I admit, I skipped around. Still I've read most of it and the writing is so elegant, the encounters so well-told that I feel confident assigning four...moreI admit, I skipped around. Still I've read most of it and the writing is so elegant, the encounters so well-told that I feel confident assigning four stars. Encounters between James Baldwin and Richard Avedon; Gertrude Stein and Carl Van Vechten; Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell; Willa Cather and Sarah Orne Jewett, and many other American artists and writers.
Here is Rachel Cohen on Bishop and Lowell: "Lowell was someone who consumed, who had no boundaries at all, who made epics, who put everything in. Bishop selected, she made discrete things; as befitted a geographer, she had a clear sense of boundaries. He thought the best you could be was inclusive; she thought the best you could be was exact."
And Sarah Orne Jewett in a letter to the young Willa Cather: ...You must find your own quiet centre of life, and write from that to the world that holds offices, and all society....In short, you must write to the human heart, the great consciousness that all humanity goes to make up. Otherwise what might be strength in a writer is only crudeness, and what might be insight is only observation; sentiment falls to sentimentality--you can write about life, but never life itself....To work in silence with all one's heart, that is the writer's lot; he is the only artist who must be a solitary, and yet needs the widest outlook upon the world. (less)
I don't usually read a biography of a writer before I've read her fiction, and I wouldn't recommend it. There's less richness as a result and more pot...moreI don't usually read a biography of a writer before I've read her fiction, and I wouldn't recommend it. There's less richness as a result and more potential spoilers. But Bowen is someone whose work I hadn't managed to read yet--she's never included in any of the literature anthologies I teach or come across though she wrote a number of short stories--and not one of her novels is to be found in my usually very good local library. It's hard to imagine that at one time her novels were more popular in the U.S. than in Britain (acc. to her biographer). But there are writers and readers who have great respect for her work, and thinking her biography (which I found on some giveaway shelf somewhere) might provide both insight and impetus to get there, I went ahead and read it. The Avon paperback, published in 1977, shed its black and white photographs (none very interesting) before I was done reading and then split into two parts, but still I persevered.
Glendinning is respectful. Perhaps too much so. I think it's the first time I've read a biography of an author where her affair with a married man is described, a number of pages are devoted to him and it and her, but the man is never once named. Such a time, when one could go without naming names, seems quaint and even absurd now. Probably he was still living when the biography appeared. But still.
I like Bowen's turns of phrase. Her brain, she writes in a letter, felt "like scorched porridge." To her longtime Canadian friend (also lover, I assume? it's never made entirely clear) Charles Ritchie, Elizabeth (an Anglo-Irish) writes: I think we are curiously self-made creatures, carrying our personal worlds around with us like snails their shells, and at the same time adapting to wheverever we are. In a queer way I am strongly and idiosyncratically recalcitrant, on the run, bristling with reservations and arrogances that one doesn't show.
It's apparent that Bowen is very good at writing about wartime London, when most of her novels and stories are set: "The hallucinations are an unconscious, instinctive, saving resort on the part of the characters...it is a fact that in Britain, and especially in London, many people had strange deep intense dreams." The fantasies, and the dreams, of ordinary people, were, Bowen thought, consoling compensation for what she called the "desiccation" that war brought, Glendinning tells us. "We all lived in a state of lucid abnormality," writes Bowen.
A serious writer but also one who managed a long marriage and was known for her dinner parties and salons, her charming conversation and presence. I look forward to reading her novels. (less)
A beautifully researched dual biography of two of my favorite children's book authors: Harold and the Purple Crayon's Crockett Johnson and A Hole is t...moreA beautifully researched dual biography of two of my favorite children's book authors: Harold and the Purple Crayon's Crockett Johnson and A Hole is to Dig's Ruth Krauss. Giants in the field of Children's Literature, Krauss and Johnson paved the way for a fresher approach in storytelling both in words and pictures. Krauss, with her background in anthropology, often collected children's words and phrases and used them to tell a story, capturing their surprising and refreshing worldview and phrasing. Johnson's minimal approach in line and word, his humor and also his sophistication (never talking down) made his books unlike anyone else's and beloved by so many. Unlike so many biographers, Philip Nel does not take a psychoanalytical view or speculate unnecessarily. Instead he writes from the record, using interviews, notes, and above all, the many works these prolific artists created. An unlikely couple, as different in background as temperament, Johnson and Krauss's marriage and sometimes artistic partnership not only endured but also apparently prospered as well. Krauss's partnership with Maurice Sendak also launched Sendak's career and the couple's friendship with Sendak was a formative one for him. One of the things I love about the book is that it shows us how these two artists worked all their lives on their art, supporting themselves, while also continually growing and evolving as artists. Krauss studied poetry with Kenneth Koch and became part of the New York Poetry School, writing poem plays that were staged and performed. Late in life Johnson began painting visual representations of mathematical theorems and had gallery shows of his art. Friends with many avant-garde artists of their day, the couple's story is an inspiring and historically important one. A respectful and well-written biography, one that gives both of these seminal American artists and storytellers their due.(less)
I picked up this biography a few years ago from the discard shelf of my local library. How sad! Published in 1993, it seems it should still be relevan...moreI picked up this biography a few years ago from the discard shelf of my local library. How sad! Published in 1993, it seems it should still be relevant. Even if all Du Maurier ever wrote was Rebecca, that's still impressive, isn't it? makes her worthy of today's library shelves? I didn't know much about her but her list of titles--novels, plays, short stories, family and historical biographies--is long. Still the biography sat on my stack of unread books for a couple years.
