Pushing against the dark

Writing about the hidden self

If you’re a theatregoer, then somewhere along the line you’re bound to have seen The Government Inspector, Nikolai Gogol’s comedy about a rapacious nobody being mistaken for a government official by the citizens of a nameless provincial backwater. (They too are nobodies, greedy to be somebodies.) You might remember (since it’s a line that will have evoked both your contempt and your compassion) that the fussy fool Pyotr Ivanovych Bobchinsky, a local landowner, who fails to exist to the point of being almost indistinguishable from his companion Pyotr Ivanovych Dobchinsky, says to the government inspector (who isn’t one):

I beg you most humbly, sir, when you’re in St Petersburg, say to all the different bigwigs there – the senators and admirals: You know, in such-and-such a town, your Excellency, or your Eminence, lives Pyotr Ivanovych Bobchinsky. Just say that: lives Pyotr Ivanovych Bobchinsky … And if you’re speaking to the sovereign, then say to the sovereign as well: in such-and-such a town, your Imperial Highness, lives Pyotr Ivanovych Bobchinsky.

And the government inspector (who isn’t one) pockets his 65-rouble bribe and, being a windbag, declares that he will be pleased to be of assistance.

Even when I first read these lines at the age of eighteen, I felt knocked sideways by them. I didn’t quite understand why, but I knew they cut straight to the quick of something deep inside me – some tight little knot of anxiety, or even anguish, I had tried for years to ignore. ‘In such-and-such a town, your Excellency, or your Eminence, lives Pyotr Ivanovych Bobchinsky. Just say that …’

Even then, certain though I was of so many things (as most of us are at eighteen – you’ve got to start somewhere), bound up in a tiny ball inside me was the suspicion that I, too, was after all at root just another Bobchinsky – in fact, more than that: I suspected that most of us, in the final analysis, were just a crowd of Bobchinskys and Dobchinskys stumbling around in semi-darkness, sending messages to different bigwigs living in the light – excellencies and eminences of various kinds – saying: ‘I exist.’ Not much more to begin with, whatever form our first messages might have taken (essays, poems, papers, a short story or two) – just ‘I exist.’

Gogol’s point was almost certainly religious: without God, even these senators, admirals and, for that matter, the sovereign himself, would also fail to exist in any meaningful way. ‘Corks’ is Gogol’s word: they’re all just common and garden ‘corks’, ‘the sort you seal bottles with’, and nothing more, if there is no God to give their being a particular meaning – an identity, as we might say. I doubt that Sid Vicious or Edith Sitwell, or many of the other notables whose names appear on the spines in the Biography section at your local bookstore, would have agreed with Gogol about their ultimate insignificance in a godless universe, and I’m in two minds about it myself, but Gogol’s viewpoint still gives me pause.

When I see my own first book, A Mother’s Disgrace (1994), an autobiography, or perhaps a memoir, on a bookshop shelf beside biographies of Diaghilev and Dickens, or sandwiched between Roald Dahl and Dawn French (if I’m lucky – it’s often stuck in Fiction), I always avert my eyes. In this parade on the bookshop shelves of the celebrated and the wounded, I feel too blatantly exposed as a cork. I can almost hear Gogol aping Bobchinsky’s unctuous patter as he whispers in my ear: ‘In such-and-such a town, your Excellency, or your Eminence, lives Robert Dessaix.’ After all these years (not all of them spent in total obscurity), I’m Bobchinsky again. At this point I usually take refuge in Crime or Travel. But now I’m going to be braver. Enough averting of the eyes: I’m going to unpick that little ‘knot of anxiety’, first felt a lifetime ago on reading those lines in The Government Inspector. I’m going to stand my ground and ask what sort of storytelling I should be doing to take my place unblushingly beside the bigger Ds. I’d like to talk about recounting penumbral lives, lives that lack the historical significance or celebrity status of lives lived in the limelight. I want to talk about pushing back the dark.

I am not the only Bobchinsky on the shelves, of course. In recent times there has been an explosion of what’s been called ‘life writing’ – (not a term I warm to, I must admit). During his Seymour Biography Lecture four years ago, Richard Holmes said that you would need to read about ten biographies a day to keep up with what was being published in English alone. As a matter of fact, I’ve just finished reading the biography of an American snail, a particular snail, not just any snail, which until recently lived in Maine. (I’ll never step on a snail again.) And beyond the bookshops, blogs, I understand, are numbered in the tens – perhaps by now the hundreds – of millions, publicising the minutiae of private lives, or at least of alter egos. And then there’s Facebook and Twitter and all the other social networking sites allowing both nonentities and celebrities to chronicle the course of their daily existences. Lives are ceaselessly dramatised in the cinema and on television as well – and not just Xerxes’ and Henry VIII’s, either. Indeed, every last Dobchinsky and Bobchinsky in the universe, it would seem, turns up sooner or later on Australian Story or Who Do You Think You Are? (Who indeed?)

But I am less interested in the burgeoning array of forms these narratives take – memoirs, diaries, whole-life chronicles, costume dramas, photographic retrospectives, Facebook pages – than in why this is happening. What do we think we’re doing? What Plutarch or Lytton Strachey or Richard Holmes thought they were doing is more or less clear: they were giving historical figures substance, even a nobility, and our present lives a past, a grounding in something bigger than we are. But what do those of us who are not Solon or Queen Victoria or Paul Keating think we’re doing when we turn our lives into art? And, more interestingly, when does what we do seize our readers’ imaginations most strongly, transfiguring them in a burst of lambent moments? That’s the point, after all, isn’t it.

Well, I know what I thought I was doing when I wrote my first book. I was bringing things that had been hidden out into the light. I was lighting a flare. Something must always be uncovered in life writing: if not new information, then new perceptions, new ways of seeing, new relationships – with the author, sometimes – a new way of styling the self.

When I wrote A Mother’s Disgrace, I was not quite Bobchinsky, whose life is sunk in obscurity, lived out unnoticed in a penumbra of chattering meaninglessness in a town with no name. I was at least on the radio – in any event, I impersonated myself on the radio every week; I’m not sure that I was on the radio. As Borges put it so deftly in his one-page piece called ‘Borges and I’: ‘I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me … I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things … I do not know which of us has written this page.’ I did not always know which of us was talking on the radio. For that matter, which of us is talking now?

If I was indeed on the radio, I was on a station that only a few of the intellectually curious listened to. Yet for all that talking (ten years of it), something remained hidden. I hardly knew what it was until I began writing, but something was obscured. Something always is. Illuminate any private life, for instance, and you'll reveal papered-over cracks in public myths – about adoption in particular, in my case, about mothers and sons, about families. ‘The greatest drama of humanity,’ David Grossman, the Israeli writer, said, ‘is the drama of the family.’ Really? Well, I don’t have one – or not the sort that Grossman has in mind – and never will have. As a narrator, where does this leave me? In addition, like everyone else, I lead a double (or even triple or quadruple) life, not all of it in the light. Fernando Pessoa said that he had a whole orchestra of selves playing away inside him. At the very least, in addition to the viola you heard on Radio National, I had an oboe, a flute, and possibly a triangle tuning up in another room. What’s hidden need not be shameful – it needn’t be a matter of confessing to bigamy or being a cross-dresser or anything sensational. It just has to be a hidden self – or two. A time comes when, to ripen as a human being, you’re ready to reconfigure the self you present to the world, to bring out of hiding the darker sides, the raw or quirky sides, the facets you know some will mock, the unhealed wounds. You want at last to fill out and take your place in the world. Like Bobchinsky – or Dobchinsky, who begged the government inspector (who wasn’t one) to make his illegitimate son legitimate: that was quite close to home – but with more flair.

So when, out of the blue, the chance came to send a message to St Petersburg, I did. I gave myself a life. I gave the voice on the radio roots in the suburbs (and beyond, of course, in Russia), in a certain unfashionable religious cast of mind, in intimate relations, in failed relationships, in origins once considered shameful. The story spiralled like coils of smoke around an emptiness – or at least wisps of story (about dozens of things), the one curling into the other, twisting upwards and inwards, tightening. As a consequence, the emptiness seemed to have a shape – the void was given a shape by the spiral – but it was still a void, a shaft of emptiness.

Perhaps I wrote like that, spinning a looping skein of stories around a silence, to avoid plunging into it. Perhaps the reader kept reading to avoid the same fate. With hindsight, I wonder if that’s what I always do in my books (being a Bobchinsky): give nothingness – or at least incoherence – a shape by unreeling a thread of stories init, as a staircase gives shape to the void in a stairwell.

