Monday, March 20, 2006

The Pleasures of Biography

From Samuel Johnson's Dictionary (1755)
Biographer: A writer of lives, a relator not of the history of nations, but of the actions of particular persons.
"Our Grubstreet biographers watch for the death of a great man like so many undertakers, on purpose to make a penny of him."—Addison's Freeholders, No. 35

From Javier Marias's Written Lives (2005)
When Malcolm Lowry got into trouble in 1946 during his second stay in Mexico and, in an attempt not to be expelled from the country, asked the sub-chief of the Immigration department in Acapulco what there was against him from his previous visit in 1938, the government employee took out a file, tapped it with one finger and said: "Drunk, Drunk, Drunk. Here is your life." These words are as brutal as they are exact, and perhaps, on more compassionate lips, the right word would have been "calamitous," because Lowry does seem to have been the most calamitous writer in the whole history of literature, which is no mean feat, given the intense competition in the field.

From John Aubrey's Brief Lives (169?)
Thomas Chaloner had a trick some times to goe into Wesminster-hall in a morning in Term-time, and tell some strange story (Sham) and would come thither again about 11 or 12 to have the pleasure to heare how it spred; and sometime it would be altered, with additions, he could scarce know it to be his owne. He was neither proud nor covetous, nor a hypocrite, nor apt to do injustice, but apt to revenge

After the restauration of King Charles the Second, he kept the Castle at the Isle of Man, where he had a pretty Wench that was his Concubine; where when Newes was brought to him that there were some come to the Castle to demaund it for his Majestie, he spake to his Girle to make him a Possett, into which he putt, out of a paper he had, some Poyson, which did, in a very short time, make him fall a vomiting exceedingly; and after some time vomited nothing but Bloud. His Retchings were so violent that the Standers by were much grieved to behold it. Within three howres he dyed. The Demandants of the Castle came and sawe him dead: he was swoln so extremely that they could not see any eie he had, and no more of his nose than the tip of it, which shewed like a wart, and his Coddes were swoln as big as one's head.

From Francine du Plessix Gray's Them: A Memoir of Parents (2005)
The very next afternoon, shortly after returning to [the school] Les Roches, Alex started vomiting blood. The nurse at the school infirmary told him that "nobody vomits blood" and that he'd probably eaten too much currant jelly.

From Javier Marias's Written Lives (2005)
According to contemporary accounts, Rimbaud never changed his clothes and therefore smelled disgusting, left any bed he slept in full of lice, drank constantly (preferably absinthe), and rewarded his acquaintances with nothing but impertinence and insults.

From William Hazlitt's "The Indian Juggler" (1821), reprinted in On the Pleasure of Hating
Ingenuity is genius in trifles, greatness is genius in undertakings of much pith and moment. A clever or ingenious man is one who can do any thing well, whether it is worth doing or not; a great man is one who can do that which when done is of the highest importance. Themistocles said he could not play on the flute, but that he could make of a small city a great one. This gives a pretty good idea of the distinction in question. . . . John Hunter was a great man. That anyone might see without the smallest skill in surgery. His style and manner shewed the man. He would set about cutting up the carcase of a whale with the same greatness of gusto that Michael Angelo would have hewn a block of marble. Lord Nelson was a great naval commander, but for myself, I have not much opinion of a sea-faring life. Sir Humphry Davy was a great chemist, but I am not sure he is a great man. I am not a bit the wiser for one of his discoveries, nor I never met with any one that was.

From Javier Marias's Written Lives (2005)
Lowry did not make a very good impression during his stay in Ronda and especially in Granada: at the time, although still very young, he was fat, drank wine all the time, and insisted on wearing huge Cordoban hats of a kind that no one has ever worn. In Granada he soon became known as "the drunken Englishman;" people poked fun and the Guardia Civil were also keeping an eye on him. [Conrad] Aiken's wife remembers Lowry walking around the city surrounded by a troop of children who were all laughing at him and whom he was unable to shake off.

From Francine du Plessix Gray's Them: A Memoir of Parents (2005)
Throughout these innocent adventures she had retained much of the anarchic extravagance of her Soviet youth: upon entering a restaurant and seeing a group of her friends at the other end of a crowded room, she had simply jumped onto a table and leaped from table to table until she reached her pals, impervious to any disturbance she might cause to the diners on the way.

From Javier Marias's Written Lives (2005)
It is hardly surprising that Djuna Barnes should have considered her first name as so unequivocally hers when Anais Nin took the liberty of using it, for most of the names in her family seem to have been chosen precisely so that no one else could usurp them. Suffice it to say that among her own siblings and ancestors were the following extravagant examples, which, in many cases, do not even give a clue as to the gender of the person bearing them: Urlan, Niar, Unade, Reon, Hinda, Zadel, Gaybert, Culmer, Kilmeny, Thurn, Zendon, Saxon, Shangar, Wald, and Llewellyn. At least the last name is recognized in Wales. Perhaps it is understandable that, on reaching adulthood, some members of the Barnes family adopted banal nicknames like Bud or Charlie.

From David Riggs's The World of Christopher Marlowe (2004)
During the months leading up to Marlowe's murder in a hired room near London, the pamphleteer Robert Greene publicly predicted that if the "famous gracer of tragedians" did not repent his blasphemies, God would soon strike him down. A few days before Marlowe was killed, the spy Richard Baines informed the Queen's Privy Council that he was a proselytizing atheist, a counterfeiter, and a consumer "of boys and tobacco."

From Javier Marias's Written Lives (2005)
Adah Isaacs Menken had numerous lovers, some of whom, inevitably, were writers, such as Alexandre Dumas pere at the end of his days and that masochistic poet par excellence, Algernon Charles Swinburne, that tiny red-haired, Victorian, homosexual drunkard, addicted to the whip.

From Anthony Powell's review of Rare Sir William Davenant, by Mary Edmond, collected in Some Poets, Artists, and "A Reference for Mellors" (2005)
Miss Edmond has been extremely ingenious in digging out material about Davenant; in fact one is staggered by her research, which proves the point that scholarly biography is by far the most entertaining kind. Davenant, as might be expected, was not very good at paying his tailor, who sued him (though Davenant continued to have his clothes made there), which leads to a lot of relevant information.

From "The Life and Times of John Aubrey," (1949) by Oliver Lawson Dick, in the David R. Godine edition of John Aubrey's Brief Lives
Having decided to write a life, Aubrey selected a page in one of his notebooks and jotted down as quickly as possible everything that he could remember about the character concerned: his friends, his appearance, his actions, his books, and his sayings. Any facts or dates that did not occur to him on the spur of the moment were left blank, and as Aubrey was so extremely sociable that he was usually suffering from a hangover when he came to put pen to paper, the number of these omissions was often very large.

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