Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Biography - from birth to death

Pierre Berton ruled the roost when it came to Canadian nonfiction. He was clear about one distinction between academic and ‘creative’ biographies. The academics started at the birth of their subject, if not a long disquisition on their ancestry. ‘Creative’ biographers would jump straight into a highlight, and maybe not need to worry about covering the whole life at all.

I’m on the ‘creative’ side of that line, indeed might be deemed to be waving a flag for it. Yet here I am writing my biography of J.S.Haldane as a birth to death story. I tried to avoid it. I wrote a sample chapter with a dramatic sequence at a mining disaster that thrust J.S.Haldane into the midst of a quintessential scene. But the agent wanted to start with the birth so that was what we sold.

My editor changed, so I tried to swing a change on the new one. He was disappointed, as though I had lost confidence in my own story.

So my biography of J.S.Haldane does indeed start with the birth and follows a chronological line. I quite enjoyed the challenge. Clearly it takes a character some years before he or she has achieved the actions that will merit a biography. It’s a good creative challenge to make those years interesting.

Today was an assiduous workday, rounding off the 19 year-old Haldane’s time at the University of Jena. I have some correspondence, but what was the Jena like in 1879? Who were all these characters he met? How does it all sit into the sweep of history in which he was about to take part, but had not yet done so?

I found my answers. We’ll see how well they stand the test of time when I come to the next draft. For the moment I am moving the story relentlessly forward.

Today was one of the big two days of the week in this French village. The butcher’s van pays a visit, and while the women queue they swap stories of the last few days. I’m the honorary woman in the group, the only man I’ve ever known to line up there. Today, in my broken French, I had a go at explaining the Haldane bio to them. ‘You know how canaries, those little yellow singing birds, are used down mines? Well he’s the man who introduced them in that way.’ It worked.

They understood, and we all moved on to discussing the dense cloud of house martins that paid a visit to our bend in the river a couple of days ago, filling the skies and perching in a dense mass along the walls of the houses. Then, in one cloudbursting moment, they were gone, migrating south.


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