A few months ago I came across My Cousin Rachel on a swap rack (another fortuitous find). That novel, with its powerful exploration of love and jealousy, passion and infatuation, and the mystery at its end (was she or wasn't she planning to kill our narrator?) prompted me to finally give Du Maurier's biography a read.
What a fascinating person and life. One of three daughters, Daphne was determined to be a boy growing up and seems to have been seen as a son initially by her father who of course wanted one (and then as a very attractive companion-daughter). Du Maurier hated the word lesbian, did not see herself as one (she has "Venetian" tendencies instead) but would be seen as bisexual today. Some of her most passionate relationships were with women though her marriage endured (that would be the right word) until her husband died. Dedicated and prolific, Du Maurier supported her family with the earnings from her books--her husband, in the British army, did not earn much or at least not enough to support the life she wanted in Cornwall in a neglected mansion, etc. A mother of three children herself, two daughters and a beloved son (finally!), Du Maurier employed a live-in nanny for her children so that she could write and seems to have been able to enjoy them more when they were themselves adults.
The biography is well-written, overly detailed in places, as most biographies are. And I felt a little uncomfortable reading over and over again Du Maurier's code words--for intercourse, for foreplay--she has her own language to describe sex and much else. (Is there no privacy left to a writer once a biographer comes along? I guess not.) Forster had access to Du Maurier's letters and diaries, and so to much of her interior life, at least what was written down. She also conducted copious interviews, etc.
Forster believes at least three of Daphne Du Maurier's novels belong in the canon: Rebecca, The House on the Strand, The Scapegoat. I would add My Cousin Rachel and many of her short stories to the list. I'll be reading much more of her work now.
Popular in her lifetime (often best-selling), Du Maurier felt she never got the critical acclaim she deserved. It would seem she has not still. She is a consummate story teller and creates atmosphere, setting and character like no other.(less)
I don't believe I need to read any more books about Emily Dickinson. With this and White Heat, I'm satiated. Time to go back to the poems...
Lyndall Go...moreI don't believe I need to read any more books about Emily Dickinson. With this and White Heat, I'm satiated. Time to go back to the poems...
Lyndall Gordon seems to be a trustworthy guide through the Dickinson thicket of mythology and legend...She focuses on the family and the rifts(s) that ensued with brother Austin's fourteen year affair with Mabel Loomis Todd (he was married to her Dickinson's girlhood friend Susan Gilbert). She also surmises that Dickinson suffered from epilepsy, which given the fact that her nephew had it, together with the prescriptions she had filled, a prolonged stay in Boston to visit a physician, as well as her need for seclusion, seems plausible.
Surprisingly good--on a number of counts: Dickinson's poetry, life, her intensity; Higginson's importance in history, his work as an abolitionist, lea...moreSurprisingly good--on a number of counts: Dickinson's poetry, life, her intensity; Higginson's importance in history, his work as an abolitionist, leader of the first all-black (former slaves) regiment in the Civil War; his writings on and support of women's equal rights...
Wineapple is never condescending nor overly interpretive; she gives both Higginson and Dickinson their due, is respectful of these larger-than-life figures, and is as good at writing about the poems as she is about Higginson's Civil War regiment, his fight against slavery--on the battlefield and off--and his later-in-life search for fulfillment. What I especially like is how we are able to view these two personalities very much within the context of their time; she doesn't force a modern-day lens onto them as some biographers would do. In other words, there is a lot of correction and restoration when it comes to Higginson as he has been much disparaged over the years by Dickinson scholars and Historians alike.
Wineapple is also very good at tracking the soap-opera-ish struggle for control of the publication of Dickinson's many poems: the key players being her sister Lavinia; Mabel Todd (who'd had a 12-yr affair with Emily's brother, Austin); Sue, Austin's wife; and Higginson. The poems were copied and altered to various extents by Todd and Higginson, yet Wineapple also lets us see the work they were doing within the context of their time. Emily Dickinson's poems were so extraordinary, nothing like them had ever been witnessed (they felt they had to 'prepare the public').
