The art of biography
The author stays out of the picture, and other personal rules of writing
I had a call one afternoon in 1988. Patrick White had collapsed and they needed a hand at Martin Road. I rushed over and found the whole household mustered in his attic bedroom. It looked like a stroke. For the umpteenth time in their lives together, Manoly Lascaris had packed White’s bag for a dash to hospital. The ambulance was on its way.
White lay silent. He had shrunk in the past few days. His hand gripping the blanket was a knot of bones and veins. His teeth were out. Once or twice he murmured in a soft, clear voice, “Oh dear.” Birds were making a racket in the garden. The smell of jasmine filled the room. It was a perfect spring afternoon.
I’d come very close to this man over four or five years working on his biography. He was growing impatient. “When are you ever going to finish that fucking book?” he would yell down the phone. I was nearly done and now, as far as I could see, he was dying.
I was poleaxed. But I was already wondering how this would be written. One thing I knew for certain: I would not be there, a figure sobbing in the corner. This scene belonged to a dying man, Manoly and the sweet angels of the ambulance service, led by a stocky New Zealander called Wendy who strode into the attic asking the perfect question: “What’s the story?”
Behind her came a big bloke called Troy who held Patrick’s wrist very gently to take his pulse. They didn’t hurry. Everything was calm and orderly. When they were ready they lifted Patrick between them in a boatswain’s chair to carry him down the narrow, twisting stairs.
This is what I wrote:
He was breathing very heavily and his arms kept dropping. Wendy said, “No, Patrick, mate, hold me ’round the shoulders.” They gave him a spell at the head of the stairs and then began to manoeuvre him down, pausing to rest every few steps. It took five minutes, perhaps more, for them to reach the hall. The back door was unbolted and in the light that streamed into the house White looked like a sack of bones, his face was blank but his eyes were full of fear. They carried him through the garden and down to the ambulance waiting in the lane.
I was invisible. There are no footnotes to the pages describing Patrick’s near-death experience and recovery in St Vincent’s after spending 36 hours on what he called “the brink”. I interviewed no one. I didn’t need to. As any alert reader could tell, this was an eyewitness account. But I was not pulling focus from my subject. I was not cluttering the text with an account of my feelings.
As it turned out, White had two more years to live. I would witness one or two more heart-stopping crises at Martin Road. But I stuck to the promise I made myself in the attic, that I would remain invisible in the life I was writing. My judgement is at play in every corner of the text. I wrote the words. I picked the quotes. It’s my book. But awkward, surprised and occasionally overwhelmed David Marr is nowhere in its pages pulling focus from Patrick White.
I’m on the side of invisible biographers. I don’t give a damn about their happy thoughts as they tread in the footsteps of their subjects. Spare me their personal reflections on the Straits of Gibraltar or the old House of Reps. I’m not interested in their research triumphs. I want the life, not the homework. And I don’t need to be chaperoned. I am an adult. After reading biographies for 50 years or more, I can safely be left alone – indeed, I long to be left alone – in the company of ruthless cardinals, Labor prime ministers and crusty Nobel laureates.
My partner dreads me bringing biographies to bed. Novels don’t come between us. Histories provoke no interpersonal stress. But when I have a life in my hands I drive him mad lying there laying down the law. “For Christ’s sake,” I mutter. “You can’t do that.” And a few pages later: “That’s not the way to do it.” His light goes out, but I keep going, page after page, all the way to the end.
Rules of writing are made to be broken. I know biographies come in all shapes and sizes. “It would be foolish to try to establish a set of rules for biography,” said the great English biographer Frances Spalding when she delivered the Seymour Biography Lecture six years ago in Canberra. “It is a hybrid and fluid genre, always spilling out of neat packages and persistently reshaping its enquiry as the questions that interest each generation change. This is one reason why there can be no such thing as a definitive biography.”
I give her a standing ovation while not retreating one inch from the rules I’ve made for myself when I’m writing biography. I know they are personal. I know I’ve broken them once or twice myself when it’s seemed necessary. But they are my way of working. There are three that matter.
One: biographers must command the lives they write. They must make sense of them. Telling is not enough. The paintings, the sex, the parties and the voice must be clear on the page, but the point of any biography of Brett Whiteley is to explain how he took a road that ended in a motel room in Thirroul.
Two: we must not rob time of its mystery. Narrative is the most flexible beast. We can start a story anywhere and jump in the most surprising directions. But in biography, as in life, we must always be moving into an unknown future.
Three: biographers should stay out of sight. Artists who hover at their exhibitions get in the way of the work. Playwrights don’t wander onstage. Directors are never in shot. And while there are exceptions, glorious exceptions, biographers should leave their readers alone to read.