Some biographies have had a void at their centre because little is known about their subject (not because the lives in question were obscure): biographies of Socrates, for instance, or Cleopatra or even Elizabeth I. Here, too, the writer has had to give a hole a shape by describing the doughnut, as it were, rather than the hole. Virginia Woolf, in her essay ‘The Art of Biography’, got very cross with Lytton Strachey for concocting too much doughnut in Elizabeth’s case, turning biography into art, she said, when it should remain craft. I am not quite sure what Woolf thought the difference was. As far as I’m concerned, if a beautiful hand-made chair can be sat on, it’s craft. If it falls apart when you sit on it, it’s art. An exquisite teapot that pours well is craft. If the tea splashes all over the place, it’s art. I have both kinds.

Be that as it may, at least Socrates’, Cleopatra’s, and Elizabeth’s lives were worth imagining. Nebulous as these figures might now appear, a bit short on detail, we do know that they lived abundantly. They were not mere Bobchinskys, flailing for attention.

When I first started to read biographies – about the time I first read The Government Inspector – the notion of writing a life to give shape to nothingness would not have entered my head. In those days, before bleating narcissistically into the ether became fashionable, one knew one’s place. The life narratives I came across – Tolstoy’s, for example, or Lenin’s or Richard Burton’s or some other worthy’s – were researched retellings of lives that mattered, the lives of the bigwigs in St Petersburg themselves (the senators, admirals, and sovereigns), not just lives that should be brought to their attention. No Bobchinskys there. These were crowded lives, densely woven lives that added up to something, recounted from cradle to grave. This was the heyday of the definitive biography.

Lives such as Rimbaud’s, for instance. To quote from his biographer Graham Robb (also the biographer of Balzac, Baudelaire, Hugo, and, more recently, of Paris itself, biographies of cities being quite the fashion): by the age of twenty-six, Rimbaud had ‘worked as a pedlar, an editorial assistant, barman, farm labourer, language teacher, private tutor, factory worker, docker, mercenary, sailor, tout, cashier and interpreter […] he’d been arrested in three countries and repatriated from three others’. He had been on intimate terms with some of the most remarkable writers and political thinkers of the age, not to mention with Verlaine; committed at least a dozen imprisonable offences with impunity; survived war, revolution, illness, a gunshot wound, his own appalling family, and the Cape of Good Hope. And he had, without meaning to, also altered the course of literary history, changing ideas across the world of what poetry could be. By the age of twenty-six. He still had a whole new life gun-running in East Africa ahead of him. Not a likeable sort of fellow, not a saint, not a pillar of church or state, not a worthy (unlike the subjects of the earliest biographies), but not just Miles Franklin or Elizabeth Taylor, either. Definitely busy. And definitely wounded. A ‘one-man, alternative comédie humaine’, Robb calls him.

Robb, by the way, calls biography an ‘optimistic genre’. I suppose he means that it engenders hope – hope of significance, of coherence, of narrative thrust, of validation, at least in somebody’s sight – the gods’, originally, I assume, or God’s, or the nation’s, or history’s – somebody’s. Nowadays I think that most of us writing up others’ lives, or our own, are more modestly optimistic. We know before we start that redemption is a long shot. We’re more likely to aim, as the best portrait painters do, at a compelling likeness with plenty of sweep.

DessaixRobert Dessaix delivering the Seymour Biography Lecture, National Library of Australia, October 2011 (photographs by Jennifer Green).

But why did I resort with such alacrity to autobiography in the first place all those years ago? (If that’s what A Mother’s Disgrace was. It is fragmented, a curling necklace of arresting moments, far from all-encompassing, opinionated, intimate and at least dotted, if not peppered, with scandalous disclosures – illegitimacy, bathhouse adventures, and so on – the sort of thing that Frenchwomen of slender virtue disclosed in the earliest memoirs, although as a rule about bishops and other pillars of society they had encountered.) But why leap into memoir or autobiography and not have a stab at a novel? One reason is that, like Lytton Strachey (at least according to Virginia Woolf), and, I’m sure, many other writers, I doubted my purely creative powers. And so, like Strachey, I turned to writing a life narrative: my own, interwoven with my mother’s. In fact, I didn’t so much doubt my ability to invent as not even contemplate it. In later books I did invent, up to a point – I certainly telescoped and told stories back to front – although in my second book, Night Letters: A Journey through Switzerland and Italy (1997), which I called a novel, although it sprang from my life as surely as A Mother’s Disgrace had, I felt so selfconscious about writing ‘pure fiction’ that I actually wrote the completely fictional story of the amulet in italics, as if to say: these pages were written by someone else, I’ve inserted them into my story, but I’m not responsible for what he’s written.