One is left with love and admiration for the reclusive Dickinson: though she rarely leaves her father's house, her life and her art are wholly her own. She is her own Master (the term she gives Higginson): sharply intelligent, compassionate, true to herself and her poetry. I can't help but be awed by this astonishing woman and poet.(less)
I bought this book years ago from the bookshop in Edith Wharton's home, The Mount. And then I didn't pay much attention to it. Recently I picked it up...moreI bought this book years ago from the bookshop in Edith Wharton's home, The Mount. And then I didn't pay much attention to it. Recently I picked it up, thinking I might visit Emily Dickinson's home in Amherst, MA over Christmas break (alas it is only open April through October). The book has turned out to be much more interesting than I thought. I don't know what I expected--maybe some notes about each house, a cursory biography of the writer--but I know I didn't expect to find their lives written about in such fascinating and idiosyncratic detail. I read all of the women first (I didn't want to disappoint David K by doing otherwise); apart from Wharton and Dickinson, there's Sarah Orne Jewett, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Louisa May Alcott. (My reasoning is that for a woman to write and become known as a writer in early New England--well, she must have been very unusual, eccentric even...or wealthy or both. So I'm curious). I'm reading the men now: Melville (whose nearby house I've never visited), Hawthorne, Frost, Twain, etc. I suppose if you've read full-length biographies of all of these writers, nothing in here will be new and surprising, but really, who has time to do that? What you get here is the distilled version (5-6pp), a photo of the author plus an illustration of the house.
Though initially (for at least the first half), Schenkar's tone grated on me, I did ultimately come to admire her work. She seemed kinder (less presum...moreThough initially (for at least the first half), Schenkar's tone grated on me, I did ultimately come to admire her work. She seemed kinder (less presumptuous) to Highsmith in her old age and self-imposed isolation in her fortress of a house in Switzerland. I think Schenkar felt sorry for her--one does--and her admiration comes through more. Still, Schenkar reminds me of the sort of person who'd drive you crazy if she were your friend: always presuming to know what you're thinking and what your motivations are and were... I do admire the book because there will never be a more thorough biography written on Highsmith. The reading (lists, journals, notebooks, novels, stories, letters, etc) and interviews Schenkar did are prodigious.
Here's an example of her irksome tone: After a paragraph discussing Patricia Highsmith and Jane Bowles (they knew one another), Schenkar writes: "Although sexually uninterested in Jane, Pat was still alert to the opportunity: '[I]f we go to Africa no doubt something would happen.'" (246). Schenkar then goes on to say: "Luckily their African trip never came off. Jane Bowles had phobias about trains, tunnels, bridges, elevators and making decisions, while Pat's phobias included, but were not confined to, noise, space, cleanliness, and food, as well as making decisions. A journey to the Dark Continent by Patricia Highsmith and Jane Bowles in each other's unmediated company doesn't bear thinking about." (247)
And in this way, Jane Schenkar dismisses what would have surely been a fascinating, if aborted, journey by two of the most talented and original writers of their time.
------------------------ This hefty biography--I am not yet halfway through--is both fascinating and annoying. Fascinating because Highsmith is such a great writer and so enigmatic and contradictory a person; annoying because the author is so damn thorough (no slip of paper or scrap of conversation escapes her notice) and intent on reading nefarious intentions into all of these. Hence, something as simple as the fact that Highsmith loved to iron her clothes, that some of her story ideas came to her while she was ironing, is met with lots of speculation about Highsmith's penchant for creased, sharp clothing, and yet (I paraphrase) "Highsmith's villians were never murdered with an iron as a weapon..." Huh? Schenkar seems oblivious to the fact that many writers get their best ideas while engaged in some mundane chore, be it dishwashing, driving, showering, lawn mowing, as the body is engaged but the mind is not... Any writer could have told her this. Highsmith, of course, is not just any writer, but Schenkar too often looks for murderous impulses, treating her as if she is evil, practically homicidal. Highsmith is always "Pat," as if biographer and subject are on the most intimate terms imaginable... (less)
Penelope Fitzgerald wrote to her American editor in 1987: "On the whole, I think you should write biographies of those you admire and respect, and nov...morePenelope Fitzgerald wrote to her American editor in 1987: "On the whole, I think you should write biographies of those you admire and respect, and novels about human beings who you think are sadly mistaken."
This a remarkable biography. Moser clearly admires Lispector and one learns so much about her life and work from him. His tone, so unlike that of Joan Schenkar (which struck me as rapacious) in The Talented Miss Highsmith, the last biography I read, is even-handed, and the narrative voice intelligent and insightful. He alternates telling the story of her life with a discussion of the book she was writing at the time, and his discussion is smart and respectful, never overly in-depth so that you feel you'd better not continue if you've not yet read the book described.
Her masterworks: Near to the Wild Heart, The Passion According to G.H., Agua Viva, The Hour of the Star. Of these I've read only the first (though I've read her 2 story collections, and Cronicas, all very worthwhile, and also with gems).
It's a good biography that brings you back to the subject's books...I plan to read them all now. I like Moser. I like how much compassion he shows Lispector, even when she is behaving less than admirably, I trust his view of her life, his respect for her 'unbearable genius,' the thought he brings to bear on this carefully and masterfully written biography of a woman whose very modern work is as important and as beautiful as that of Kafka, Joyce, Woolf.(less)
I remember liking it, and White is a charming writer. Why can't I remember the details better? This is a great series, but few of those I've read have...moreI remember liking it, and White is a charming writer. Why can't I remember the details better? This is a great series, but few of those I've read have really stayed with me. Perhaps the one on Joan of Arc did, as well as the one on Simone Weil. I tried Mao too, but I think I didn't finish it.(less)