Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Brief Lives

{Photo of St. Boniface Cemetery, Chicago, by rocketlass.}

From Hilary Spurling's review in the Guardian of Peter Ackroyd's new Poe: A Life Cut Short:
Poe's brilliant, erratic, abbreviated career stands to gain rather than lose from the form of brief life patented by Ackroyd. A short biography is not a long one shrunk. Instead of patiently accumulated details, emotional complexity and architectural shaping, it operates by lightning strikes, atmospheric colouring, impressionistic techniques of concision and suggestion.
In that passage above, Spurling has hit on exactly what I love about brief lives. By trimming the dross that even an exceptional full-length biography can't entirely avoid--that year, say, when the subject did little but write self-pitying letters to his publisher--the author of a brief life is freed up to concentrate on the important stuff: the goofy details, telling anecdotes, and mostly inconsequential oddities that dot any closely examined life.

The following two paragraphs about J. M. W. Turner's father, from Ackroyd's brief life of the painter, are a good example:
Old Dad settled very happily and comfortably into Sandycombe Lodge, where he took particular pleasure in tending the garden. On Tuesdays he visited the market at Brentford, and would return with the week's provisions stored in a knotted blue handkerchief. In the spring and summer he would supervise the gallery in Harley Street, when his son was exhibiting, and often made the journey from Twickenham on foot. When Constable and Farington once visited the gallery, the old man told them that "he had walked from Twickenham this morning, eleven miles; his age, 68. In two days the last week he said he had walked fifty miles." He might have used his son's pony, Crop-Ear, but for some reason chose not to do so. Perhaps the beast was considered to be Turner's sole possession; he rode on it for various painting expeditions, and declared that "it would climb like a cat and never get tired." When it died, after strangling itself on its own fastenings, he buried it in the garden.

Old Dad did in the end find an alternative mode of travelling. "Why lookee here," he told an acquaintance, "I have found a way at last of coming up cheap from Twickenham to open my son's gallery. I found out the inn where the market-gardeners baited their horses; I made friends with one on 'em and now, for a glass of gin a day, he brings me up in his cart on top of the vegetables."
As much fun as Ackroyd's 150-ish-page lives are, I actually prefer the far more condensed form that was favored by--or that was the product of the general racketiness of--John Aubrey. On almost any page of his Brief Lives, you come across something great, phrased in Aubrey's unique, elliptical style--like this life of mathematician Henry Briggs:
Looking one time on the mappe of England he observed that the two Rivers, the Thames and that Avon (which runnes to Bathe and so to Bristowe) were not far distant, scilicet, about 3 miles. He sees 'twas but about 25 miles from Oxford; getts a horse and viewes it and found it to be a levell ground and easie to be digged. Then he considered the chardge of cutting between them and the convenience of making a mariage between those Rivers which would be of great consequence for cheape and safe carrying of Goods between London and Bristow, and though the boates go slowly and with meanders, yet considering they goe day and night they would be at their journey's end almost as soon as the Waggons, which often are overthrowne and liquours spilt and other goods broken. Not long after this he dyed and the Civill Warres brake-out.
I found myself thinking of Aubrey the other night when reading the Hesperus Press's very satisfying collection of some of Virginia Woolf's biographical writings, The Platform of Time (2007). The opening paragraph of Woolf's brief life of her great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron, which first appeared in the Hogarth Press's edition of Cameron's photographs, has a touch of Aubrey to it:
Julia Margaret Cameron, the third daughter of James Pattle of the Bengal Civil service, was born on July 11, 1815. Her father was a gentleman of marked, but doubtful, reputation, who after living a riotous life and earning the title of "the biggest liar in India," finally drank himself to death and was consigned to a cask of rum to await shipment to England. The cask was stood outside the widow's bedroom door. In the middle of the night she heard a violent explosion, rushed out, and found her husband, having burst the lid of the coffin, bolt upright menacing her in death as he had menaced her in lift. "The shock sent her off her head then and there, poor thing, and she died raving." It is the father of Miss Ethel Smyth who tells the story (Impressions that Remained), and he goes on to say that, after "Jim Blazes" had been nailed down again and shipped off, the sailors drank the liquor in which the body was preserved, "and, by Jove, the rum ran out and got alight and set the ship on fire! And while they were trying to extinguish the flames she ran on a rock, blew up, and drifted ashore just below Hooghly. And what do you think the sailors said? 'That Pattle had been such a scamp that the devil wouldn't let him go out of India!'"
Though I don't know if Aubrey can actually be claimed as an influence on Woolf's biographical technique, he surely would have enjoyed her handling of the unlikely anecdotes.

Which is more than I'm willing to presume about my own sub-Aubreyan efforts, the continuing series of Brief Lives of the Hip-Hop Stars that I'm writing for the New-York Ghost. For those benighted souls out there who didn't take my advice a while back and subscribe to the Ghost, here's the most recent installment:
Levi Stahl's "Brief Lives of the Hip-Hop Stars"

Dr. Octagon

It seems impossible to conclude that Dr. Octagon ever spake any oaths to Hippocrates; rather, his god of choice seems to have been some hideous concoction partaking of the most unseemly Characters of Dr. Crippen and Casanova, if one is to go by the account of his own Rhymes, viz., that the Dr. Octagon did at several times take Liberties, notably of a sexual nature, with the ladies who came to him for gynaecological advice. It is also said of him that once he did introduce a Horse into the Precincts of a Hospital (Quaere de hoc), with many deleterious effects. However, even his staunchest Opponents on the Medical Board, however, could scant deny the innovative nature of his Treatments for Moosebumps, Chimpanzee Acne, and those rare but wracking infestations of Rectal Bees. Some many days, Dr. Octagon was known to site in his Chambers with his Head encased in a Space Helmet, from beneath which he would bellow challenges to philosophically minded guests to prove that he was not, in fact, in Space. In his later years, presumably barred from the practice of medicine, he is said to have assumed the moniker of Kool Keith and taken up some profession relating to robotics, which I confess I little understand.
All of which reminds me that, rather than writing this, I ought to be working on the next installment. While I do that, and while poor John Aubrey rightfully grumbles at me from beyond the grave, you can go here to subscribe to the Ghost, gratis!

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