On the day I arrived in Paris a few years ago to launch the French edition of Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev (2006)– a memoir, if I must name a genre, about my love affair with Turgenev and his with Pauline Viardot – my publisher and translator took me straight off to lunch from the station so we could get to know each other in person after a year of emailing. At around two o’clock she said to me: ‘Well, I should let you go, I suppose – you’ll be wanting to go and meet Daniel.’ (Daniel pops up at several points in the book as a Parisian friend of mine – a kind of raisonneur figure, asking me awkward questions, bringing me back to earth.) ‘Actually,’ I said, ‘Daniel doesn’t exist. I invented him.’ My publisher was not just nonplussed, but flabbergasted. ‘But he’s so real,’ she said, slowly lowering her expensive spoonful of crème brûlée, ‘so completely French, so believable. Perhaps you should be writing fiction.’ I do, of course, write fiction, as I’ve said, but rarely call it that. I generally call it memoir or autobiography. I gossip. To call what I write ‘fiction’ would raise expectations I can’t fulfil.

The books about Turgenev and Gide (Twilight of Love and Arabesques: A Tale of Double Lives, 2009) seem to fit most happily into the very modern subgenre of memoirs of readers’ relationships with writers. Many of you will have read Janet Malcolm’s account of her involvement with Chekhov, Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey (2001). Then there is Nicholson Baker’s U and I: A True Story (1991) about his imaginary friendship with John Updike – both of them ludic (playing on the boundary between fact and fiction), both of them unscholarly (or at least unacademic), and both of them as much about the writer’s own thoughts and experience as about the subject’s.

But there was more to it than a simple doubt about my ability to write fiction. When I began writing, like many other Westerners at the end of the twentieth century, I think I was losing faith in the purely fictional narrative. (That’s a phrase I’ve borrowed from David Lodge, by the way, who has ruminated on this loss of faith at length.) I don’t know how widespread this sense that pure fiction is in an exhausted, decadent phase is, but I suspect that many of my contemporaries, both readers and writers, share my ebbing faith.

There is always talk of the death of something, I know – the book, newspapers, conversation, even God – but Mark Davis, for instance, of the University of Melbourne, predicts that ‘reading, studying, writing and publishing literary fiction will increasingly become the preserve of “true believers”’.A small niche market, in other words. Certainly, the Times Literary Supplement these days devotes no more than a few pages to recent fiction. Philosophy, religion, classical studies, history, science, biography, medicine, memoir, travel, criticism, even poetry – almost everything but fiction, it seems, is reviewed in its pages. Yet it was as recently as 1963 that Marguerite Yourcenar said: ‘In our time the novel devours all other forms; one is almost forced to use it as a medium of expression.’ Not any more, one isn’t.

It is tempting to blame postmodernism: the postmodernist sensibility distrusts the very idea that a reality can be captured or created by language, and also disdains the traditional boundaries between genres (between fiction and non-fiction, say, or the autobiographical rant of a stand-up comic and the family memoir of a writer such as Edmund de Waal – indeed, the very boundary between truth and lies, some might say). There may even be something decadent about the arts in general at the present time, something stunted and sickly about the modern fascination with form, and we instinctively know that hybridity could replenish the stock. Certainly, as I wrote A Mother’s Disgrace, I found myself to some extent fictionalising my own autobiography, and then later I found myself infusing my fiction with autobiography and biography: in Night Letters, for instance, or Corfu (2001), or my books about Turgenev and Gide, autobiography, biography, and fiction are interlaced.

Are we also less interested in the twenty-first century in national identity than once we were? Not so long ago it was taken for granted that a good biography would tell us not only all we needed to know about Caravaggio or Shelley or Proust, but also about what it meant to be Italian or British or French at a particular point in history. A good biography was almost like a pilgrimage – a tour of sites of cultural significance. Nowadays I doubt that many either know or think the question of national identity worth asking – at least about themselves. And so we look about to see what other kinds of life narratives might take our fancy. Indeed, from my point of view, the current fashion for nationalist clap-trap in the media signals a crisis of confidence in national identities, a growing suspicion that being ‘Australian’, for instance, means less to many Australians than barracking for the Pies does, say, or being an architect or a Christian. ‘Placelessness’ is the word describing contemporary sensibilities that struck a chord with me most recently. Large numbers of us nowadays float placelessly above the world’s nation-states, cocooned in our own private memories, allegiances, and dreams. At least in the West. And so crave to record our own private lives instead.

