Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for October 13th, 2017

The imagination of form

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In his new book The Shadow in The Garden, James Atlas—the acclaimed author of biographies of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow—quotes Leon Edel, the legendary biographer of Henry James: “A writer of lives is allowed the imagination of form but not of fact.” The line appears in the introductory “manifesto” to Edel’s Principia Biographica, in which he also states:

In a sense all lives are clutter composed as the poet said of “the butt-ends of my days and ways.” If biography reproduces this it reproduces habitual disorder. Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote: “Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt, and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing, emasculate. Life imposes by brute energy, like inarticulate thunder; art catches the ear among the far louder noises of experience like an air artificially made by a discreet musician.” If we apply these words to biography we can see that a writer of lives must extract individuals from their chaos yet create an illusion that they are in the midst of life—in the way that a painter arrives at an approximation of a familiar visage on a canvas. The biographer who is unable to do this creates a waxworks, a dummy, a papier-mâché, and often a caricature.

And he concludes with a daunting challenge to biographers of all kinds: “The biographer truly succeeds if a distinct literary form can be found for the particular life.”

For the last two years, I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues, as I try to put together a literary biography that cuts between the stories of four complicated major figures and the important people in their lives, along with a huge amount of cultural background about the history of science fiction. The arrangement is basically chronological, but within that framework, there’s room for an infinite number of permutations. It’s difficult enough to figure out how to move between the four major players, who had periods of intense collaboration in which their careers overlapped, but also spent decades in different parts of the country. Knowing where to put the transitions has been the most obvious structural challenge that Astounding has presented, but even within each section, there are countless problems to solve. For the sake of clarity, I’ve often had to arrange the material according to theme, without doing violence to the timeline, which is a tricky balancing act in itself. To engage the reader, I’ll often start a chapter with a striking incident, then backtrack, which requires a certain finesse. And this doesn’t even get at the bane of the biographer’s existence, which is how to decide what to include or exclude. Atlas’s description of himself while writing his biography of Schwartz sounds a lot like I feel right now:

I was drowning in documentation. Manuscripts, clippings, transcriptions of interviews, and Xeroxed articles lay strewn about the floor. I crawled around amid the notecards laid out as if for some immense game of solitaire until I developed rug burns on my knees…My original fear that I wouldn’t have enough documentation soon gave way to despair about how I would get it all in.

So what exactly do biographers do? The secret, I think, is to realize that concerns about form aren’t just a courtesy to the reader, to whom structure provides a conceptual scaffolding, but to the author. When you hit on the right shape, it turns into a machine for making choices, just as the internal logic of the narrative does for a novelist. Writing of Edel’s distinction between “form” and “fact,” Atlas writes:

The “fact” part I got (though I would come to question the whole notion that there was such a thing as fact). It had never occurred to me that the “form” could be so elastic—that, in effect, you could construct a biography however you liked. Richard Holmes had a useful term form this method: “nonfiction storytelling,” biography that has “a protagonist, a time-sequence, a plot, and a dramatic pattern of human cause and effect.” Nonfiction storytelling: that’s what I was after.

You could argue that a person’s life doesn’t naturally fall into such neat stages, any more than our everyday existence follows the conventions of a plot, and that it’s just a short step from this approach to the clumsy shoehorning of true events into a stock screenplay formula that we see in so many biopics. But some kind of storytelling is required to convey information in a way that the reader can understand and absorb, and it’s no more artificial than the “convention” that books should consist of signatures of folded paper sewn together into a binding. Structure is a delivery system for facts and ideas, just as the physical book delivers the text to our eyes and brain, and any artifice that it imposes seems trivial compared to the costs of doing without it altogether.

The best way for a biographer to figure this out, of course, is to learn from the works of others. Writing of his experience in reading Edel’s biography of Henry James, Atlas captures the way in which even small choices can take on an outsized significance when you’re working in the same genre as a master: “I also liked the way Edel broke up the chapters into manageable size, then broke them up into still smaller bits separated by roman numerals; it didn’t make you feel, as so many biographies did, that you were traversing an arid desert of type. The narrative was well paced; clearly a lot of thought had gone into the beginnings and endings of sections.” Atlas also benefited from a piece of valuable advice from the critic Dwight Macdonald, Schwartz’s literary executor, who told him: “Omission, generalization, intensification: that’s your clue.” But like any extended work of art, a biography ultimately reflects the personality of its creator, which can’t be hidden, although it also shouldn’t go out of its way to draw attention to itself. As Edel writes:

A biographer who works as an artist becomes the biography. An “impersonal” biography is tasteless and without character, force, or authority. “The thing that is necessarily overlooked,” said Wallace Stevens, “is the presence of the determining personality.” Why “necessarily?” A good and useful life must be fashioned by a “determining personality.” The biographer unable to select and arrange significant detail is like a painter who smudges his canvas.

This is sound, sensible advice—maybe a little too sound and sensible. When you’re dealing with what Joyce Carol Oates calls the “small infinity” of materials at hand, it can be hard to keep it in mind. But I take comfort in the fact that Edel ends his manifesto, not with an Olympian detachment, but with a line from Virginia Woolf that sums up the whole messy business: “Yes, writing lives is the devil!”

Written by nevalalee

October 13, 2017 at 8:58 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

October 13, 2017 at 7:30 am

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