Monday, May 08, 2006

Biography - the Anglo-Saxon Art?


When I was chatting with the Zimbabwean novelist Shimmer Chinodya recently, I wondered why he didn't write biography. For me, biography is a sound commercial option, more marketable than fiction, and possible to sell in advance on proposal. I was surprised that all the writers I worked with in Zimbabwe never considered non-fiction projects. Shimmer was interested for a while, but ultimately decided he didn't want the effort of all the research.
Talking with the biographer Carole Angier on Friday evening, I was surprised to learn how biography doesn't exist to the same degree even in the likes of Italy and France. Visiting Professor Murdoch Mitchison the other day (the grandson of my own current subject J.S.Haldane, and son of novelist Naomi Mitchison), he told me how he wrote an obituary of a German colleague and received a good deal of mail, praising him but astonished that he had given the life of the man rather than the driest of details. Unless one is sticking to a clinical run of facts the continental view is that biography is akin to muck-raking, sonehwat demeaning. Carole suspects it has something to do with those countries bring Catholic nations with their own particular reverence for the dead.
For me, biography is giving due reverence, finding the whole in a neglected life. But then I learn that biography on the continent is deemed a particularly Anglo-Saxon form.
Guilty as charged.

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