How to Tell Another Person’s Story

My excellent colleagues have all published equally excellent articles since our endorsement by the AV Club, and I have regrettably been the last to the party. I’m upset about this; the Recorder is one of the finest things I do in my life and the company I keep with it is wonderfully rewarding. That being said, I have an excuse: I spent the past month and a half hard at work on my second graphic novel.

(For those interested, and I don’t think the guys would mind me making a little plug, I’ll be signing copies of my first graphic novel, An Elegy for Amelia Johnson, at the Archaia Comics booth at C2E2 in two weeks. Come by and say hello!)

In the process of writing this work, I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading which led me to a particular observation.

My new comic is modeled on the (auto)biography, the life story, and as an aide and inspiration to the writing process I dove headlong into a variety of renowned books from the genre, some of which I’d read before, most of which I hadn’t. Those who remember my piece on Lytton Strachey know that part of the article involved chronicling Strachey’s variations on the traditional model of the biography: treating it as a closely-structured satire, heavily-detailed series of specific impressions, and stagelike grand romance. But further reading has shown me that there are variations within variations, and the traditional model itself, the straightforward life-to-death narrative, is not that straightforward.

Indeed, given its popularity on the bookstore shelves in subsets ranging from scholarly historical documents to more salacious memoirs, the biography at first glance seems an easier task than the novel: you have a ready-made structure and you get to work with known facts instead of making things up. But writing a biography is a messy task, especially when you don’t know the subject, especially when the subject is long dead, and even those who did know the subject may be hindered by agendas, excessive reverence or disdain, or just a plain inability to write. (James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson becomes more and more, in my eyes, the most miraculous book ever written every time I think about it: a writer very close to the subject who could write within the conventions of his time while still slipping harder truths between the lines, and writing with a magnificent, inviting, yet still complex style.)

Equally amazing that a man who had at least fifteen cases of gonorrhea in his life found the energy to write a masterpiece

The challenge  of the biographer, I increasingly see , is to present a narrative more artful than a mere chronology, inventive enough to give new purpose to well-worn facts (and clear enough in the presentation of new facts), and do so in a way which is distinct and inimitable: Strachey had his imitators, but it is a mark of tribute to the man that even the best of them were identified as such.

Over the past six months, three renowned biographers have attracted my attention as inspirational figures. All of them write about subjects whom they never knew personally, and who in most cases died before they were mature enough to write…for two of them, all their subjects were dead before they were born. All of them have written truly excellent books. And none would be mistaken for the others. I offer this criticism as something to keep an eye upon in your own future reading of this rewarding genre.

 

Lytton Strachey’s own life story was told in one of the more perfect books ever given to us by SIR MICHAEL HOLROYD, whose collected work in the biographical domain is all on my shelf, if that may serve as a recommendation. Holroyd has spent his career working with the great artistic figures of modernity: Strachey, George Bernard Shaw, Augustus John, etc., and the defining trait of his chosen protagonists is their eccentricity, a word which as soon as I type it seems too mild, yet a better one may not exist. The advantage for Holroyd is having a trove of rich source material dotted with trappings of the scandalous: the original publication of his book on Strachey in 1968 was sensational for being so open and, more importantly, positive about Strachey’s homosexuality in a way few authors had dared to depict it. Yet in rereading Holroyd’s work, I am struck by how well-constructed his texts are in a way which presents these lives in an even more interesting light. He uses judicious extended passages from letters and diaries, well selected and edited, to let his figures speak for themselves whenever possible, and his own writing is marked by an aesthetically appropriate syntax and style, using poetic (but not impenetrable) language and long, flowing sentences to connect different scenes and epochs and above all details together. This approach has actually not served him well in his recent books, A Strange Eventful History and A Book of Secrets. Both group biographies instead of single portraits, he not only runs out of space to provide all the detail of his earlier texts, but also, his subjects seem more conventional, less dynamic, less exciting. ASEH, in spite of excellent prose, almost feels like a rehash of his earlier books in its second half concerning Gordon and Edy Craig, while in the first half, Henry Irving and Ellen Terry are the most staid people he’s ever written about, and the best moments in A Book of Secrets, a failed but quirky experiment concerning a villa in Italy and some incredibly minor English historical personages, are when Holroyd breaks away from his main two-stranded narrative to write about himself and his quest as a biographer. Yet his minor work still contains such fine writing as to be worthy.

