Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Life of Graham Greene

The apostolic succession

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Ever since I began working as a biographer—which is one of the few acceptable ways of earning a living as a private eye of culture—I’ve naturally become interested in what other writers have had to say on the subject. My favorite example, as I’ve noted here before, is Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, which isn’t just the best book that I’ve read on the art of biography, but one of the best that I’ve read about anything. James Atlas’s The Shadow in the Garden offers an engaging look at the profession from the inside, even if you sometimes get the sense that Atlas wrote it mostly to settle a few old scores relating to his biography of Saul Bellow. And there are certain loose, baggy monsters of the form that can’t help but comment on their own monstrousness. A book like The Life of Graham Greene by Norman Sherry functions both as a straight work of scholarship and as a bizarre mediation on its own creation, and by the last volume, the two elements become so unbalanced that you’re forced to confront the underlying strangeness of the whole biographical enterprise. Such hybrid books, which read like unwitting enactments of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, tend to have three qualities in common. One is the biographer’s extensive use of the first person, which allows him to insert himself into the narrative like a shadowy supporting player. Another is the inordinate amount of time or wordage devoted to the project, which usually occupies multiple decades or volumes. And the last, which should probably serve as a warning, is that this tendency is often most pronounced when the biographer is investigating the life of another living writer, which leads to insidious problems of identification, admiration, and resentment. As Sherry said of his biography of Greene to the New York Times: “I almost destroyed myself. By the time I had finished, my life had been taken from me.”

Which brings us to Anthony Burgess by Roger Lewis, which combines all of these ingredients into one of the strangest books I’ve ever seen. It first caught my eye over a decade ago, with its striking cover inspired by Philip Castle’s poster for A Clockwork Orange, but I’m glad that I’m only reading it now, when perhaps I have a better understanding of the emotions that it expresses. After describing his first encounter as a young man with Burgess, whom he compares to a baboon with “vampiral” red eyes,  Lewis writes:

My need to know about Burgess twenty years ago: what lack or absence in me was being compensated for? I was youthful, full of ambition and ideals; he was a constellation, larger than life-size, a writer’s writer, crammed with allusions. He was, as Carlyle said of Danton, “a gigantic mass of ostentation,” and the piratical swagger was alluring and I had an abiding affinity with it. The facets which you are taken in by when you are young—the languages, the apparent wide knowledge—genuine academics and professionals, people in the know, see it as so nonsensical, it’s beneath them to contradict Burgess’s bluster. His success came from impressing people who didn’t quite know better; he was left alone by those who did. He fell into that gap, and made a fortune for himself.

If it isn’t abundantly clear by this point, Lewis goes on to explain that his feelings have curdled toward his old mentor, whom he later describes as a “pretentious prick” and a ”complete fucking fool.” But Lewis also adds incongruously: “Twenty years on from my days as a student prince, if I’m allegedly repudiating the lion of my late adolescence, it’s no doubt because deep down I continue to feel close to him.”

Not surprisingly, many reviewers regarded the book as an act of “character assassination,” as Blake Morrison put it in The Guardian, or a case study in the pathology of hero worship. But the tangled lines of influence are even weirder than they seem. Lewis’s real mentor wasn’t Burgess, but Richard Ellmann, his thesis adviser, the biographer of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde who is generally regarded as the greatest modern practitioner of literary biography. He played a similar role in the life of none other than James Atlas, who devotes many pages to Ellmann in The Shadow in the Garden, writing of his first encounter with the man who agreed to supervise his work at Oxford: “Steven [sic] Dedalus had stumbled upon his Leopold Bloom.” In a lengthy footnote on the very first page of Anthony Burgess, Lewis uses almost identical language to describe their relationship:

Ellmann was my supervisor (though he didn’t do much supervising) for a doctoral dissertation on Ezra Pound, of which I wrote not one word. We became friends and used to dine lavishly at the Randolph…We were both aware of a Bloom/Dedalus dynamic in our relationship. I was immensely cocky and callow, Ellmann wholly lacked the Oxford way of people being interested in each other only for their own advantage.

