Friday, September 11, 2015

The Perfect Biographer

Sean O'Brien on Robert Crawford's new biography of T.S. Eliot:
Crawford has no angle, no ill-disguised or gradually accruing dislike for his subject, nor any need to insert himself into the picture: his wish is to enable a greater understanding and enjoyment of the poems, which he admires almost to the point of idolatry. Perhaps he is too good for this world.
O'Brien's piece, in the August 14 TLS, has the peculiar distinction of being the only great review I have ever read of a literary biography. One is tempted to call this a great waste of talent and effort. I suppose, though, that a review in the TLS may end up being read by far more people than a scholarly article or literary novel. Certainly it gave me 20 minutes of pure pleasure.

I read reviews of biographies of authors because I am somewhat curious about what these biographies say, but not curious enough to actually read one; most authors, I find, lead pretty dismal lives. Eliot was no exception. Crawford on Eliot's marriage:
Like Auntie Vera in the Giles cartoons, some people are wedded to their ailments; Eliot and Vera seem to have married many of each other's too. Headaches, neuralgia, neurasthenia, insomnia, hypersensitivity, mood-swings, depression, anxiety, sexual and gynaecological problems, dietary issues, and a near-perpetual state of exhaustion: the Eliots could have been Viennese, so comprehensive and achingly modernist was their catalogue of symptoms. . . .

They suffered horribly, often at each other's hands.
This last reminded me of a line from Orwell, who said that Eliot's poetry "achieved the difficult feat of making modern life out to be worse than it actually is." Maybe it was that bad for him.

No comments: