The highs and lows of reading biographies


The biography genre and I have a love-hate relationship. It's very rewarding to read an illuminating account of a famous life but it is also madly frustrating when the most interesting questions about that life remain unanswered. Our curiosity about the brave, the talented, the beautiful and the downright bad makes reading their bios immensely pleasurable. But even the most assiduous biographer cannot know everything, and it's often the most intriguing aspect of their subject - the reason we want to read about them in the first place - that eludes them. Biographers are painfully aware of this occupational hazard. Carol Shields's entertaining novel, Small Ceremonies, describes this very dilemma, and she should know, having written on the ultra-enigmatic Jane Austen.

Peter Conradi's biography of Iris Murdoch is an example of frustrating omissions. Murdoch's sexual adventures are mind-boggling but the biography neither links her sexuality to her precociousness and extraordinary imagination, nor examines its singularity. The bio goes into a lot of unnecessary detail yet glosses over the juicy bits, failing to recreate a coherence in Iris as an intellectual and a sensualist. I got the feeling that Conradi thought all that hanky-panky was not in keeping with his subject's brilliant mind. A N Wilson's response to John Bayley's memoir of his life with Iris goes too much the other way. It's an affectionate account of his dear friend but sometimes reads like a high-brow version of Carry on up to Cambridge. Bayley's memoir is of course too close to its subject to be reliable. It's because Murdoch is such an intriguing person that makes her a subject of biography, yet her apparent unknowability means any biography will always fall short. History - especially literary history - is full of such characters. 

Every now and again we come across a literary bio that truly satisfies. Claire Tomalin's  2002 portrayal of Samuel Pepys, An Unequalled Self, is a good example. While Pepys is painted as a thoroughly modern man Tomalin resists the temptation to apply aspects of his personality and behaviour - the good and bad ones - to contemporary mores. Fixed firmly in his era, Pepys nevertheless reminds me of a former-day Bill Clinton: egotistical and vain, competent and popular, and a shocking opportunist - politically and with the ladies. The biography neither criticises nor apologises, and it praises and condemns in equal measure. It deals with facts mixed with just the right amount of speculation. Tomalin doesn't just expertly structure Pepys's life through a series of seductive themes, she also draws the reader into the excitement and then disillusionment of the Restoration. And she suceeds in reminding us of our extraordinary luck that such a unique person living through the most turbulent period of English history happened to keep an intensely personal diary, and that it survived. I wonder if readers in 400 years' time will think the same thing when they read about Clinton?