David Malouf puts it more gently: our idea of our Australianness, he says, is becoming less pressing – but also more subtle and more complex. I certainly believe that there is a growing disaffection for public life. What, exactly, in Australian public life are thinking Australians meant to identify with at this historical moment? ‘What is Australia, anyway?’ Dante asks in Malouf’s Johnno (1975), one of the first works of Australian fiction I ever read. Even fifteen years ago, when I began writing, it would not have occurred to me to try to capture anything except my own suburban story. I, too, would have been hard pressed – and still am – to articulate what the word ‘Australia’ signified beyond its obvious geographical meaning. And so we retreat into private lives, which were not, broadly speaking, the subject of biographies in the English-speaking world until about two hundred years ago. If pure fiction is losing its mass appeal, though, or at least its pre-eminence, pure fact may not be faring much better. For a start, we’re awash with facts these days, swamped by wave after wave of them from the moment we wake up in the morning. Sometimes, while the kettle’s boiling, I make up a word – just random syllables that come into my mind – and then google it to see what happens. Without exception a fact pops up: my little spurt of gibberish turns out to be a town in Albania or a politician from Uttar Pradesh, a boy band in Nova Scotia or the Chinese word for octopus. My fantasy turns out to be a fact. And when it comes to the past, I suspect that the facts now belong on the Internet. If what you want is the facts about some worthy’s life, or even some nonentity’s, then go to Wikipedia. What we now want from a biography, I think, or autobiography, is the very thing that Virginia Woolf, writing seven decades ago, said that we have no right to want: art – not only art, obviously, but art nevertheless. Which is why Christopher Hitchens’s rather savage attack on The King’s Speech and the film’s light-fingered approach to history missed its mark: we don’t go to the cinema for a history lesson, we go to be transported – by art. We’re adults, we know legerdemain when we see it. What we object to is shoddy legerdemain, not sleight of hand in itself. And we love the illumination of dark corners of the soul, having quite a few of our own, if we’re honest with ourselves. Throw in a king or two, a war and Wallis Simpson, and you’ve got it made.

When I began writing, there was no Internet, no Wikipedia – there were libraries and archives – but I think I knew enough about myself after a decade or two impersonating a scholar at various academic institutions, writing the usual sort of scholarly article for journals that virtually nobody read, and even a book or two (so little read that I actually burnt a pile of them in the backyard to free up a bit of storage space in the cupboards in my house) – I think I knew enough about myself when I began writing real books to know that the mere arrangement of facts was not my forte. In any case, as a Bobchinsky (more or less – certainly not a Tony Blair or David Bowie), the facts about my life – birth, adoption, school, university, marriage, divorce, realignment – were hardly worth chronicling for their own sake. The public would have to be seduced into reading about my life by something else. The question was: by what? The main themes of nineteenth-century novels, as Ian McEwan has pithily observed, are present in any tribe of bonobos: ‘alliances made and broken, individuals rising while others fall, plots hatched, revenge, gratitude, injured pride, successful and unsuccessful courtship, bereavement and mourning.’ So it’s all in the telling, isn’t it. Artful retelling is the non-bonobo bit of what I do. That’s what I meant when I said that I’d like to talk, not just about what we think we’re doing when we write about our own lives or others’, but about what will seize readers’ imaginations and transfigure them. It’s not such a problem for the biographers of Agatha Christie or Colette, but, for all the Bobchinskys and Dobchinskys now sending messages to the capital, it is.

Firstly, from a storytelling point of view, there must be an event that changes us, a kind of nub to loop around, something to kick-start the spiralling. It could be anything – any small epiphany, anything (as I say in Arabesques) ‘that fits like a key into the clamp on our soul, unlocks it and throws it wide open, letting who we are come spilling out at last’. Even when I’m writing a memoir through the prism of someone who is far from being a nonentity – Turgenev, for instance, or Gide – I like to circle around an epiphany in his life: falling in love for life at the opera, agreeing to have coffee with Oscar Wilde in the casbah in Algiers. In the case of my first book, it was the first meeting with my biological mother when I was in my mid-forties. What, you might ask, is seductive about that particular twist in my tale? Who, apart from my mother and me, would care whether I met her or not? Almost nobody is interested in what I have encountered on my journey through life, but almost everybody is interested in mothers, questions of blood, and in how selves are fashioned, particularly their own. Almost everyone is interested in unspooling their own lives from time to time and rummaging amongst the loops and curls. My life is there (as Balzac’s, say, or Chatwin’s, probably isn’t) to give my readers the words to reconfigure their own.

