A novelist has a blank page, imagination and life experiences to construct a story. A biographer has a life first, then the rest. In a fascinating talk about the art of biography, the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival gathered luminaries of the genre to share some of the secrets of their craft.
AN Wilson, known for his prize-winning biography on Tolstoy, talked of the difficulty of capturing a famous person’s life in a book, saying that he tried to find connections between a person’s day-to-day life and whatever it was that they were famous for. This required an interest in the subject’s “inner life,” something not usually documented, so his advice was “you make it up”!
Richard Holmes, award-winning literary biographer of Coleridge and Shelley, said he always carried a “total notebook” to capture the inner and outer world of his subjects. He explained how on the right hand page, he wrote down “the facts” about the person, and on the left, he wrote about their “dreams, worries and anxieties”.
Of course when you write about a person’s life, you get to know them intimately and often find it difficult to be subjective: you may love them or hate them. Philosopher Ray Monk, who has recently penned a book on Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atom bomb, spoke of his experience of writing a biography of Bertrand Russell. His admiration for the mathematician and fellow philosopher turned to hatred when he discovered the misery his sexual perversions had caused his family.
Andrew Graham-Dixon spoke of his love-hate relationship with his muse, Caravaggio, the 16th Century Italian artist. He said that a biographer writing about a historical figure had to put their behavior in the context of the social customs and mores of that time. With that in mind, he found it easy to forgive Caravaggio his excesses, whether he was chucking a plate of asparagus at a waiter and cutting his face to show his displeasure, or covering his landlady’s front door with excrement!