Thinking About Life: Biographies

By JENNY TEICHMAN  |  Dec. 31, 2001 at 1:40 PM
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CAMBRIDGE, England, Dec. 31 (UPI) -- Biographies and autobiographies, as everyone knows, are written accounts of individual lives. Usually the subjects are human beings though some non-human animals have had biographies; there have been at least two books about the life and times of the Australian racehorse Phar Lap.

There are double and triple and multiple biographies, for example, the father and son in Gosse's book "Father and Son," also the stories about Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brothers, Naomi and Ruth.

The last examples remind us that the earliest biographies come to us via religion. The Old Testament has given us the lives of Adam and Eve and many other equally interesting people including Moses and Joshua and Jacob and Samuel, and Jezebel and Judith and Ruth and Daniel.

The four Gospels of the New Testament are of course four biographies of the same person.

Biographies can be long or short, flattering or unflattering, truthful or mendacious. Many such books are concerned mainly with the experiences of childhood while others tell only about the adult lives of their subjects.

One very unusual quasi-biography (Iris, by John Bayley) concentrates on the last years of the author's wife Iris Murdoch, years during which she was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. This is a moving work that, strange to say, does not seem exploitative. However Bayley has now written two more books about his dead wife and seems to have negotiated a deal for making them into a film. Is he overdoing things?

Novels can have biographical elements. Parts of the book "David Copperfield," (DC), are thought to have been based on the early life of its author, Charles Dickens (CD).

In his novel "The Possessed," Feodor Dostoevsky constructs an extremely spiteful quasi-biography of his contemporary, Turgenev, whose appearance in the book is thinly disguised by a pseudonym.

Proust's huge novel "Remembrance of Things Past" is known to be based on of his own life and the lives of his family, friends, enemies and lovers.

Some "personal histories" are spoofs: Lawrence Sterne's book "Tristram Shandy" is one such. Others are mere legends, concerned with individuals whose existence is a matter of doubt. Some stories about the lives of Christian saints seem to be mere fantasy. "The Confessions of St. Augustine" is surely a genuine account, but the unfortunate St. George, dragon-slayer, patron saint of England, and much admired in Greece, has recently been downgraded by various authorities including those in the Vatican.

According to some, George was not a saint, but a brigand while others are convinced that no-one answering to the name of George actually existed at the relevant time and place.

Augustine's "Confessions" is quite a long book: even longer is James Boswell's famous "Life of Samuel Johnson."

Martin Gilbert`s recent biography of Winston Churchill is another very extensive work.

Geography is about maps, biography is about chaps.

The above sentiment, notable on account of its brevity as well as its truth, was expressed by Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956) himself the author of many brief -- very brief -- biographies. These works, which are in verse of a kind, never contain more than four lines. Bentley, who invented the form when he was a schoolboy, immortalized his mother by giving his short poems her maiden surname -- they are Clerihews.

Clerihews are very different from limericks and superior in every way. Limericks are too often about unnamed anonymous and possibly non-existent characters. These persons are identified only by their locations and referred to simply as "An old man from ... ", "An old woman from ... " and so on. For instance:

An unpopular man of Cologne

With a pain in his stomach did mogne

He heaved a great sigh

And said "I would digh

But the loss would be simply my ogne."

But who, one asks, is this unpopular man? What is his name? Why do he and his biographer both insist on anonymity?

Clerihews, unlike limericks, are always about named persons whose existence is rarely in doubt -- as the following examples show.

Bentley has a description of the author of "The Raven" in which he expresses a rather patronizing attitude towards the dietary habits of his subject:

Edgar Allan Poe, Was passionately fond of roe ...

He was stern, indeed quite heartless, in his condemnation of the creator of the Sherlock Holmes stories: Conan Doyle, Ought to be boiled in oil ...

Bentley also wrote a compelling autobiography that begins: I am not Mahomet, Far from it ... and goes on to complain:

That is a mistake

You all seem to make.

It can be seen that biographies are even more various in scope, length and style than are novels, plays or operas.

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