I’m not shy. I’m not saying I’ve kept myself at all times out of my writing. I’m not reluctant to use what old subs at Fairfax call the vertical pronoun. I came into the trade in the 1970s, when something called the New Journalism was all the rage. Tom Wolfe and Hunter S Thompson were showing us what could be done by writing directly about their own responses to the predicaments they were reporting.
This could get out of hand. Bright beginners like me could think the most interesting thing about a story was their own response to it. That had to be beaten out of us, and those old subs were there to do it. But the vivid and intelligent reporting in Rolling Stone and Esquire renewed reporting in Australia, first in Nation Review and the National Times and later in the big city broadsheets.
I am a product of that time, but it never crossed my mind to make myself a player in my first biography. It was 1977. My subject – perhaps target – was Garfield Barwick, the tin-pot chief justice who gave his imprimatur to the coup of 1975. He received me cordially in his old chambers in Taylor Square a couple of years later, didn’t, on reflection, much like me, and made certain over the next three years that none of his friends spoke to me.
I had a good look at his face and wrote what I saw. But we had no personal relationship. That wasn’t the case with Patrick White. Ours was complicated. At first wary, he came to trust me. I was never blind to how appalling he might be but I came to love him. He was the wisest man I have ever known well. But I never saw myself as a player in his story. As Auden says of poetry, I made nothing happen.
My determination to stay out of sight was also, I have to admit, a question of manners. To write someone’s life is one thing, but to elbow your way into it seemed then – and now – discourteous as well as misleading. However much I had come to like Patrick, our relationship was essentially professional. I was not one of his class or circle. I was not there as a colleague or as a member of the family. I had work to do.
These days, my editors would be urging me to put myself at the foot of the stairs as that terrified bundle was carried down to the ambulance. They would want me to weave into Patrick’s life the story of me chasing after him around the world with vignettes of people I met and places I visited.
Don’t get me wrong. They are good stories, and I have told them often after publication. I went to strange corners of the world and met fascinating people. I had triumphs in libraries from Wellington to Austin, Texas. I tracked down a grandfather who was Patrick’s lover in Cambridge. And there was a night on the trail that still haunts me after all these years when I stumbled on a Nubian wedding in a backstreet in Alexandria.
But those stories would not have done the book much good.
Our Man Elsewhere, the recent – and in many ways splendid – biography of Alan Moorehead by Thornton McCamish, is written to the new template of the biographer on a quest. Early on he bares his soul:
Every book-lover knows the thrilling experience of discovering a writer whose work changes the way they see the world … It had already happened to me several times before I picked up A Late Education in my late twenties so I knew what was happening as I read – I’d found a writer who would forever be indispensable to my imaginative sense of the past.
A few pages later, admiring the faded splendour of Moorehead’s favourite hotel in Cairo, it seems to McCamish that the man himself appears:
I could almost see him drawing back the accordion grill of the elevator car, releasing a gust of big-band mood music, and stepping out neat and alert, tie tightly knotted, folded cap tucked under the epaulette. I could see him dropping into a club chair right there, ready to set out on his brilliant career. Right there.
McCamish is such an assured writer and shows such supple judgement of his subject that none of his personal reflections or the many pages he devotes to his search for Moorehead are in the least bit necessary. I’m being harsh, I know, but I don’t care that the biographer is standing in a bar or on a street corner or on a hill where Moorehead once stood. I want everything he saw and everything he learnt absorbed into the text. I don’t care if this or that excites him. His task is to excite me, not about Thornton McCamish but about Alan Moorehead.
I blame the new template on television. The model is David Attenborough in the jungle, Brian Cox on the edge of the universe and Bob Hughes down among the cubists. They are miraculously good at their task – eloquent, personable guides to the complexities of the universe. They are men on a quest. They give abstract subjects a human face. But lives aren’t abstract. Biography is an act of re-creation. The only life that matters is the life of the subject.
Quest biographies raise two fundamental difficulties. First, research is boring for everyone except the researcher. Biographers find it thrilling or they couldn’t be in the game. I have had some of the most exciting days of my life in libraries. But the thrills of research are personal and hard won: moments of triumph after long stretches of boredom. You have to be there, you have to endure. It’s a long haul between discoveries. Kind writers save their readers from their homework.
Quest biographies also muck around with time. All biography is time travel. Taking readers to another time is hard. It doesn’t help to be shuffling between then and now, between the life and the quest. If you want to take readers to Cairo in the 1940s, it’s best to inhabit that time, not move back and forth between Moorehead and McCamish, between the go-getting war correspondent and the fan who turns up in Egypt 70 years later driven by the thrill of the chase.
