Putting faces to fiction

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First appeared in The Guardian Photo Source: Wiki: Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve

By Nigel Beale

Reading biographies of writers affects the way we read their books. And, unlike Proust, I think it does so for the better

During the past several months there has been an interesting conversation ping-ponging back and forth between literary blogs, on the utility of biography in analyzing, understanding, and indeed recognizing and appreciating literary works. In the press too. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown claims, after reading Patrick French’s “unflinchingly honest” biography of VS Naipaul that she will “buy no more books by this monster.” But should the lives of writers be considered when reading their works?

This discussion is not new. It was famously taken up by Proust, who attacked Sainte-Beuve. Here’s the latter on his approach to literary criticism:

“I may enjoy a work, but it is hard for me to judge it independently of my knowledge of the man who produced it, and I am inclined to say, tel arbre, tel fruit -the fruit is like the tree. Thus the study of literature leads me naturally to the study of human nature.”

Proust concludes his essay ‘Against Sainte-Beuve’, by saying that his “vast, marvelous, ebullient oeuvre as a critic” amounts to nothing. “Mere appearance…;” that all Sainte-Beuve will be remembered for is a handful of poems. Proust sticks him with this:

“At no time does Sainte-Beuve seem to have grasped what is peculiar to inspiration or the activity of writing, and what marks it off totally from the occupations of other men and the other occupations of the writer. He drew no dividing line between the occupation of writing, in which, in solitude and suppressing those words which belong as much to others as to ourselves, and with which, even when alone, we judge things without being ourselves, we come face to face once more with ourselves, and seek to hear and to render the true sound of our hearts – and conversation!”

In other words, the essence of true creativity, what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare, Picasso Picasso is, according to Proust, something that can never be found in “facts” about the artist. Art is something that the artist creates ex nihilo. This explains why the “crude” (think Mozart as scatological little buffoon in Peter Shaffer’s fictitious Amadeus) can at times create sublime art, and the most “refined” (Salieri) cannot.

But surely, the “essence” which makes Shakespeare Shakespeare, Picasso Picasso etc., although obviously important, is something beyond description, or comprehension. It is in fact a conversational cul-de-sac, a dead end, just as the wholly subjective appreciation of art is … they belong to the “I know what I like” thought-stopping school of art criticism.

It’s all very well to ask big questions about the essence of creativity; pondering them can be valuable. But after a while, when it becomes evident that these questions lack answers, or are answerable only self-referentially, it all becomes a little tiresome. Especially given that artists themselves, in the case of creativity, rarely know how their original ideas arise. It’s all a big mystery.

As soon as you start trying to define art some sort of context or comparison is required if you want rational, interesting discussion. Why did Picasso depict women in such ugly, distorted ways in his paintings? Because Picasso is Picasso? Or because he treated women like tissues … soiling and discarding them in his wake. As Jean-Paul Crespelle writes in his book Picasso and his Women:”…Just as he kept old matchboxes or pencil stubs, so he kept his old mistresses ready in hand. Just in case…” Knowing this doesn’t change the colour of paint on the canvas. It does however provide another responsive layer, another possible explanation for why eyes and breasts are chopped up and strewn in disturbing ways all over the body.

Knowledge of the man does, I’d say, add to the appreciation of his work. Based on my experience of reading biographers Richard Holmes, Leslie Marchand, Richard Ellmann and Francis Steegmuller, on, respectively, Coleridge, Byron, Joyce, and Flaubert, I’d have to say I’m with Sainte-Beuve.

Knowing, for example, about Coleridge’s life struggles, his politics, his relationship with women – knowing Coleridge in this way enriched my experience of his work, influenced the way I understood it, and increased my appreciation and enjoyment of it. The text remains the same. Its intrinsic aesthetic qualities remain the same; what changes is my reception of them. Thanks to biography, letters, and journals (despite their often specious claims to truth, and the varying charms of the biographer/editors), additional layers of interpretation open themselves up to me. Because of the new tenderness I feel for the man, my reading is more sympathetic. Biography obviously doesn’t replace close reading, it augments it, provides alternate possibilities, new, otherwise unattainable, ways of reading, understanding and appreciating.

Text and the social life of the author may never touch in Proust’s cork-lined world, but they do, I’d say, in the normal, communal one in which most authors and people live. It seems to me that the more facts one can solicit in the search for truth, the better become one’s chances of finding something that resembles it.

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