Perhaps that sounds a little abstract, a touch bland. It’s not just a matter of getting readers to retell their own lives as they read. A good book, according to the English author Michael Morpurgo, ‘finds cracks’ in the reader. It ‘seeks out’ these cracks and, I assume, worries at them, lays them bare. This chimes with my own experience as a writer. Virtually every letter I have received from readers of my books begins: ‘Thank you for this book’ and then switches to retelling the reader’s life –  sometimes at great length – taking pleasure in the dovetailing of our lives, as well as in the differences between them, in the fresh perspectives on mothers or adoption or Russia or religion or some other element in my story, in the restyling of the self that a good book offers, rather than in information. And then it homes in on one of the fault-lines that my book has shone a light on – a breach or fault-line in the reader’s sense of self, not mine. Naming it in the light of what I have written seems to give pleasure. Morpurgo might be right – it might be desirable in any book to keep us under its spell – but in the autobiography of a Bobchinsky it may well be essential.

But there’s more to it than simply coming up with a dramatic twist to fan out from or seducing the reader into complicity with your story, tricks no traditional subject of a biography or autobiography – no Thucydides, Thackeray, or Thatcher – would need to stoop to. What ‘seizes the readers’ imagination and transfigures it’ is art. Virginia Woolf, in her essay, was insistent in that rather bossy way of hers that biography was craft, not art, ‘a rest from the intense world of the imagination’, and that while Strachey’s biography of Queen Victoria was a ‘triumph’, because craft of the highest order, his biography of Elizabeth I was a ‘failure’ because he ‘treated biography as an art’, flouting its limitations. Art conferred immortality on its subjects, she believed, something craft could not do. Falstaff, she said, would outlive Dr Johnson.

Pearl Buck, the American writer who won the Nobel Prize in 1938 for her ‘rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life and for her biographical masterpieces’, was even more brutal. ‘Fiction is painting,’ she said, ‘biography is photography. Fiction is creation, biography is arrangement.’

From a modern perspective, the distinctions drawn between art and craft, painting and photography, and, by inference, between fiction and fact, are surely misleading, if not spurious, at least in any discussion of biography and autobiography. (And, for that matter, photography, while it undoubtedly has its limitations, could scarcely be dismissed as ‘arrangement’ or ‘craft’ these days.) I would certainly like to think that, while I may not be able to offer my readers much unalloyed fiction, I can and do offer art.

In other words, I believe that, to be worth reading, the biography or autobiography of an Australian who is not a celebrity, who has no honoured place in history and whose life, while not uninteresting, is hardly marked by any towering achievement or swirl of incident, must be a work of art.

After all, whatever else it is, art is performance – and I think back here to what the man Borges wrote about his famous double, the writer Jorge Luis Borges, ‘the one things happen to’, as he put it, the one in the biographical dictionary, the one people write letters to, the one who shares his preferences for coffee, Stevenson, hourglasses and maps, but ‘in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor’. An actor – that’s the point. For those of us who are not Borges – or Bogart or Boyd or Baryshnikov – the performance of our storytelling is all we’ve got.

A writer with a keen sense of how spurious this banishment of art from biography can be is the British playwright David Hare. Hare’s plays tend to be about current events – Bush and Blair planning the invasion of Iraq, Foreign Office complicity in torture, and, in his most recent play, The Power of Yes (2009), the role played by the banks in the global financial crisis. They are firmly rooted in verifiable facts. But that’s not why audiences flock to see them. ‘Art is life with the mystery restored,’ Hare said last year in his punchy Garrick Lecture for the Royal Society of Literature in London, contrasting art not with craft but with journalism, which, he said, is ‘life with the mystery taken out’. He ridiculed the notion that his imagination should be limited to ‘the facts’. His plays were not ‘journalism’. They were art because they had a metaphorical dimension. Unlike a Rolls Royce aircraft engine, for instance, which Norman Tebbit declared on the BBC to be not only art, but more beautiful than most things artists created, his plays offered metaphors for other things. Iraq in Hare’s play was not just Iraq. Unlike a documentary about Iraq, where Iraq just stands for itself, his plays are about war, betrayal, humanity, power. He has transformed Iraq. The artist’s only obligation is to make it clear that the work is a work of art – an exercise in transformation; to make it clear, in Hare’s words, that he or she is asking questions of us, rather than for us, as a journalist (or John Howard in his memoirs, say) might do (a telling distinction, I think); to make it clear that the aim is to give facts shape and meaning for the pleasure of the reader or viewer, and not just to record ‘clumsy Life … at her stupid work’, to quote Henry James. It’s not the only thing you can do with facts, but it’s what an artist does.

