Feb 20, 2016

Reading a John le Carré biography

Literary biography should be a guilty pleasure. A good reader can guess the origins of beautifully written novels, but a good reader inevitably wants to know the person who wrote such powerful work.

What we repeatedly find out is that the great artist performs a kind of alchemy, turning an often shitty life into deeply absorbing and moving art.

The literary biographer's task can be tricky. How do you examine the artistic process when the writer is not necessarily the thing of dreams while his work clearly is? It takes great subtlety and a powerful sense of scope.

There are some excellent examples of such biographers. Frances Donaldson's P. G. Wodehouse: A Biography. Joseph Blotner's Faulkner: A Biography. Ron Chernow is one of my favorite biographers and approaches his subjects as lively and interesting people who must be approached with intelligence.

Adam Sisman's John le Carré: The Biography is not one of those sympathetic biographies. After reading the first third of the book, I started to wonder if Sisman liked his subject at all. In the Introduction, Sisman records that le Carré said, "I know it's supposed to be warts and all, but so far as I can gather it's going to be all warts and no all."

Le Carré has repeatedly said that writers are liars, but Sisman seems to have taken him at his word. Extremely at his word.

It's a mistake to publish a biography of a living subject. It's even more a mistake to get so close to your subject that you cannot see the magic of misery. I sometimes read Sisman's book as a reference and have many of my working assumptions about le Carré confirmed, but it is not a biography that I can read all the way through. It's just too brutal.

Add this to my le Carré wishlist. One day someone will work on a biography about the symbols and archetypes that steer him in his work, adding as carefully as le Carré the details that hook you into his stories. Another wish is that le Carré himself would go back to his pre- Naive and Sentimental Lover mindset and find a rebirth in pure literary fiction. He's been using the espionage cover for his literary self for a very long time.

Feb 10, 2016

Notes on A Celtic Temperament

I had often wondered why the diaries of Robertson Davies had not been published. By all accounts he was a relentless journal writer and some surprising tidbits would come out of excerpts for his other writings. I can remember one journal entry in a collection of his essays where the day was so hot that he sat down at his desk shirtless, old and fat.

The first collection of Davies' diaries, A Celtic Temperament, was published last October. Davies had requested that his diaries not be published for a full twenty years after his death, which explains the timing.

I was once so absorbed in Davies' writing that I lost ten years of reading to being focused solely on him. This made me hesitant about jumping into his diaries, especially after reading Val Ross's Robertson Davies: A Portrait in Mosaic. That well-meant biographical sketch made Davies look like a pompous windbag at times.

But read A Celtic Temperament I did in less than three days and here's a glimpse:
  • Davies not only had sex but marked each occasion in his diary as H.T.D. Quill and Quire speculates that it stands for "High Tempo Debauchery" or "hic tempus delectat." At the end of the year Davies would tally the number of times he and his wife, Brenda, had H.T.D. He used some interesting adjectives to describe sex, the two most frequent were "admirable" and "surprising." They threw down on the bedroom floor, in a bay window, next to the Christmas tree. These are very odd images if you tend to think of Davies as an Edwardian gent who used to walk with a cane wearing a bowler.
  • The diary entries begin just after his play General Confession was ditched and end just as he's getting Massey College underway. I thought the selections odd. As I read, I began to see Davies' character change as he left his provincial and comfortable life in Peterborough and had to fight like hell to get Massey College launched. The transformation was remarkable.
  • There are some very endearing views of vices. He's disappointed that someone got drunk at a party while everybody else was there for two drinks. He notes his hangovers. He doesn't understand people who fuck without loving the fucked. By the time Massey launches he's so worn down that he just wants people to have good manners. I'm pretty sure that Davies would have joined Jennifer Lawrence in scolding people for living through their smartphones.
Davies complete diaries of more than three million words will supposedly be available in digital format sometime in 2017. I'm really looking forward to that.