Biography

My parents had a friend called Coralie, who was the kind of fussy older lady one looks at and shudders. Everything in her house was perfect and matched everything else, and once, at one of her exquisite tea parties, she said that she no longer read fiction, only memoirs and biographies. That sounded like living death, I thought; imagine never wanting to read novels any more. And then it happened to me: that endless supply of good novels that I had seen stretching far into the future turned out not to exist. I have become Coralie. Recent novels are either bad, too long, or both; I pick them up in the bookshop or order a sample on Kindle, read a few pages and reject them. There is the odd exception, the last one being Summerwater by Sarah Moss, quite recent but both good and short.

            Sybille Bedford is one of my favorite authors, I have given copies of Jigsaw, her masterpiece, to almost everyone I know. So when I saw that there was a biography of her by Selina Hastings, who wrote an excellent one of Evelyn Waugh, I ordered it at once. The day after my copy got here Private Eye did a hatchet job on it; I left it lying around a bit before I dared start on it. Sadly, Private Eye was right; it is a terrible book, far too much of it about Bedford’s conquests, all called Esther, Evelyn and Eda, all falling in love with each other, and apparently obliged to support Bedford financially long after their affair with her was over. That men in such biographies are referred to by their surnames and women by their first names is also irritating, as is Hastings’s characterisation of the occasional woman who resisted Bedford’s advances as ‘a man’s woman’. The reason one reads authors’ biographies at all is to get a glimpse of how it could be that this real person wrote that marvellous book, but no hint of that is to be found here. The only remedy is to read something by Bedford herself again, anything, even the travel pieces.

            And then I picked up Sue Prideaux’s biography of Nietzsche, I am Dynamite!, which I bought some time ago because of the wonderful reviews, with very little expectation of actually reading it (my father was the only person I have ever known who would come home with a new book and immediately start on it). Here too the reviews were right; it is an amazing book, wonderfully well written, clever, witty and exhilarating to read. The story of Nietzsche’s friendship with Wagner alone is fascinating, the early parts of it described with the perfect balance between seriousness and gentle mockery. You don’t quite learn how Nietzsche wrote what he did, but certainly that he could do nothing else, and the tragic story of his final years and what happened to his legacy in the hands of his ghastly sister is most affecting.

            In France they used to say, probably still do, that the biography is irrelevant, it is the work that counts. This is true in the case of Sybille Bedford, and it also means that I must now actually read Nietzsche. But in the meantime I find that Sue Prideaux has written biographies of Munch and Strindberg, both of whom were influenced by Nietzsche, and I have ordered them. These are probably not the kind of biography Coralie meant; so I won’t despair yet about becoming old and fussy, it could be worse.

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