Craig Brown has written a wonderful essay about the problems with biography, which appeared in the TLS for September 10, 2021. Brown delightfully mixes serious issues with amusing asides, and I just love it. He begins with a look at gigantic biographies like Robert Caro's 800,000 words (so far) on Lyndon Johnson, and John Richardson's work on Picasso, which would have been as big as Caro's if Richardson hadn't died before he finished it. Some of these works drown in what Brown calls "untelling detail." Consider the 1700-page book on the Beatles that only gets to 1962:
You may well want to know that George Harrison's first car was a Ford Anglia. But do you really need to know that it was a second-hand, two-door blue Ford Anglia IO5E Deluxe, bought by George from Brian Epstein's friend Terry Doran, who worked at a car dealership in Warrington?
The end point of these giant biographies, he muses, would be like Borges' perfect map of the world, which would have to be the same size as the original.
But this accumulation of detail, says Brown, does not really get us where we most want to go, into the mind of the subject:
While no life can be recaptured in its entirety, not even one single minute of any life could ever be recaptured as a whole, as there is not a minute in the life of the brain that can be isolated from the rest of its life. We live in the present, but we think in the past and in the present and in the future, and often all of them at the same time.
Biography as a form is necessarily artificial. In the end, all biography is a form of fiction. As Peter Ackroyd once said, "Fiction requires truth-telling, whereas in a biography one can make things up."
Brown has some wonderful cases of biographers just flat making up thoughts to put in their subjects' heads, often with absurd results. But is there a better way?
Of course, more scrupulous biographers eschew such conjecture and rely on first-hand accounts: what do those who were there at the time remember? But are first-hand accounts reliable? In real life, people change their memories almost as often as they change their minds. In The Irish Story (2002), the historian Roy Foster examines the accounts of Irish emigrants at the time they embarked for America and compares them with accounts given by those same emigrants in retrospect. At the moment of departure, they explained that they were leaving Ireland because of unpleasant neighbors or debts or the weather or various runs of bad luck. But given time their memories altered: decades later, having learnt what Foster calls "the language of exile," they put their exodus down to the cruel English driving them from their homes. "One would expect people to remember the past and imagine the future," wrote the historian Lewis Namier, "but in fact, when discoursing or writing about history, they imagine it in terms of their own experience . . . they imagine the past and remember the future."
Brown describes the journals of writer John Fowles, which you might think would be a reliable source about his own life had not his wife often added snarky corrections. ("I did not. You see nothing.") And what if you had multiple independent sources? Brown relates a famous literary encounter, the only time Henry James and Marcel Proust ever met. This took place at a gala event organized by two noted art patrons with many other luminaries in attendance, at least seven of whom left us accounts of their conversation. These accounts disagree wildly about what happened and what was said. I felt that after laying them side by side I had some idea of the exchange, which must have been brief and included the word "no" from both men, but in some recollections fantasy reigned.
Brown finds himself drawn to source collections, which just lay out all the contradictory evidence for the reader to ponder. He also admires some experimental biographies that approach the subject indirectly and try to build up a mood rather than a straightforward narrative. It isn't one of Brown's examples, but a great work in this vein is Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), a memoir full of writerly asides about the difficulty of describing a life; the most important scene in the book (to me) is about frisbee.
I am not such a pessimist as Brown appears in this essay; I doubt he is, either, since he is a prizewinning author of nonfiction. I feel like I know some historical people fairly well, mostly the ones I have encountered in multiple books. But everything he says about biography is true. It is hard to find the right amount of detail, or the right amount of speculation, or the right amount to include about the frustrations of the research and the paradoxes of character. People are complicated; they lie, they get things wrong, they change, they elude our understanding. We'll let Sigmund Freud have the last word: "biographical truth is not to be had, and even if it were it couldn't be used."