Sunday, February 18, 2007


Looking up at me from the covers of the three books on the table next to my reading chair in the front room are the faces of Julian MacLaren-Ross, Thomas Hardy, and Patricia Highsmith.

Julian MacLaren-Ross, who had a pathological hatred of being photographed, apparently decided to camp it up for the photo that was chosen for Paul Wiletts's biography. He's barely in focus, leaning forward a bit and keeping a long cigarette holder in place with his left hand; his look is coy and over-the-top mysterious. He's clearly playing a role, but since so much of his life seemed to be playing one part or another, I suppose it's possible that this is no more campy or false than any other moment for him. Who knows how seriously he was taking this photo shoot? Regardless, the impression is one of goofy insouciance with just an dollop of true mysteriousness and reserve, utterly appropriate to MacLaren-Ross. [Aside to Spider-Man fans: he has Harry Osborn hair.]

Thomas Hardy, meanwhile, is pictured on the jacket of Claire Tomalin's biography staring into space, wearing a dark homburg, a high-collared shirt and tie, and a tweed jacket and waistcoat. He is an old man and his bristly moustache looks a bit formidable--which is what a fan of his novels might expect him to be--but his light eyes and the gentle lines of his face belie that. When he was a young man, he sported a long, full beard like Dickens, which had the effect of making him look a bit stuffy. Hardy's older face, on the other hand, gives a sense that he is a kindly, caring, generous man troubled by what he has seen in a long life. The workings of fate can be so cruel in his novels that the gentle face surprises me a bit--though perhaps it shouldn't, since the sympathy in his novels lies always with the sufferers. Presumably Tomalin's biography will tell me whether I'm reading this photo correctly.

On the cover of her Selected Stories Patricia Highsmith gazes off to the side with a deeply suspicious look, one thick eyebrow arched, as if she's about to interrupt the photo shoot to ask, one last time, why exactly you need to take her picture. She wears a black frock coat, buttoned over a scarf against the cold, hands jammed in her pockets; you ought to be able to see her breath. Behind her and out of focus, light comes through an arched doorway. The middle-aged Highsmith in this photo reveals hints of the striking beauty she possessed when she was young, evidenced by luminous photos of her in her twenties and thirties. What she fully retains from her youth is a sense of danger--muted by the years, but still potent. She did not, it seems, have a happy life, and the misanthropy that comes through in her writing seems to have been deeply rooted; the face in this photo isn't likely to make one reconsider that assessment. [Aside for Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica fans: Highsmith bears more than a passing resemblance to Michelle Forbes.]

Photos, of course, don't really tell us anything definite about writers, let alone their books. But, like biography itself, they're a satisfying addition to what the writers make available on the page. I think Javier Marias pinpoints the appeal of knowing the faces of authors in the passage below, which opens a brief section of his wonderful Written Lives (2005) that treats photos of authors that he has spent a lifetime reading:
No one knows waht Cervantes looked like, and no one knows for certain what Shakespeare looked like either, and so Don Quixote and Macbeth are both texts unaccompanied by a personal expression, a definitive face or gaze which, over time, the eyes of other men have been able to freeze and make their own. Or perhaps only those that posterity has felt the need to bestow on them, with a great deal of hesitation, bad conscience, and unease--an expression, gaze, and face that were undoubtedly not those of Shakespeare or of Cervantes.

It is as if the books we still read felt more alien and incomprehensible without some image of the heads that composed them; it is as if our age, in which everything has its corresponding image, felt uncomfortable with something whose authorship cannot be attributed to a face; it is almost as if a writer's features formed part of his or her work. perhaps the authors of the last two centuries anticipated this and so left behind them numerous portraits, in paintings and in photographs. . . . It would be naive to try and extract from them lessons or laws, or even common characteristics. The only thing that leaps out at one is that all the subjects are writers and now, at last, when they are all dead, all of them are perfect artists.

If I think the hint of malevolence in Highsmith's photo is off-putting, I quickly change my mind as I move it aside and reveal, beneath it, the cover of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (1954), on which an army of grotesque vampires surges forward, teeth bared. While the photos of the authors on the other books may tell me something about them and their books, the vampires, I think, tell me everything I needed to know before opening I Am Legend.

At the very least, the vampires would be sufficient to prevent me from opening the book late some winter night when Stacey is out and I'm all alone in the house . . .

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