In 1921, an American living in Rome wrote a letter to Marcel Proust. She tells him that for the past three years, she’s read nothing but In Search of Lost Time. This may lead one to surmise that she adores the seven-volume novel, but a fan letter this is not. Instead, she chastises the French novelist: “I don’t understand a thing, but absolutely nothing. Dear Marcel Proust, stop being a poseur and come down to earth. Just tell me in two lines what you really wanted to say.” If this reader found nothing in all of Proust’s writing, why then did she dedicate three years to it?
Literature is a bustling bevy of varying relationships: some last the length of a book or a poem or an essay—some only a paragraph or two. Others stretch on for years, decades even, and they shift and morph from platonic to romantic to antipathetic and back again. There is no monogamy here; the written word is polyamorous, pantextual. Literature goes on dates, trysts, booty calls; it rarely settles down. It is on-again-off-again. As in real-life relationships, we often spend the most time focused on people we don’t love or find reprehensible. But the feelings are deep and dense and rooted and real. Continue reading…
Look, I understand that in some fundamental way one’s interest in a biography cannot be completely divorced from one’s interest in the subject. So, unlike other forms of literary art, even biographies of wide acclaim don’t necessarily presume a large readership outside of the already converted. Despite knowing this, I’m just going to say it: for the most part, biographies are really boring—and here’s the kicker—even when the subject is of great importance to me. I’ve picked up lengthy tomes on some of my favorite writers, only to find myself drowning in the banal minutia of ancestors and hometown history and childhood development—and before long I’ll close the book in frustration, muttering something about how I couldn’t give a shit about what my heroes were like as kids, at least not in punishingly comprehensive detail. Get to the part, I think, where they accomplish the things that made me want to read a biography about them in the first place!
The reason I’m complaining at all is because I really love a good biography, and moreover, I really need them to do my work. So when I come across ones that hold my attention—or even rivet it, in some cases—I’m profoundly appreciative of its author for turning what might have been a grueling and tedious chore into a joyous and illuminating experience.