Biographies

One of the earliest examples of biography is Plutarch’s Lives. Someone suggested that he got the amount of space he devoted to each subject about right. ‘Coriolanus’ for example, who inspired the Shakespeare play, is covered in about 35 pages in my Everyman edition. Then there are subjects who get more than one biography: John Lennon for example.  Some years ago a two volume work was published by a writer called Ray Coleman. I had my doubts when reading the introduction where the author describes his subject as a ‘genius and a philosopher’. Volume one, the Beatles years, isn’t bad  but evidently for volume two he needed the approval of Yoko Ono and the book descends into hagiography. In complete contrast is Albert Goldman’s biography which is jaw dropping at times. No genius and philosopher for him. It’s said that Goldman got death threats from outraged fans following publication. Some subjects are so larger than life that the biography practically writes itself. Try any biography of Sir Richard Burton, soldier, linguist, scholar, explorer and all round Victorian hard case with an odd wife. Then unfortunately there are biographies of uninteresting people who did interesting things. PG Wodehouse wrote funny books but off duty contented himself with following the cricket results of his old school. I’ve stumbled into two biographies which fit this description. The first was a life of John Buchan. A hardworking man who succeeded in several fields, notably writing, but Buchan himself? He was no Burton, put it that way. Worse still is a biography of the artist Lucien Freud. The author was probably the best person to write about his art and the worst to do a biography, since he was in close contact with the man for many years. If Freud had kept his old bus tickets the author would tell you when he used them and where he was going and with what frequency. Here’s an example: Freud moves house. He plants two bay trees in the front garden. One dies, the other doesn’t. Still I learnt one thing. I’ve seen his painting   Interior at Paddington many times. I thought the subjects’ legs were too short. The subject thought his legs were too short. Freud reveals that the subjects legs were in fact short. Six hundred pages and that’s just volume one.

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