It was probably impossible to be mentored by Richard Ellmann, of all people, without thinking of the surrogate father and son of Ulysses, but in Lewis’s case, the Joycean labyrinth was even more twisted—because it was through Ellmann that Lewis met Burgess in the first place. His biography opens with an account of the evening of May 7, 1985, when Ellmann and Lewis picked up Burgess at a train station and gave him a ride to Oxford: “We all went to find Ellman’s rusty, seldom-washed car…Ellmann took us through the city, turning corners by mounting the kerb, grazing bollards and scattering cyclists.” And all the while, Lewis informs us, Burgess had been “murmuring to Ellmann about Joyce.”

And it gets even stranger. One of Ellmann’s other students was the biographer Henry Hart, who later wrote an essay on his mentor titled “Richard Ellmann’s Oxford Blues.” Hart is also the author of the biography James Dickey: The World as a Lie, another book full of mixed feelings toward its self-mythologizing subject, of whom he writes: “To my great relief, Dickey expressed little animosity toward my project. But he obviously had worries, the main one being the way I would address the romanticized versions of his life that he had aired so free-spiritedly in conversations and publications.” Hart addresses these problems in depth, as the full title of the book indicates. (The subtitle, he claims, was Dickey’s idea.) And I’m fascinated by how Richard Ellmann, the author of perhaps the most acclaimed literary biography of all time, produced three separate protégés whose work—Atlas on Bellow, Hart on Dickey, Lewis on Burgess—all but explodes with ambivalence toward their subjects, their own ambitions, and the whole notion of biography itself. Thinking of Ellmann and his literary progeny, I’m reminded, as many of them undoubtedly were, of Stephen Dedalus’s famous speech in the library scene in Ulysses:

A father, Stephen said, battling against hopelessness, is a necessary evil…Fatherhood, in the sense of conscious begetting, is unknown to man. It is a mystical estate, an apostolic succession, from only begetter to only begotten…Paternity may be a legal fiction. Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?

That uneasy succession, which assumes unpredictable shapes in its passage from one generation to another, must be as difficult for biographers as for anyone else. And Ellmann may well have had other students whose names I don’t know yet. There’s obviously a good story here. Somebody should write a book about it.

From Rolling Stone to Brighton Rock

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I haven’t had the chance recently to read much for my own pleasure, but as soon as I have enough time and distance from my current project, I’m hoping to check out Sticky Fingers, the new biography of Jann Wenner by Joe Hagan. Part of my interest lies in professional curiosity—it’s hard to imagine two men less alike than Wenner and John W. Campbell, but both were powerful magazine editors who shaped the culture out of a combination of vision and good timing—and its backstory is unusually intriguing. As the New York Times reported shortly before the book’s release:

Two previous attempts at an authorized Wenner biography had come to nothing. In 2003, Mr. Wenner enlisted Lewis MacAdams, a longtime friend and former Rolling Stone contributor, only to pull out after reading a few hundred pages…In 2011, a similar arrangement with the Rolling Stone writer and author Rich Cohen made it to the proposal phase—Spiegel & Grau offered a reported $1 million—before Mr. Wenner revoked his cooperation.

If nothing else, Hagan went into the book with both eyes open, and he evidently did everything that he could to thread a difficult needle, as the Times article notes: “When he was in the final stages of writing this year he prepared a memo detailing ‘every instance in which [Wenner] had sex with anybody in the book’ and anything else ‘super personal.’” It didn’t work, and Wenner has refused to promote or endorse the result, of which he says: “My hope was that this book would provide a record for future generations of that extraordinary time. Instead, [Hagan] produced something deeply flawed and tawdry, rather than substantial.”

