Biography is autobiography, as every biographer knows. If a biographer cannot find himself in his subject, then the result is a compendium of names and dates, people met and places visited—useful information, perhaps, but the subject is just as dead at the end of the book as he was when the reader picked it up. We read Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson the first time for the moral and intellectual example of the subject, his dazzling wit, and we return to it for lovable Boswell, burning with a fanboy’s crush on the great man. The famous scene in Tom Davies’s bookshop, where the twenty-two-year-old biographer first meets his subject, is all about Bozzy. Here, Johnson makes his entrance:
At last, on Monday the 16th of May, when I was sitting in Mr. Davies’s back-parlor, after having drunk tea with him and Mrs. Davies, Johnson unexpectedly came into the shop; and Mr. Davies having perceived him through the glass-door in the room in which we were sitting, advancing towards us,— he announced his aweful approach to me, somewhat in the manner of an actor in the part of Horatio, when he addresses Hamlet on the appearance of his father’s ghost, “Look, my Lord, it comes.”
The main story of Boswell’s Life is Boy meets Hero, the man he wants to be when he grows up, yet knowing from the start that he never will.
My first favorite biography, which I discovered when I was an adolescent poet impatiently growing my hair long, was Enid Starkie’s Arthur Rimbaud, first published in the United States in 1947, with Fantin-Latour’s sweetly sentimental portrait of the poet as a seraphic child (with great hair) on the cover. The story of Rimbaud’s life astonishes everyone who hears it: the sixteen-year-old genius from the boondocks who conquered literary Paris, carried on a tormented love affair with a famous poet ten years his elder, and then threw it all away to wander the world, finally settling in Africa, where he converted to Islam (probably) and traded in ivory and guns. Starkie did more than any other critic or scholar to make Rimbaud’s modern reputation, not only as a poet of great originality, a founder of modernism, but also as the paradigm of the artist as rebel. She did not sensationalize his life; there was no need for it, and indeed it would have been almost impossible to do. Nor does she intrude herself on the reader in the Boswell manner, but the biographer’s sympathy with her subject is evident on every page.
In Starkie’s case, it required no leap of imagination to find herself in Rimbaud. She was a rebel herself, a flamboyant Dubliner who became an institution at Oxford, where she lectured on French literature for more than forty years. She was the pattern of the eccentric don, who smoked cigars and crawled the town’s pubs wearing scarlet trousers and a beret. In an unpublished autobiographical novel, she wrote that her protagonist made her life choices “partly out of masochism, partly out of a love of dramatization, partly out of false sentiment, and the need for self-pity, and partly out of a weak egotism”—recognizably the Rimbaud of Arthur Rimbaud (except for that “weak”). Modern scholars have found a hundred errors in her book, some of them grievous. For one, she mooted the possibility, based on faulty evidence, that in Africa Rimbaud was a slave trader, a notion that has been thoroughly debunked but refuses to die. Yet Starkie was starting almost from scratch; little primary research had been done before she started digging. Hers is still my favorite biography of Rimbaud, for entirely personal reasons: my discovery of the poet began with her, and thus the creation of my own Rimbaud, which is different from your Rimbaud in tiny but important ways, the bundle of images and emotional responses and memories that constitute my understanding of the boy and man who wrote the poems I continue to read.
The subject of my first biography, The Snake Charmer, was the herpetologist Joe Slowinski, who died of a snakebite in 2001 while leading an expedition in Burma. I began the project with the fond hope that writing a biography of a near-contemporary might make my job easier. I did not undertake the book until I had secured the cooperation of his family, which was essential, but when I started working on it I discovered that many of Slowinski’s colleagues were bitterly opposed to what I was doing. The principal reason for their resistance, and in some cases open hostility, was that they did not want an outsider poking into their friend’s life.
One objection that was frequently posed was that my research invaded Joe’s privacy. The principle of a right to privacy is vaporous enough when you are dealing with the living, but meaningless when you write about the dead, who have no rights of any kind, except possibly to be buried—a concept difficult for civilians to grasp when you are talking about someone they loved. One eminent biologist said to me in consternation, “How can you write a biography of Joe? You didn’t even know him!” His naïveté shocked me. Trying not to sound condescending, I explained that not being personally acquainted with the subject is almost the only requirement nowadays for writing a biography, as opposed to a memoir. I told him that I intended to approach Joe Slowinski’s life objectively, to write a biography that was factually accurate and without bias.
Yet by the time I finished writing it, I realized that my book, inevitably, did have a bias, even though I had never met Joe Slowinski. My interpretation of events, my decisions about what to include and what to leave out, and which version among conflicting accounts of events to follow, were all expressions of my own evolving sense of Joe as a person, a process parallel to that by which, as a reader, I have created my own Rimbaud. In other words, I was writing fiction compounded from facts. Of course I knew before I began that pure objectivity was an impossible goal, but in the eight years that have passed since The Snake Charmer was published, I have gradually become aware that elements of it are untruthful. There are only a handful of demonstrably incorrect statements of fact, but my portrait of Joe Slowinski was distorted by everything I did not know: a few stones left unturned but mainly important circumstances that my informants chose not to tell me. Creating a living, fully truthful portrait of a person, whether dead or alive, is a proposition doomed to failure.