Alex and Travis persuaded me to pick up the three-volume, multiple-award-winning life of Theodore Roosevelt by EDMUND MORRIS, no stranger himself to the failed but quirky experiment (the infamous Dutch). But having completed the first two volumes, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex, I can wholeheartedly share their endorsement, especially regarding the first. Morris writes with the scope of epic cinema, presenting a panorama of action, romantic settings, and vivid characters, none more so than Teddy himself, but just as in the great movies one is rarely aware of the writer in focusing on the acting and mise-en-scene, so Morris paradoxically succeeds by being one of the most faceless great authors I could conceive of existing. Faceless is not the same as “bad” or “lacking in style,” but here Morris was dealing with a subject who left behind a panoply of anecdotes and achievements and whose inner workings were very much of the heart-on-his-sleeve variety. All Morris had to do was get out of the way. His prose is sparse, well-edited, and unremarkable, like that of a top journalist who has all the facts and simply needs to present them as they happened–the reader will find them of no small fascination, and he/she knows it. A more ornamental style might have detracted from Roosevelt’s own narrative arc. Morris keeps himself invisible, letting incident build on incident naturally with no probing and no elaborate examination, and the result is a gripping saga.

 

And finally, my most recent obsession was spearheaded by another great friend who, like Alex and I, braved the waters of the University of Chicago MAPH year. Ava Ferguson introduced me to the work of LADY ANTONIA FRASER, who has spent forty-plus years producing the most compelling biographies imaginable in the face of a double handicap. Many of her subjects are long dead, and many are already caricature figures in the popular imagination, making new biographies a coals-to-Newcastle task. Fraser herself is a fine writer more than capable of elegant yet easy style and commanding use of language, simile, and metaphor, although I almost screamed when she made an allusion to the Shakespearean death of Julius Caesar worded in such a way as to group Antony in with Brutus and Cassius. But her purely literary prowess is not what makes her one of the finest practitioners within the genre. Fraser has a knack for assimilating primary material and drawing conclusions from it about the inner lives and motivations of her subjects which never come across as pat or pop psychology but as the natural result from the evidence; the ease of her style in presenting the details to one by one support her main points is a major plus. The other key factor in Fraser’s success is that she does not indulge in hagiography or debunking; like Tolstoy and Trollope, her characters are remarkably flawed but also great. Her life of Marie-Antoinette, for example, which formed the basis of Sofia Coppola’s biopic, does not shy away from the queen’s frivolous personality and lack of judgment on some matters, but does shy away from the popular imagination’s depiction of a spoiled rich girl out for sex and indulgent power. In Fraser’s hands, Marie-Antoinette is a woman born in circumstances beyond her control who overcame them and rose to the occasion when needed: the final chapters of her courageous, self-possessed achievements during the Revolution are masterful. Her book about Louis XIV as seen through his relationships with women suffers from being too short for so many compelling characters, but is still more than worth reading. But Cromwell: The Lord Protector, her second book following her instant fame-winner Mary, Queen of Scots, is one of the best biographies ever written: Fraser humanizes Oliver Cromwell, lambasting him rightly for the Irish debacle and the lesser qualities of his rule but praising him as a master soldier and more than effective statesman. She writes of military and political action with sophistication but in ways accessible to the layman, and her portrait of a man who so firmly believed he heard the voice of God guiding him is an extraordinary one. To make no excuses for a man and celebrate him so much is a fine line, and she walks it perfectly. This makes me eager to read Mary, Queen of ScotsRoyal CharlesWarrior Queens, Must You Go?, The Weaker Vessel…and many more…

And think longer and harder about how to tell life stories of my own.

Andrew Rostan

Andrew Rostan

Andrew Rostan's first graphic novel, "An Elegy for Amelia Johnson," was named one of the best comics of 2011 by USA Today. His second book will be published by Archaia/Boom! Studios in 2015. When not telling fictional stories, he enjoys nothing more than conversing with his fellow Recorder members and the rest of the world.

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