Wenner’s reaction doesn’t seem to have adversely affected the book’s critical or commercial reception, which has been very positive, but it inevitably sheds light on the fraught relationship between a biographer and a living subject. Perhaps the most fascinating case in recent memory is that of Norman Sherry and Graham Greene, which produced three massive biographical volumes that I confess I’ve only sampled in places. In his preface to the first book, Sherry describes his initial encounters with Greene with an air of intimacy that seems harmless enough:

[Greene said] with what I am sure was the instinctive decision of a novelist, “If I were to have my biography written, I would choose you,” and later, as we parted in Brook Street, he made up his mind. I was to be his biographer, and we shook hands on it…It was only very gradually that a mutual trust developed and I think it was expressed when we were crossing St. James’s Street in London and narrowly escaped being knocked down by a taxi. He said, “You almost lost your subject there,” and I replied, “That’s not half as bad as losing your biographer.” He laughed and I knew we had become friends.

Greene, like Wenner, was particularly guarded about his sex life, later writing to Sherry from the Royal Albion Hotel in Brighton to ask him “not to interview certain women he had known.” (Wenner asked Hagan to omit “the name of the woman with whom he had lost his virginity.”) And although Greene didn’t live to see the final volume, it led to a similar dispute with with the writer’s family, as well as a bizarre controversy over Sherry’s exclusive access to Greene’s papers that hinged, according to a great gossipy article in the New York Times, on a single comma.

Some of the criticisms voiced by Greene’s relatives are strikingly reminiscent of those leveled against Hagan. Both biographers have been accused of inordinate attention to their subjects’ sexual activity. “His obsession with brothels far surpasses that of his supposed subject,” Greene’s son said of Sherry, while Joe Landau of Rolling Stone feels that Hagan went too far in his treatment of sex: “I believe Jann was entitled to expect a little more empathy from his biographer. To me it’s a question of degree and tone.” (In this line, I can’t resist mentioning the passage from Sherry in which he quotes Mario Soldati, the Italian movie director, who says that he spent his last conversation with Greene “confessing the varieties of oral sex we’d performed,” which I frankly find hard to imagine.) Sherry was also accused of inserting himself gratuitously into his work:

Mr. Sherry has interjected himself into the narrative, dropped in bits of his own poetry, even included a picture of himself riding on a donkey in Mexico as he retraced Greene’s research for the novel The Power and the Glory…“This book is not about Graham Greene, but about Sherry,” Greene’s son and literary executor, Francis, 67, said.

Many biographers have succumbed to this temptation, but Sherry didn’t do himself any favors, saying in response to the accusation that he minimized Greene’s relationship with his son: “I was the nearest thing to being a son to him as could possibly be.” Sherry claimed to have ruined his health and his personal life in his pursuit of his subject, and he summed it all up in words that would do equal credit to a biographer or a serial killer: “I often felt I must be him. I lived within him.”

On the other hand, I could list examples of the ambivalence of biographers toward their subjects for days. There’s Peter Manso, whom I’ve quoted here so often recently, who used the long afterword to the reissue of his oral biography of Norman Mailer primarily as a means of settling scores. And then there’s Roger Lewis, who seems to have realized about halfway through writing a biography of Anthony Burgess that he hated his subject. If familiarity breeds contempt, few people would have more reason to be contemptuous, as Lewis implies:

The sum of the parts [of an artist’s work] will not be greater than the totality—and nor is it, with Burgess. Though his work demonstrates great versatility, the versatility is always the same. To read one’s way through all of Burgess’s work (and how many have done that—except me?) is to make a startling discovery. It’s all the same.

I’ve never forgotten that aside: “And how many have done that—except me?” This is something that most biographers have probably caught themselves thinking, and if there’s a common denominator between the cases that I’ve mentioned, it’s that they all hinge on the fundamental weirdness of an enterprise that requires the writer to spend years “living within” someone else. If that person is alive, it can lead both to resistance from the subjects—who naturally see the work as an uncanny valley version of themselves—and to excessive identification by the writer. The victim, in both cases, is the work itself. Neither subject nor biographer, it seems, can be trusted to read the book objectively. And it may be as much a matter of luck as professionalism if the result ever ends up being close to the truth.

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