By Gary Wills
By Edna O’Brien
Excess has a tendency to force an equal and opposite reaction. After a glut of totally uncalled for (and quickly remaindered) biographies cluttered the shelves of North American bookstores over the last twenty years, Penguin has seen a market niche and commissioned a series of biographical sketches on an eclectic mix of famous people, penned by popular contemporary authors. John Keegan on Winston Churchill, Carol Shields on Jane Austen, Larry McMurtry on Crazy Horse – at least some of this should be interesting. The scholarly doorstop may finally be on its way out.
This said, a first look shows the early stages of the Penguin experiment producing some ambiguous results.
At the very least, a good biography should give you the essentials: names, dates, lovers, and other notable achievements. The problem with Gary Wills’s St. Augustine is that he assumes too much. Emblematic of the problem is the “A. A.” on the cover, which I take it is meant to signify Aurelius Augustinus. The thing is, I don’t remember Wills ever referring to his subject as anything other than Augustine. And this oversight, I am sorry to say, is typical.
The introduction gets us off on the wrong foot. Instead of offering a brief outline of his material, Wills wastes time debating obscure points of scholarship. That The Confessions should be translated as The Testimony is interesting, but it tells us little about Augustine. And the time is not well spent arguing over whether the young Augustine had an erection in a public bath, and what that might have meant. These matters should be left to academic journals, where no one will have to be bothered with reading them.
Indeed, most of the time Wills seems to be writing an op-ed piece or essay rather than dealing with the life of his subject. There is, to take another example, some discussion of the doctrinal spat over the teachings of Pelagius without any clear idea given of what the controversy was all about. Material that is fundamental is swept over in a casual way. Wills’s emphasis throughout is on opinion and commentary, a danger that I suspect this series will have trouble avoiding.
Happily, things improve with Edna O’Brien’s life of James Joyce, a volume written in the shadow of one of the monuments of modern literary biography. The difference between the brief and exhaustive Life could hardly be clearer.
Richard Ellman’s James Joyce, one of the most celebrated, but dullest biographies of modern times, set the standard for what a definitive academic research biography is supposed to be. It is, essentially, a mountain of trivia, including the full report of Joyce’s autopsy, letters needlessly quoted in their entirety, and even the present address of the house Joyce and his wife stayed in while he was teaching in Pola. Of course the name of the country the house is in has changed a couple of times since Joyce lived there, but it’s nice to know we have the right street number.
Trivia like this belongs in a reference book, which is what Ellman’s Joyce basically is. The art of biography, however, lies in its selection of significant details and telling anecdotes. An example for Joyce might be the time he complained of being “swindled” three times on the road to Rome. Now this is interesting: James Joyce, literature’s greatest sponger, master of borrowing money he had no intention of paying back, being cheated by some locals as soon as he got off the boat in Ancona. What sort of swindle was it? How did the locals take him in? Information like that might really tell us something.
The Penguin Joyce doesn’t give us any details about what happened in Ancona (perhaps no one knows the whole story), but it does provide a model for the kind of engaging, insightful, and original portrait these brief lives might be.
O’Brien may not tell us everything (an impossible task anyway), but she does manage to cover a lot of ground. A novelist herself, she is at her best when offering insights into the psychology of writing. Without getting into an analysis of the sexual carnivals in Ulysses, she describes Joyce as a kind of literary masochist, a man “more than half in love with persecution” who sought out hostile environments capable of driving him into the rage he needed for inspiration. Like most geniuses, he was also an irresponsible and selfish person, with an unshakeable belief in the world’s duty to support the life of his mind.
While there is no denying he suffered for his art, he made sure that others suffered as well. “Do writers have to be such monsters in order to create?” O’Brien asks. Her answer is an immediate Yes.
That candor, especially when directed at one of the holy men of 20th century literature, is enough in itself to make O’Brien worth reading. Her book is opinionated, but perceptive, and never diminishes its subject.
As a final point, however, there is the issue of price. Getting the length of biographies under control is a noble goal, but it’s only half the battle. It doesn’t do the consumer a lot of good to have a short bio, without pictures or textual support (like an index), if it’s going to be priced the same as one of the doorstops. Admittedly these books are hardcovers, but there is no reason for such slight volumes to cost this much. If Penguin wants to publish an economy-size bio, they should try a little harder to do it for an economy price.
Review first published January 15, 2000. An example of Penguin’s truly offensive pricing: When Edmund White’s Marcel Proust came out it was listed at $27.99 (Canadian). This was for a small book of 165 pages. At the same time, you could have purchased Jean-Yves Tadie’s award-winning Marcel Proust: A Life, a 982-page trade paperback, for $29.00.