Telling Lives: The confusing business of biography

Ivan Kramskoy Painting a Portrait of his Daughter

We all have books we enjoy and authors we enjoy, and the two are not always in tandem. A novel may enthrall me, but the interview I hear with its author may dampen my enthusiasm. Samuel Johnson once said, “Those whom the appearance of virtue, or the evidence of genius, have tempted to a nearer knowledge of the writer in whose performances they may be found, have indeed had frequent reason to repent their curiosity.” I’ve had that experience. There are authors whom I appreciate less now, since I have learned about their lives. For example, I re-read Evelyn Waugh’s prose often, but I would not want to talk with him. In contrast, the poems of Allen Ginsberg don’t interest me much, but I would love to have the man over for dinner and would invite my cleverest friends to join us.

Still, I read a lot of biographies. On a purely physical level, they tend to be substantial books. Holding one, I feel that I am participating in something important. No one researches and writes a significant biography in six months; it usually takes years, whereas many other book genres, even when well done, can come off quickly.


A biography can make for satisfying reading even when its subject is not an author whose works I read or a person whom I was previously interested in. At their best, biographies exist for readers independently of enthusiasm for the subject. Take, for instance, Edmund Morris’s three volumes on Theodore Roosevelt. Volume one, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, has to be one of the 10 best books, not just biographies, I have ever read, and I enjoyed it without any previous interest in Roosevelt’s politics or career.

This Long Pursuitby Richard Holmes

Pantheon. 368p, $15

Lessons in Hope by George Weigel

Basic Books. 398p, $20

Miloszby Andrzej Franaszek

edited and translated by Aleksandra and Michael Parker. Harvard University Press. 544p, $25

A recent trend in biography writing is to make the book not just about its subject but also about the process of writing about him or her. It has become common for biographers, since Richard Holmes and his Shelley: The Pursuit (1975), to take this sort of double-entendre approach. In addition to telling the story of the subject, a story of the inquiry itself is told. In more recent years, Holmes has built upon this form—which he started 40 years ago—by making an industry around “the art of biography,” lecturing as a professor of biography writing and as the author of many books that tell tales of the pursuit, including this year’s This Long Pursuit: Reflections of a Romantic Biographer(Pantheon, 368p $30).

The papal biographer George Weigel has now stepped into these waters with Lessons in Hope (Basic Books. 368p $30), a title that is surely designed to remind readers of his 1999 international best-selling biography of St. John Paul II, Witness to Hope. “Becoming John Paul II’s biographer…[became] the pivot of my life,” the biographer writes in what is essentially the foreword to the volume. (The book is, for whatever reason, constructed without use of words like “foreword” and “chapter.”) Often an author will have two reasons for writing this sort of volume. First, as Weigel explains it, would be to tell “stories that would make him [the pope] present again by rekindling memories or illuminating previously unknown aspects of his rich personality.” And second, surely, to use material left over from years of research and writing—as well as stories that one has found successful on the lecture circuit.

This recent twist on the biographer’s role makes the biographer himself a subject of history. And so, in what is essentially chapter one of Lessons in Hope, we have “Lent in the Third Grade: Baltimore, 1960,” which is mostly about Weigel. His class was instructed by one of the School Sisters of Notre Dame to pray for the conversion of a Communist dictator. So, Weigel concludes: “Had anyone told me that, some 30 years later, I would write books in which Wladyslaw Gomulka’s complex role in post-war Polish history figured prominently, I would have thought the prognosticator mad. Yet there it is.”

We are also introduced through Weigel’s memoir to dozens of other ways that his real life anticipated or prepared the way for his writing about John Paul II. For instance, Weigel studied philosophy at St. Mary’s Seminary College in Baltimore—to prepare him to understand the subtle thought of the Polish pope. Even the shuttering of a seminary in Washington State where Weigel taught for two years becomes, upon Weigel’s reflection—“a crucial turning point in my life, with major consequences for my becoming John Paul II’s biographer.”

There are those who theorize that biography writing is ignoble, even immoral. They think that writing about others is to “colonize” them or to bend them to fit a mold.

There are those who theorize that biography writing is ignoble, even immoral. They think that writing about others is to “colonize” them or to bend them to fit a mold. Speaking of a different type of writing about people—specifically, travel writing—the Irish poet Tara Bergin recently reflected in an issue of the quarterly literary magazine Granta: “Writing is by its very nature an intrusion: voyeuristic; fetishistic; impolite; self-serving—the self is the finished piece of writing.” I think she has a point, or at least that is a real danger, particularly when one who writes about other people becomes interested in finding himself in the midst of his subjects.

Thank goodness, Andrzej Franaszek’s biography of Czeslaw Milosz does not succumb to these temptations. First published in Polish in 2011, Milosz: A Biography (Harvard University Press. 544p $35)is both exquisitely written and well translated. Longer in the original than in the English, one still has the sense that nothing is missing. Franaszek is a Polish literary critic and former secretary to Zbigniew Herbert, who was one of Milosz’s fellow poetic greats of the last half of the 20th century.

Franaszek’s prose matches his attention to detail. “At the beginning of this story there was once a child, for whom the world began in wonder,” Chapter One begins. Then soon, Franaszek demonstrates how the idyll erupts, as does all of Eastern Europe, following the events of June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, when Milosz was only 3.

Milosz chose not to fight in World War II, despite being 33 at the time of the Warsaw Uprising. He felt a sense of destiny—that it was of vital interest to more than just him that he survive the war. Great writers are often made of this sort of egotism, and it is true that as a poet, translator, critic and commentator on current events, Milosz would go on to have an impact on the world. But not without controversy.

In his 30s, he worked for five years as a cultural attaché to the Polish Embassy in Paris. This put him in league with Stalin, something that many Poles, as well as his native Lithuanians, never forgave him for, even after Milosz defected in 1951 and denounced the Soviet agenda. Ten years later, he arrived, and then lived somewhat unhappily for decades, in the scholarly confines of Berkeley, Calif.

In 1980, the great poet was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, again not without detractors and controversy. His life was deeply conflicted when it came to his Catholicism. Milosz argued about faith and its inability to provide solace or answers with childhood friends, priests and theologians, also in personal essays, and even with Thomas Merton in letters collected in a volume titled Striving Towards Being (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), back in 1997. Milosz experienced a great deal of sorrow over a long life, watching as one of his sons went mad and twice becoming a widower. There were affairs and bitter arguments with friends. He lived into his 90s, eventually returning, not exactly Solzhenitsyn-style, to the Eastern European places he had left behind long before. Franaszek serves him well.

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