This recognition is both daunting and liberating. Thus I can say that I prefer Enid Starkie’s biography of Rimbaud, which I know has many factual errors, over a modern masterpiece of the genre such as Graham Robb’s Rimbaud, published in 2000, which incorporates corrections made by many scholars since Starkie’s book was published. Inevitably, Robb’s biography has its inaccuracies, too; legends have grown up around Rimbaud like weeds since his schooldays, and he himself was a notorious fabulist. Anyway, rating biographies in this way is a fan’s pastime, like compiling lists of the greatest shortstops or the best Verdi sopranos. We do not have to give up Tebaldi because we rank Callas number one. The best biography of Rimbaud is all of them taken together, a project akin to collating the testimony of the blind men palpating the elephant.
A lifetime of reading and thinking about Rimbaud—okay, let’s call it fandom —compelled me to write Rimbaud in Java, a biography of a single year of his life, 1876, when he joined the Dutch colonial army and shipped out to Java as a mercenary soldier. Nothing is known about what he did in Java—really nothing, except that he was present at a few roll calls, and then one morning he was not. After that the record is bare until he showed up again in France. There are a few cryptic references to the Java escapade in his letters, and his friends preserved some tall tales, but otherwise it is a void. I spent years laboring over a novel about the voyage but never made a good start: I was stymied by the need to write dialogue for him. I simply could not make that leap, I knew too much. Surely Rimbaud never said, “Black coffee, please”—if Rimbaud ordered coffee, it must have been an event. I tried writing a novel without dialogue; I tried trawling through his poems and letters to find lines to use as dialogue, which turned the book into an elaborate puzzle. Finally, I decided to compile everything published about Rimbaud’s life in 1876, with Enid Starkie looking over my shoulder, and matched it with what I knew or could find out about life in Central Java at that time, and let the connections find themselves.
Once we acknowledge the essential subjectivity of biography, we raise the terrible question of its value. One answer to this dilemma is to abandon any expectation of writing a truthful life and simply to compile the facts, that recital of names and dates I scornfully dismissed in my first paragraph, banishing all subjective analysis except the testimony of contemporary witnesses, safely enclosed in quotation marks. A recent biography of William Wordsworth, a brick of a book with thousands of notes, faithfully reports every recorded event in the poet’s life, with the result that the book lays a greater emphasis on his years as poet laureate, when he sat at home in Cumberland receiving visitors and writing mostly rather dull verse, than it does on his flaming youth, when he went to Paris to see the Revolution and walked across the Alps. Another approach, adopted by academic biographers in the age of the feminist, post-colonial, and queer critiques, is to treat the life as a hunting ground for anecdotal support of theories, a process in which the book’s conclusions precede the research. The theories may be good ones, and their corrective influence salutary, but the book is entirely the writer’s intellectual memoir: the subject holds the author’s coat, and the reader is offered no alternative except to agree with the theory.
Another way is to embrace the fictional essence of biography. Its value, in this approach, is equivalent to that of the novel. The first biography of Rimbaud was written by Paterne Berrichon, a fan who carried his enthusiasm to the point of marrying the poet’s sister, six years after his death. His book is an elaborate exposition of Isabelle Rimbaud’s dearest wishes about her brother, which Berrichon shaped into the myth of the angelic Rimbaud, a heterosexual and a good Catholic—lousy fiction, but the essential source for testimony about the poet’s childhood, as you might expect. Conversely, novelists are always engaged in the process of finding themselves in their characters. If one has read a biography of Charlotte Brontë, it is easy enough to see her in Jane Eyre, but Mr. Rochester also inhabited some dark nook of her soul. Brontë made him a person as real to her readers as Dr. Johnson is to Boswell’s—to the extent that we see nothing very strange in another writer, Jean Rhys, more than a century later writing a novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, about a period of Rochester’s life that Brontë left vague.
The process of literary self-discovery is sometimes enhanced by writing about people who are utterly different from oneself. My most recent book, The Glamour of Strangeness, is a sextet of critical biographies of artists and writers who found inspiration and new lives in exotic cultures. The book began as a duet, intertwining portraits of Raden Saleh, a Javanese painter who found fortune and fame in Europe in the 1830s and ’40s, and Walter Spies, a German artist who left Europe just as his career was taking off and created the art colony in Bali. Spies’s life has many obvious parallels with my own, starting with the fact that I left my home, New York City, to live in Bali. Yet I found him a much more elusive quarry than Raden Saleh, who traveled in the opposite direction and was in almost every respect quite different from me. His life underwent a magical transformation when he embarked on his perilous voyage from Java to Antwerp, which reads like a fairy tale, the universal literary genre.
In important ways, writing a book is very like reading one; it just takes longer. To succeed, both activities depend upon an urgent need to keep turning the pages, to find out what happens next. The most important requirement is belief. I am not suggesting that biographers do or should lose sleep pondering how they can imaginatively enter into the lives of their subjects. It’s like looking for love, which never works, as everyone knows: it finds you.
Jamie James is the author of The Snake Charmer, Rimbaud in Java, and other books. He has contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, and The Atlantic, among other publications. He regularly reviewed art exhibitions and contributed features to The New Yorker and served as the American arts correspondent for The Times (London). He has lived in Indonesia since 1999, and is a recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation Grant.
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