placing their material meticulously and with maximum impact, for shaping the resonant sentence or paragraph, for finding the illuminating image, or for striking the appropriate tone. This was true of Beaglehole and Sinclair, for example, and it is clear that for many of their successors writing a biography has provided an excellent springboard for inspired writing.
The need for biography to be lucidly and accessibly written is all the more pressing in a world increasingly taken over by various forms of critical theory. Often written in an abstruse and excluding idiom, these tend to obfuscate as much as they reveal. Literary biography, which still presupposes an ordinary, intelligent reader, is one place where perceptive and pleasurable reading can continue to flourish.
Most crucially for a young nation such as ours, biography – and autobiography – contributes to a sense of national identity. When we write or read a biography about a New Zealand figure, we are investing in what it is to be a New Zealander, discovering the particular qualities that make the subject belong to this corner of the globe and no other. These qualities are revealed as much in the immigrants like Nash or Fraser, who had to graft their New Zealandness onto an already existing identity, as in those born here, like Muldoon or Frame, who had a ready-made context to start from. So in reading a New Zealand biography we are finding out about ourselves, and it is perhaps no coincidence that biographies are proliferating when we are concerned as never before with questions of identity.
But of course no biographer ever gets it absolutely right. Research only yields so much: some material is still embargoed or yet to be unearthed; skeletons remain locked away in the cupboard. Also, any biography is rooted in its time, meaning that of necessity it looks at any subject with a contemporary gaze, and all the mind-sets and limitations that might bring. It does not mean that the outstanding biographies of earlier eras become irrelevant – merely that they no longer tell a sufficient story. Time moves on, and in another half-century a new generation will demand a new angle on a biographical subject, one that they can better comprehend.
So, however satisfied we might be with the current crop of biographies, it is inevitable that they will be looked back on eventually with some condescension, and spawn revised versions of the same lives. But the major ones will provoke continuing admiration – for their pioneering efforts, for their contribution to nation-building, for their psychological insights, and perhaps most of all, for the magnificent writing they offer.
Bill Sewell and Harry Ricketts