Thursday, September 01, 2011

Biography and Granularity

Mr. and Mrs. Buce are on a biography jag.  I'm finished TJ Stiles' First Tycoon, on Cornelius Vanderbilt, and moved on to David Nasaw's Carnegie, both well worth the effort.  Mrs. B just finished Curtis Cate's Nietzsche, which she liked, and moved on to Janet Browne's Darwin, which she is liking better. We've both remarked ruefully on the question whether we really want to give over so much of our lives to projects which, in dead-tree version, can be as heavy and as unwieldy as 1960 Renault Dauphine.

It's easy to show that a biography doesn't need to be so heavy that you can lift it with a jack. Three of my favorites are Felix Markhan's Napoleon, Alfred Duff Cooper's Talleyrand and Peter Levi's Shakespeare. Levi may be a special case; even enthusiasts have to admit we don't have a lot of conventional biographical data on Shakespeare and Levi's book in any event count better as a poet's meditation on another poet. But it is hard to imagine any lives richer in incident than those of Napoleon or Talleyrand. More could be said--we know more about them--than either biographer ventures to explain. Yet each succeeds in producing a portrait that is fully rounded and convincing (I still use Markham as an aide-mémoire
about the turbulent war years of the early 19th Century).I suppose the main reason for the expansion in size is the sheer arms-race factor: if you tell us that Codswollop brushed his teeth for an unusually long time in Lucca on the morning of the 16th, you cannot be accused of suppressing that momentous detail. Must be something to do with the economics also: the added cost of seeking out and assembling all that data seems not to equal its perceived (at least to author and publisher) benefits.

Here's another, in a way more interesting, possible reason: easier access to data. Stiles in a fascinating bibliographic essay remarks on how he was able to access (new-age usage!) lots of court records that he simply wouldn't have been able to reach in a pre-electronic age. We talk about how ephemeral are all our Tweets, etc. Maybe so, but the magic of digital has also lowered the barrier to bales of potentially tedious documentation from an earlier age.

So much for the writer, but what of the reader: what do we gain from all this plenitude? I concede that sometimes I wonder. I admit to having done a bit of skimming in Stiles, and that I got quite lost in the underbrush of the Central American wars. But here is a compensation: plenitude also carries a kind of conviction. I came away from Stiles with the sense, at least, really comes close to knowing what actually went on at a particular hour of a particular day (even if I am shaky on the details)--and that, therefore, you can trust him on the big stuff. Right here we can note the difficulty with so much narrative history. You can enjoy the pace and the drive of the storytelling but you can come away thinking--yes, well, fine, but does he really know what he is talking about? Granularity is authenticity. The doorstop biographers really seem to know.

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