Some writers are tempted to go even further. Fiction ‘frees us’ from mere facts, according to Romesh Gunesekera, the prize-winning Sri Lankan novelist, and moves us into the realm of the imagination. It is ‘playing with the interface between fact and fiction’ that excites readers and writers alike. Gunesekera is, of course, a fiction writer, so he and a biographer are approaching this interface from opposite directions. As Beryl Bainbridge, another fiction writer, put it: ‘when I write a novel, I’m writing about my own life. I’m writing biography almost always. And to make it look like a novel I either have a murder or a death at the end.’ But I think he’s right about the excitement. The traditional subjects of biography – the Lenins and Koestlers and Mandelas and Betjemans – may not need freeing from anything. But the peripheral and unremarkable do.

Now for a touch of voodoo. The Lenins, Koestlers, Mandelas, and Betjemans have an attribute that most of us don’t, at first glance, have, and finding the right words to describe it can leave even the most rational amongst us sounding a little like a shaman or a medium. According to the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, a researcher in what he calls ‘the new science of why we like what we like’, celebrities (Obama, Kennedy, Mahler, Britney Spears, Susan Sontag – take your pick), anyone we apprehend as irreplaceable in either the public or private sphere (Mary MacKillop, Hitler, your grandmother, your beloved), are perceived to have an inner essence, a kind of hyperreal presence, a soul, as we once said, that transcends the ‘facts’ of their bodily existence in the world. The mere proximity of the Dalai Lama or Kylie Minogue is experienced (by many) as emanating a power invisible to the senses. It always did, of course – hence all those saintly relics from the Middle Ages and pieces of the True Cross onto which essences are believed to have rubbed off. We don’t go on pilgrimages so often any more to feel touched by this mysterious life force that our reason tells us cannot exist. Instead, we consult eBay. ‘Authentic sock Britney ran over’, reads a recent post there. ‘The actual sock worn by a TMZ cameraman Thursday when Brit drove over his foot. Tire tread guaranteed authentic.’ Marilyn Monroe’s billowing white dress fetched more than four million dollars, John F. Kennedy’s golf clubs sold for nearly $800,000, a bid of $10,000 was made for Obama’s half-eaten breakfast, a copy of Mahler’s Third Symphony, with corrections and revisions in his own hand, recently went up for auction for between £100,000 and £150,000. On a private level, you might prize paintings by your children, or your grandmother’s sewing case, beyond anything a dealer would be likely to offer you for these objects. We think we’re far too sophisticated to believe in essential presences in objects or bodies, but Bloom’s statistics demonstrate that we’re still half under the old spell. And a perfect replica of an object touched by a celebrity will not do: nothing adheres to it, no mana, aura, essence, or what I can’t help thinking of as ‘fairy dust’. If you want to be rational about it, you might say that such an object has no history of its own.

Similarly, when we’re invited by a writer inside a celebrity’s life, we enter – irrationally or not, it doesn’t matter – an enchanted realm. Even Hilary Spurling has spoken of ‘finding the essence of a person’ in her biographies – not quite the same thing as finding the essence of Marilyn Monroe’s dress, but it’s evidence of how hard it is for us to avoid this kind of language. An article by Lee Tulloch in Portrait magazine from the National Portrait Gallery about the photographic portraitist Stuart Campbell is titled ‘The Essence of You’ – that’s the word that sprang to mind to describe what Campbell captured with his camera. Invited inside my life, on the other hand, you would not find yourself in an enchanted realm. To coax you inside my realm, and keep you there, I must trick you with art. I must offer you an intimacy with your own stylised essence, and, through voice and language, give you a sense of a focused presence you can have converse with.

