January 12, 2017

Great Summer Read: Read a memoir or biography. Part II: Biographies

Who said her motto was "Well, you can't expect to be liked in my business, but with any luck you can avoid going to jail"?

A biographer.

A nine-time biographer (including of Frank Lloyd Wright and Salvador Dali) who wrote a memoir called Shoot the widow, where she also avows that the purpose of biography is "not just to record, but to reveal".  Oh and did I mention anagrams in the last post? The biographer is named Meryle Secrest.

I haven't read the book, though I might yet, but I did read a review of it by the American critic and essayist Louis Menand in The New Yorker, where he goes on to take an amusing look at various aspects of the biographer's creed, such as their assumption that the real truth about a person will always involve the thing least known about them, and their belief that if they can just get their hands on the letters, all will be explained.

But why, Menand asks? "Why should we especially credit a remark made in a diary or a personal letter? People lie in letters all the time, and they use diaries to moan and vent... They are sites for gossip, flattery, and self-deception." I can quote it because I actually ripped his article out and saved it, I liked it so much. (It was a withdrawn New Yorker.)

In answer to the question, why do people like biographies so much, Menand says Secrest was to the point: people like gossip. And, he adds, they enjoy judging other people's lives. "It's not one of the species' more attractive addictions, and, on the whole, it's probably better to indulge it on the life of a person you have never met".

So let's indulge! I'm not going to recommend any particular biographies, because it comes down to whom you want to know more about, and you will know that better than I do. But I did want to remind everyone that you can see all the new biographies as they arrive by checking our new titles list every month. Just this month there are 215 new biographies at the library, ranging from Celeste, the story of most celebrated courtesan in Belle Epoque Paris, to Emma Goldman: revolution as a way of life by the astute but never arch Vivian Gornick, who presented her own memoir The odd woman and the city at the latest Auckland Writers Festival.

For my Great Summer Read, I'm reading the new biography of Joan Didion, The last love song, by Tracy Daugherty, and I'm almost up to her childhood. Yes, because I firmly believe with big thick biographies like this one, the reader has the right to attack it any way they please. So for instance with Nicholas Shakespeare's big thick Bruce Chatwin biography, which was 600 pages, I just kept it by my bedside for a couple of months (or more) and would simply open it at random and read far enough to get through the episode, and then stop. Another day, another random dip. It absolutely fit that mercurial character and his nomadic lifestyle.

With Joan, I've started at the end of the book, at the furthermost point from whatever we have in common -- namely, the present time, in which she is the literary doyenne of New York (which is to say of America). Also, I was eager to fill in the gaps in her magnetic but noticeably ungrounded (though not false), recent memoir Blue Nights. Then I moved to the middle of the book, her time as movie industry royalty, this only almost totally out of my range of experience, given that I had a boyfriend from Brentwood, the Los Angeles enclave where Didion lived for many of those years, and own a memory of a breakfast with him at a deli where her DNA was certainly floating around. And now I'm closing in on the opening chapters, to finish on the things which bring me closest to Joan: California girlhood, pioneer ancestors, close acquaintance with rattlesnakes, Highway 99, a fascination with the All-American canal.

How is the book? It's very very good, very very interesting, and very very well-written. But as far as revealing goes, I will say this. Asked by the man behind the "Live from the NYPL" author events to give him a seven word biography for his intro, Joan Didion responded with "Seven words do not yet define me".

Neither does this book of 728 pages! Luckily!

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 18:39


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