Even as I lay down the law, I must acknowledge great exceptions. The greatest of these is surely The Quest for Corvo, AJA Symons’ life of the writer, pimp and religious nut Frederick Rolfe, who wrote the Edwardian fantasy Hadrian the Seventh. I think of it every time a pope dies because the novel is built on the notion that anyone – any man – on earth can be called on to be pope. He doesn’t have to be a cardinal or even a priest or perhaps even a Christian. Rolfe, or Baron Corvo as he styled himself, taught me this. Every time a pope dies, I wait for the knock on the door.
Symons’ 1934 book is, as critics have pointed out for years, biography as detective story. It’s an endless delight as Symons tracks through the delusions of this paranoid would-be priest to reveal that apart from his strange capacity to write there was almost nothing there. Rolfe wasn’t a priest or an aristocrat. He made his living at one point hiring gondolier prostitutes for Englishmen visiting Venice. The Quest for Corvo is both the first and best of quest biographies, which, I willingly admit, have at least this purpose for which they are perfectly suited: writing the life of a fraud.
So what do I do with James Boswell? Don’t he and his life of Samuel Johnson make nonsense of my plea for the invisible biographer? No. I’m not demanding an absolute ban. I’m arguing that we should stay out of the way unless our presence serves some purpose. Boswell had a purpose when he wrote one of the great double acts of literature. But Boswell earned the right to be Boswell.
I read his life of Johnson when I was 24 years old and working in the bar of a ski hotel in Austria. I’d brought it as my winter book. There was a lot going on around me. Over Christmas this rather spartan hotel was an outpost of the Austrian aristocracy. The place belonged to Ribbentrop’s former private secretary, who had returned with his family from the Argentine only a few years earlier. This did not deter his clientele. One family was so grand that the governess looking after their children was a Habsburg. There was a lot going on around me that winter, and what did I do? I read Boswell’s Life of Johnson. And the other day I picked it up again and was reminded how compelling it is. I took it to bed, chortling.
Boswell tells us he’s writing for the curious. It’s a key word. In the late 18th century it had a scientific flavour. Boswell sits among the great writers of his time but he was also one of the greats of the Scottish Enlightenment, those pragmatic philosophers and economists and scientists who were bringing fresh eyes and sharp intelligence to the task of finding how the world really worked.
Boswell’s world was Samuel Johnson. He gathered the evidence and threw it all in, unconcerned that it might show himself as much as his subject in a bad light. Boswell was immune to embarrassment. His account of his first meeting with the great writer is a scene all the more wonderful for him allowing himself to cut such an abject figure.
Boswell had been trying for ages to engineer a meeting with the writer. A list of people – and he lists them – had failed to deliver on promises to introduce him. Then one day Boswell bumps into Johnson in a bookshop and accosts him with a light sally about Scotland. Johnson slashes him down. He tries another sally and Johnson once again crushes him. All this Boswell recounts in embarrassing detail.
Despite losing these exchanges so comprehensively, he felt he might now call on Johnson. How can you not trust a man who humiliates himself in his own text and then turns his eye on the subject of his devotion and writes this?
He received me very courteously; but, it must be confessed, that his apartment, and furniture, and morning dress, were sufficiently uncouth. His brown suit of cloaths looked very rusty; he had on a little old, shrivelled unpowdered wig, which was too small for his head; his shirt-neck and knees of his breeches were loose; his black worsted stockings ill drawn up; and he had a pair of unbuckled shoes by way of slippers. But all these slovenly particularities were forgotten the moment that he began to talk.
And for the next 20 years Boswell wrote down all their talk. That’s what I mean when I say Boswell earned the right to be Boswell. He built a biography on scientific lines, gathering every document he could and recording a couple of decades of conversation. They quarrel, they quip, they test one another, they fall out, they make up. He was an indispensable part of that to and fro. And from these exchanges emerge an often-comic picture of Boswell and a portrait of Johnson that remains after 225 years an unequalled masterpiece.
So my advice to biographers determined to clamber onto the stage and play with their subjects in the limelight is do the work, put in the years, entangle your lives with your subjects’, and then you have earned the right to walk the stage together. But even so, you will be marked down as a show-off – my mother’s most cutting rebuke – unless you deal with yourself as ruthlessly as Boswell did with himself.
I know there are no fixed rules. I know I’m arguing questions of taste. I know these aren’t a matter of life and death. I’m a grumpy old guy who hasn’t found in 20 years another big life worth writing. I write little lives these days, of priests and politicians. But I read biographies with an impatient eye and would wish an end to the rather tired idea that biographers have a right to demand our attention in their biographies.
Frankly, we are rather tedious people. Where should we stand? In the shadows – in the shadows manipulating everything, leaving readers with the illusion that they are alone in the company of Wittgenstein or Lyndon Johnson or Randolph Stow. The potency of biography is its compelling intimacy. That is why we read biography with such passion – compelling intimacy with people far more interesting than biographers.
David Marr delivered a version of this essay as the Seymour Biography Lecture at the National Library of Australia on 15 September 2016.