The dilemma of authors' biographies

2023-02-03 @Literature

The hours to a lifetime constrained, the amount of books read subject to those available hours, it makes sense for one to be militant with what to read and what to pass.

With all I’ve prioritized, select biographical sketches rouse curiosity. Yet to pursue this dimension to any great extent beyond the aridity of (the otherwise phenomenal) Wikipedia or the likes, is to sacrifice the literary content.

Endless volumes, biographical and autobiographical, avail. But I continue to make due with that very superficial, negligent with even the prefaces appended to the very books I read. They can be so dauntingly long.

Biographical prose normally subdues the poetic factor in favour of the educational. Whereas those creative writings tend to facilitate both ends. Which I inevitably choose.

And yet, and yet, so many attractive biographies …

Take Pushkin, his prodigious influence over the subsequent Russian language and literature, all the while clutched by censorship, cloistered in exile: topics for insatiable biographical insight no less voluminous than the creative body of work.

Or Byron, who beyond the similarly unfathomable poetic output exerted influence (and direct involvement) in the Turkish military campaigns?

Or the revelational enigma that is Edgar Allan Poe? Of whom I know next to nil despite exhausting such extensive body of his prose and poetry?

Or Ezra Pound with that artistry for combining the poetic with the historical, a lifetime weaving the Cantos in the damask of fascist inclinations and war propaganda: both the creative output and the biographical sketch offering fascinating depth.

Or the James Joyce studies? How did Dubliners lead to Ulysses? What shaped those eight years? What provided the sustenance to endure the seventeen-year cycle from Ulysses to Finnegans Wake?

Or Dostoevsky, so much of whose novels I’ve read yet know the backstory but through the satellite view: the early romanticist period of writings, the ten years of labour camp followed by the bleaker, the philosophically denser period of most renown. And those published diaries?

Or the transformations in Tolstoy’s socioeconomic demeanor? Leading from The Cossacks to Kreutzer Sonata? From the earlier prose style to the latter? From the ranks of nobility to the peasant camps?

Or Bulgakov’s evolution from the earlier, less remarkable prose to the long unpublished magnum opus, in the shadows of the Stalinist repression? Who all the while remained liked by the Soviet leader, yet unable to publish, unable to emigrate? And all those epistolary interchanges? And everything in between?

Or Nikolai Gumilev’s military career, the African explorations, the evolution in the poetic style and the founding of the school of acmeism?

Among those lines, the Russian post-revolutionary years that molded a whole era of silver-age poetry? Under the overwhelming burden of repression leading so much of that endless talent to premature death?

Or Conrad’s sea career, the material for the adventure novels written in his third language?

Or Nabokov’s life lacking no biographical, semi-biographical nor pseudo-biographical basis? Take your pick. The early Russian nobility, the revolution, the manifold emigration, the shift in published language, the poems, the drama, the prose, the translations, the essays, the butterflies, the chess problems, the Cornell lectures …

Or Jorge Luis Borges, possibly my most esteemed 20th-century erudite of the fiction writers? The acquaintance with the western canon from the childhood years in Europe, the command of ancient Teutonic languages, the Dante studies, the lectures, the books of essays, the greater lifetime under the repressed Argentinian regime?

Or J.R.R. Tolkien, whom the western audience knows mainly for the magnum opus? And yet consider that goldmine of material left beyond the radar. The war, the philology, the Teutonic languages, the Germanic literature? The alliterative poetry unpublished for decades?

And Shakespeare’s biography (whose fragmentary highlights includes nearly every edition of every published play I’d acquired) leaves too much shrouded.

And Goethe, Kafka, Yeats, Bernard Shaw, Spenser, Chaucer, etc …

I suppose I’d not expressed interest in any female biographies. Sappho?

How much feat owes to legend and how much to history? Perturb reading paradigms to dispel.

I’d like to have acquired knowledge concerning these matters. But I don’t wish to undertake the actual process. We’ve seen this dilemma before.

Questions, comments? Connect.