Sunday, November 14, 2010

What Makes a Good Biography

I am reading Nicholas Shakespeare's biography of the English travel writer Bruce Chatwin and find myself impressed more by the quality of the book than by the life it chronicles, glamorous and exciting though it was.

First, Chatwin, the beguiling conversationalist who traveled the globe, mingled with the rich and famous, and wrote elegantly, died of AIDS in 1989. He was my exact contemporary but could not have lived a different kind of life from mine. Chatwin was typical of many good-looking people whose self-confidence, combined with considerable talent and self-promotion, charmed nearly everyone he met and opened doors to remarkable adventures on several continents.

A bit like the charismatic Lawrence of Arabia with cold-blue eyes and a taste for danger, Chatwin had what might seem an enviable life--if you overlook his sexual infidelities to his patient wife and his vanity. He did a lot in his 49 years, yet I wonder if he made the world a better place: perhaps as a writer he did, yet questions arise about the authenticity of some of his exotic discoveries. He was not a man capable of loving, or so it seems from this biography. And this realization makes him much less admirable in my eyes.

As to Nicholas Shakespeare, the English writer with the magical name: he provides copious quotations from every possible source, flattering and critical of the subject, and so lets the reader decide who Chatwin really was: a brilliant man to be envied or a bit of poseur. The biographer, never speculating on the intimacies he knows not of, respects the complexity of the life he has studied and like all lives, shows it to be ambiguous, complex, and mysterious. After 600 pages, Chatwin, like so many people, remains ultimately unknowable.

So this contemporary Shakespeare has given the world a well-crafted model for future biographers. He has paid tribute to a talented man who fulfilled the goal of the Renaissance gentleman defined by Castiglione: to fashion one's life into a work of art. An admirable goal; an admirable biography.

No comments: