Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Calder’s baggage

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For most of the last week, I’ve been obsessively leafing through all of the multivolume biographies that I own, glancing over their endnotes, reading their acknowledgments, and marveling both at their sheer bulk and at the commitment of time that they require. You don’t need to be a psychologist to understand why. If all goes well, on Monday, I’ll be delivering a draft of Astounding to my editor. It’s a little anticlimactic—there’s plenty of rewriting to come, and I’m sending it out now mostly because that’s what it says in my contract. But it means, if nothing else, that I’m technically done, which I don’t take for granted. This project will have taken up three years of my life from initial conception to publication, which feels like a long time, although you don’t need to look far to find examples that dwarf it. (The champion here might be Muriel St. Clare Byrne, who spent fifty years on The Lisle Letters.) I would have happily worked for longer, and one of my readers rather deflatingly suggested, after reading a recent draft, that I ask my publisher for another year. But the more this kind of project drags out, the greater the chance that it won’t be finished at all, and on balance, I think it’s best for me to push ahead. The dust jacket of Robert A. Caro’s The Path to Power refers to it as “the first of the three volumes that will constitute The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” and we’re all still waiting patiently for number five to take us even as far as Vietnam. Much the same thing happened with John Richardson’s massive life of Picasso, which was originally supposed to be just one book, only to be touted later as an “exceedingly detailed yet readable three-volume life.” Richardson is currently at work on the fourth volume, which only follows Picasso up through World War II, with three decades still left to be covered. When recently asked if he thought he would ever get to a fifth, the author replied: “Listen, I’m ninety-one—I don’t think I have time for that.”

These days, such books are testing the limits of mortality, not just for authors and editors, but possibly for print media itself. When Caro published The Path to Power back in 1982, it would have been impossible to anticipate the changes in publishing that were looming on the horizon, and perhaps the arrival of another doorstopper about Lyndon Johnson every decade or so provides us with a sentimental connection to an earlier era of books. Yet the multivolume life seems more popular than ever, at least among major publishers. In the latest issue of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik issues a mild protest against “the multivolume biography of the single-volume life”:

In the nineteenth century, the big sets were usually reserved for the big politicians. Disraeli got seven volumes and Gladstone three, but the lives of the poets or the artists or even the scientists tended to be enfolded within the limits of a single volume. John Forster’s life of Dickens did take its time, and tomes, but Elizabeth Gaskell kept Charlotte Brontë within one set of covers, and Darwin got his life and letters presented in one compact volume, by his son. The modern mania for the multivolume biography of figures who seem in most ways “minor” may have begun with Michael Holroyd’s two volumes devoted to Lytton Strachey, who was wonderful and influential but a miniaturist perhaps best treated as such. Strachey, at least, talked a lot and had a vivid sex life. But we are now headed toward a third volume of the life of Bing Crosby, and already have two volumes on Dai Vernon, the master card magician (a master, yes, but of card magic). This season, the life of Alexander Calder, toymaker to the modernist muses, arrives in the first volume of what promises to be two.

Gopnik seems bemused by the contrast between the size of Jed Perl’s Calder: The Conquest of Time: The Early Years: 1898-1940, which is seven hundred pages long, and the delicacy of the mobiles on which its subject’s reputation rests. And although he asks why we seem to be seeing more such efforts, which come off as oddly anachronistic at a time when publishing as a whole is struggling, he doesn’t really answer his own question. I can think of a few possible reasons. The most plausible explanation, I suspect, is that there’s an economic incentive to extending a life over multiple volumes, as long as the publisher is reasonably confident that an audience for it exists. If you’re the sort of person who would buy a huge biography of Alexander Calder at all, you’re probably going to buy two, and the relationship between the number of volumes and the rate of return—even after you account for time, production costs, and the loss of readers turned off by its size or lack of completion—might be narrowly positive. (You might think that these gains would be offset by the need to pay the author more money, but that probably isn’t the case. Looking at the acknowledgments for Richardson’s A Life of Picasso, it seems clear that his years of work were largely underwritten by outside sources, including nothing less than the John Richardson Fund for Picasso Research, set up by Sid and Mercedes Bass.) There’s a psychological side to this. As our online reading habits become divided into ever smaller particles of attention, perhaps we’re more drawn to these huge tomes as a sort of counterbalance, whether or not we have any intention of reading them. Publishing is as subject to the blockbuster mentality as any other art form, and it may well be that a book of fourteen hundred pages on Calder has a greater chance of reaching readers than one of three hundred pages would.

This kind of logic isn’t altogether unfamiliar in the art world, and Gopnik identifies a similar trend in Calder’s career, in which “the early sense of play gave way to dulled-down, chunk-of-metal-in-a-plaza heaviness.” Bigger can seem better for certain books as well, and biographers fill pages in the only way that they can. As Gopnik writes:

Calder’s is not a particularly dramatic life—he was neither much of a talker nor a prolific lover. In broad strokes, the career follows the customary arc of a modern artist, going from small, animated Parisian experiments, in the twenties, and ending with big, dull American commissions fifty years later—and though we are hungry to get him, we are not perhaps hungry to get him at quite this length. A dubious density of detailing—“In Paris, Calder had to wait an hour for his luggage, which he had checked through in London”—of the kind inevitable to such multivolume investigations may daunt even the reader who was eager at the start.

And that image of Calder waiting an hour for his luggage is one that every biographer should regard with dread. (It belongs on the same shelf as the line from Allan Folsom’s The Day After Tomorrow that Anthony Lane quoted to illustrate the accretion of procedural detail that deadens so many thrillers: “Two hundred European cities have bus links with Frankfurt.”) Not every big book suffers from this tendency—I don’t think that many readers wish that The Power Broker were shorter, even if its size discourages others from starting in the first place. And some lives do benefit from multiple books delivered over the course of many years. But they can also put readers in the position of waiting for more baggage—and when it comes at last, they’re the ones who get to decide whether or not it was worth it.

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