Not actually believing in these essences or manas or auras, whether Kennedy’s or St James’s or my own mother’s, or at least not in inherent essences, I am constantly aware that what I am doing is legerdemain, not real magic. This awareness – that in some metaphysical sense there is nobody there, just an effervescence – is, I think, part of the void at the heart of my writing, the emptiness I swirl around spinning tales. I will try to give the void my writing corkscrews around a more definite name, but not quite yet.

Does intimacy have anything to do with the kind of seduction techniques I’m talking about? I tend to think it does. Perhaps seduction always promises intimacy of one kind or another – an enticingly deep knowledge, the unashamed disclosure of what to others is veiled, an access to innerness. It is this kind of intimacy that the unknown autobiographer or memoirist can offer the reader – intimacy with the narrator. It is not the intimacy of the blog, mind, which is no more intimate than striptease is. The intimacy that the unknown writer must strive for (through cadence, rhythm, register, and the illusion of physical presence) feels like the intimacy of two close friends talking trustingly with each other. The writer must seem to be saying: ‘Only you and I will know this.’ It won’t be true, but no seducer relies on the truth to lure the object of his desires.

Real intimacy with grand historical figures – with Catherine the Great or Che Guevara – will mostly be an illusion, although it’s an illusion that a skilled memoirist or biographer might succeed in weaving. I felt oddly intimate with Manoly Lascaris, I must admit, as I read Vrasidas Karalis’s Recollections of Mr Manoly Lascaris (2008) – a series of conversations with Patrick White’s companion – not only because I could hear Manoly’s voice (and that always helps, as Frances Spalding mentioned in her 2010 Seymour Lecture), but also, I think, because Karalis slowly teased me into feeling intimate with him, the writer. In the end I felt deliciously led astray. And also by Rimbaud (unexpectedly), in Graham Robb’s biography. There it’s the quality of the light Robb throws on certain things in Rimbaud’s life. These illuminations seem so individually chosen, so targeted, carried out by torchlight, as it were, not all-encompassing. Seduction is much harder to achieve in the full light of day.

And so I come full circle to the nub of what I wanted to say. It is, as I hinted at the beginning, about light. ‘I was bringing things that had been hidden out into the light,’ I said about my first book. ‘I was lighting a flare.’ Now, that is true. But why was I doing that? It’s not as if the world was waiting with baited breath for my revelations. Who cared about my hidden selves? To be honest, I was actually casting another kind of light. Through language, the only torch I have. In E.M. Forster’s phrase about Virginia Woolf’s language, I was ‘pushing against the dark’ – not just the dark that certain hidden selves were crouched in, but a more powerful dark, the dark that, as we grow older, we all feel stealing over us, blotting out inch by inch what we have loved and who we have been – the dark my gleaming spirals circle around. The act of writing is an act of resistance against the mortal condition – not mortality, but the mortal condition, and not in the sense of winning the writer immortality of the clichéd kind, the immortality we might speak of in connection with Homer or Shakespeare, but in the sense of deepening and magnifying the lived moment while writing. Every syllable I coax from my mind is a push against the dark, a small beam of light that dares the dark to snuff it out. I write to stave off time, to stave off nothingness.

‘In such-and-such a town lives Pyotr Ivanovych Bobchinsky. Just say that …’

This is an edited version of the 2011 Seymour Biography Lecture, which Robert Dessaix delivered at the National Library of Australia on 24 October 2011 and repeated during Adelaide Writers’ Week, on 8 March 2012. The Seymour Lecture is supported by John and Heather Seymour, the National Library, and ABR. We have published three previous Seymour Lectures, all of which are still available in print:

Lawrence Goldman, ‘Virtual Lives: History and Biography in an Electronic Age’ (June 2007)
Richard Holmes, ‘Biography: The Past Has a Great Future’ (November 2008)
Frances Spalding, ‘The Biographer’s Contract’ (February 2011)

 

 

CONTENTS: APRIL 2012

Published in April 2012 no. 340
Robert Dessaix

Robert Dessaix

Robert Dessaix is a broadcaster, essayist, and memoirist. His most recent book is The Pleasures of Leisure (2017).  He is also the author of several other books including the autobiography A Mother’s Disgrace (1994), the novels Night Letters (1996) and Corfu (2001), and the travel memoirs Twilight of Love (2004) and Arabesques (2008).