Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John Richardson

The unfinished lives

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Yesterday, the New York Times published a long profile of Donald Knuth, the legendary author of The Art of Computer Programming. Knuth is eighty now, and the article by Siobhan Roberts offers an evocative look at an intellectual giant in twilight:

Dr. Knuth usually dresses like the youthful geek he was when he embarked on this odyssey: long-sleeved T-shirt under a short-sleeved T-shirt, with jeans, at least at this time of year…Dr. Knuth lives in Stanford, and allowed for a Sunday visitor. That he spared an entire day was exceptional—usually his availability is “modulo nap time,” a sacred daily ritual from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. He started early, at Palo Alto’s First Lutheran Church, where he delivered a Sunday school lesson to a standing-room-only crowd.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Knuth’s most famous work, which is still incomplete. Knuth is busy writing the fourth installment, one fascicle at a time, although its most recent piece has been delayed “because he keeps finding more and more irresistible problems that he wants to present.” As Roberts writes: “Dr. Knuth’s exacting standards, literary and otherwise, may explain why his life’s work is nowhere near done. He has a wager with Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google and a former student…over whether Mr. Brin will finish his Ph.D. before Dr. Knuth concludes his opus…He figures it will take another twenty-five years to finish The Art of Computer Programming, although that time frame has been a constant since about 1980.”

Knuth is a prominent example, although far from the most famous, of a literary and actuarial phenomenon that has grown increasingly familiar—an older author with a projected work of multiple volumes, published one book at a time, that seems increasingly unlikely to ever see completion. On the fiction side, the most noteworthy case has to be that of George R.R. Martin, who has been fielding anxious inquiries from fans for most of the last decade. (In an article that appeared seven long years ago in The New Yorker, Laura Miller quotes Martin, who was only sixty-three at the time: “I’m still getting e-mail from assholes who call me lazy for not finishing the book sooner. They say, ‘You better not pull a Jordan.’”) Robert A. Caro is still laboring over what he hopes will be the final volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson, and mortality has become an issue not just for him, but for his longtime editor, as we read in Charles McGrath’s classic profile in the Times:

Robert Gottlieb, who signed up Caro to do The Years of Lyndon Johnson when he was editor in chief of Knopf, has continued to edit all of Caro’s books, even after officially leaving the company. Not long ago he said he told Caro: “Let’s look at this situation actuarially. I’m now eighty, and you are seventy-five. The actuarial odds are that if you take however many more years you’re going to take, I’m not going to be here.”

That was six years ago, and both men are still working hard. But sometimes a writer has no choice but to face the inevitable. When asked about the concluding fifth volume of his life of Picasso, with the fourth one still on the way, the biographer John Richardson said candidly: “Listen, I’m ninety-one—I don’t think I have time for that.”

I don’t have the numbers to back this up, but such cases—or at least the public attention that they inspire—seem to be growing more common these days, on account of some combination of lengthening lifespans, increased media coverage of writers at work, and a greater willingness from publishers to agree to multiple volumes in the first place. The subjects of such extended commitments tend to be monumental in themselves, in order to justify the total investment of the writer’s own lifetime, and expanding ambitions are often to blame for blown deadlines. Martin, Caro, and Knuth all increased the prospective number of volumes after their projects were already underway, or as Roberts puts it: “When Dr. Knuth started out, he intended to write a single work. Soon after, computer science underwent its Big Bang, so he reimagined and recast the project in seven volumes.” And this “recasting” seems particularly common in the world of biographies, as the author discovers more material that he can’t bear to cut. The first few volumes may have been produced with relative ease, but as the years pass and anticipation rises, the length of time it takes to write the next installment grows, until it becomes theoretically infinite. Such a radical change of plans, which can involve extending the writing process for decades, or even beyond the author’s natural lifespan, requires an indulgent publisher, university, or other benefactor. (John Richardson’s book has been underwritten by nothing less than the John Richardson Fund for Picasso Research, which reminds me of what Homer Simpson said after being informed that he suffered from Homer Simpson syndrome: “Oh, why me?”) And it may not be an accident that many of the examples that first come to mind are white men, who have the cultural position and privilege to take their time.

It isn’t hard to understand a writer’s reluctance to let go of a subject, the pressures on a book being written in plain sight, or the tempting prospect of working on the same project forever. And the image of such authors confronting their mortality in the face of an unfinished book is often deeply moving. One of the most touching examples is that of Joseph Needham, whose Science and Civilization in China may have undergone the most dramatic expansion of them all, from an intended single volume to twenty-seven and counting. As Kenneth Girdwood Robinson writes in a concluding posthumous volume:

The Duke of Edinburgh, Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, visited The Needham Research Institute, and interested himself in the progress of the project. “And how long will it take to finish it?” he enquired. On being given a rather conservative answer, “At least ten years,” he exclaimed, “Good God, man, Joseph will be dead before you’ve finished,” a very true appreciation of the situation…In his closing years, though his mind remained lucid and his memory astonishing, Needham had great difficulty even in moving from one chair to another, and even more difficulty in speaking and in making himself understood, due to the effect of the medicines he took to control Parkinsonism. But a secretary, working closely with him day by day, could often understand what he had said, and could read what he had written, when others were baffled.

Needham’s decline eventually became impossible to ignore by those who knew him best, as his biographer Simon Winchester writes in The Man Who Loved China: “It was suggested that, for the first time in memory, he take the day off. It was a Friday, after all: he could make it a long weekend. He could charge his batteries for the week ahead. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘I’ll stay at home.’” He died later that day, with his book still unfinished. But it had been a good 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.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

November 29, 2017 at 7:30 am

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