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« Fred and Bill | Main | Demographics, Politics, Discourse, Frankness »

August 14, 2008

Immersion in Another Life

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I almost never read multi-volume biographies. The only one I distinctly remember having read is William Manchester's two-volume effort taking Winston Churchill from birth to becoming Prime Minister.

While Manchester put a lot of effort into the two Churchill books, he also wrote a lot of others; this biography is a lesser part of his literary legacy taken as a whole. Writers such as Emil Ludwig cranked out biographies of several subjects during their prolific careers.

Then there are writers who concentrate (consecrate?) their career on only one person. Not being a Lit major or disciplined bibliophile, I can't rattle off names of extreme cases who spent essentially all of their careers chronicling a sole subject. I'm sure some savvy readers can provide examples.

So let me at least toss out the name of John Richardson, who has written three parts of a projected (and not likely to be completed) four-volume biography of artist Pablo Picasso. The three volumes can be found here, here and here. Info on Richardson is here.

Richardson seems to have written a few other books to help pay the bills for his Picasso project, so Picasso wasn't his life work, strictly speaking. And he had justification writing about Picasso because we knew the man. Some day I might get around to reading one of the books.

Although the spending of decades to write a large biography of someone of importance is indeed a great service to many readers, I find it strange behavior. True, throwing oneself wholeheartedly into a cause is a disease of many young people. And having a "career" is a form of long-term devotion, though its motivation might well be wealth and a certain degree of notoriety or perhaps fame. But to devote one's professional life to the cause of re-living another human being's life seems, well, ... odd.

Granted, a biographer needs to learn and report on a lot more than the details of a life; context is required to make sense of it. Perhaps the task isn't as limiting as it might seem.

So maybe it's me that's the odd one who doesn't quite get the concept that vicariously living someone else's life can be more rewarding than living one's own.



posted by Donald at August 14, 2008


re-living? Really?

I seriously doubt that.

Posted by: Usually Lurking on August 14, 2008 1:50 PM

I enjoyed the heck out of The Power Broker, but I refuse to start reading Robert Caro's 4-volume biography of LBJ until I know that he's finished the 4th volume.

Sadly, I hit up various literary NYC friends of mine to see if any of them knew Caro and if they could let me know if he seems like he's in good health. No word. Grr.

Posted by: Virtual Memories on August 14, 2008 2:30 PM

I read around in one volume of the Richardson biography of Picasso and found it disturbingly light weight. Richardson is a natural gossip, which keeps him coming back to the intrigues of Picasso's admittedly byzantine sex life, while paying cursory attention to his oeuvre.

Say what you will about Picasso he was an intellectual/iconoclast of a peculiar sort, an intellectual/iconoclast in paint. Cubism didn't just happen. Les Damselles D'Avignon didn't just happen. Picasso was a deliberate rule breaker who for better or worse changed perception. It seems that writing about these things, in other than a chronological/descriptive mode, is beyond Richardson.

My guess is that, for Richardson, Picasso was the biggest celebrity he could glom onto, and so he did.

Posted by: ricpic on August 14, 2008 3:09 PM

Joaquim Fest's long bio of Hitler avoids emotion and sensation, yet holds the interest and convinces. While insisting on the pivotal importance of the individual called Hitler in the events around him, conditions and background figures are portrayed with care. Hitler's mind is explained as far as it can be, but there is no cheap link-up to childhood trauma, covert Jewishness etc. Certainly, the likelihood of inbreeding (and Slavic descent) is given fair play, health and sex issues are raised, but there are no easy equations, no facile deductions. You aren't invited to live in his skin, but at the end of the book you understand how he succeeded as a gifted amateur politician against the incompetent professionals of his day, the "vons". And you understand why, abandoning politics as he stood in triumph on a balcony in Czechoslavakia, he was doomed to fall, and take millions with him. Hitler gave up his day job.

I hope I'm doing some justice to Fest and his work. I'm not enough of a scholar to say why he was right (if he was right), but I can say that Fest convinces as few such authors can.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on August 14, 2008 10:39 PM

Elizabeth Longford wrote a two-volume biography of the Duke of Wellington. It starts with a discussion of the genealogy of the Wellesleys (his family name) in Ireland. It's one of the stupidest passages I've ever read, since she finally confesses that they ran out of heirs and a cousin had to be adopted. She does the battles rather well, though.

Posted by: dearieme on August 16, 2008 11:54 AM

Viva La Evolucion ;)

Posted by: Pavliga on August 19, 2008 11:06 AM

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