Good biography has drama, comedy and tragedy

Judging by the extent of the biography section in most reputable bookshops, people are insatiably curious about other people’s lives. That’s also why soap operas are so popular. There is an art to biographical writing and a good biography is as satisfying as a good novel – which may be half the secret.

English biography had something of a heyday in the late 18th century when the terms “biography” and “autobiography” entered the lexicon. The classic works of the period were Samuel Johnson’s Critical Lives of the Poets (1779-81) and James Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791). Interestingly, Boswell seems not to have known Johnson half as well as he pretended, but he gets away with it by painting vivid pictures of his encounters with the author, skilfully relating anecdotal material to facts.

Samuel Johnson did not follow a chronological narration of his subjects’ lives either, but made selective use of anecdotes and incidents in the belief that biographers should seek their subject in “domestic privacies”, discovering if possible little known stories that revealed character. He would have appreciated Mark Twain’s observation that, “There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Inside of the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy, and a tragedy.”

There is an insightful discussion of the art of biography in The Wilson Quarterly (Autumn 2011) in the shape of an interview with biographer Michael Scammell – author of Solzhenitsyn, A Biography (1984) and Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth Century Skeptic (2009). Scammell describes the biographer as “the novelist on oath”, presenting facts in a way that delights and entertains. “One has to be able to set a scene in such a way that the reader is drawn in and convinced by what one has written, and that too is a novelistic gift.”

Being a novelist really does seem to help. Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was fascinated by the French author Honoré de Balzac, about whom he wrote several essays. He planned a full-scale biography, intending that it should run to two volumes. The small study of his house in Bath, England, into which he had moved shortly before the outbreak of the 1939-45 War, became a Balzac museum, a repository of books and materials replete with underlinings, marginal comments, cross-references and slips of paper.

The biography, simply and succinctly called Balzac, was eventually written in Petropolis, Brazil, the refuge to which Zweig had fled with his wife in the summer of 1940. There he also finished his autobiography The World of Yesterday and his short story The Royal Game before deciding to commit suicide. Balzac (published in English in 1946 in a wonderful translation by Zweig’s friends William and Dorothy Rose) is among the very best of its genre. Zweig is supremely empathetic, surely a trait of the best biographers, avoiding speculation yet still finding insights that ring true.

Zweig excels in descriptive passages such as those detailing Balzac’s daily routine. Here is a snippet from a long chapter on black coffee, to which Balzac was addicted:

“Coffee was his hashish, and since like every drug it had to be taken in continually stronger doses if it was to maintain its effect, he had to swallow more and more of the murderous elixir to keep pace with the increasing strain on his nerves… If his fifty thousand cups of strong coffee (which is the number he is estimated to have drunk by a certain statistician) accelerated the writing of the vast cycle of the Comédie humaine, they were also responsible for the premature failure of a heart that was originally as sound as a bell.”

The book is out of print but can still be found at Abebooks.

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