The Revival of Biography

Since Christmas vacation I've been treating myself to reading some biographies, including Alan Jacobs' The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis [more on that in a later post] and a little gem I found at a local used bookshop: Dennis Donoghue's Walter Pater: Lover of Strange Souls.

But it's another little biography that is the occasion for my post: Edmund White's Marcel Proust in The Penguin Lives Series. Or perhaps I should say it is the series itself which has intrigued me--akin to Harper Collins Eminent Lives Series, from which I read Christopher Hitchens on Thomas Jefferson this past summer. These biography series often have a brilliant alchemy, creating a way to bring together potent contemporary voices to produce dense--or rather, economical--portraits of historical figures in ways that are both illuminating and literary. One might hope this represents a renewed place for biography that might finally displace the incessant string of memoirs from twentysomethings! And if they represent a certain rennaissance of biography, one wonders how short the cycle must be, since Evelyn Waugh--in his own 1928 biography of D.G. Rossetti that very much fits this genre--opened by noting:

Biography, as books about the dead are capriciously catalogued, is still very much in the mode.

It has usurped the place held in recent years by the novel, and before that by poetry, as the regular metier of all those young men and women who, in every age, concern themselves with providing the light reading of their more cultured friends. Naturally enough, a new manner has resulted, and, to a great extent, a new method; and polite literature is the less polite for it.
He goes on to, shall we say, confess?--
We have discovered a jollier way of honoring our dead. The corpse has become the marionnette. With bells on its fingers and wires on its toes it is jigged about to a "period dance" of our own piping; and who is not amused? Unfortunately, there is singularly little fun to be got out of Rossetti. (Waugh, Rossetti: His Life and Works, 1928, pp. 11-12)
I take it that Waugh worries that the entertainments of these "Lives" can create anachronistic creations for our own delight--a kind of horizontal Feuerbachian worry that we'll create our subjects in our own image. Fair enough; and in fact, White's little life of Proust probably does just that with its incessant fixation on Proust's homosexuality. And yet, there is an invitation to other worlds embedded in here from which it is always a bit disappointing to have to return.