The intimate pleasures of biography
Srinath Raghavan | 24 Dec, 2015
My God, how does one write a biography?” asked Virginia Woolf when tasked with writing the life of her friend Roger Fry. This question has occasionally crossed my mind. More often, though, I have wondered: why does one read a biography? The common impulses are easily listed: to discover fascinating lives; to revel in the range of human experience; to understand what makes great men and women tick; or to peel the layers of myth that swaddle them; the capacity of exemplary human stories to inspire us. Despite a long-standing addiction to biographies, I seem to have no good answer. I periodically oscillate in my preference for biographies that either uncover the inwardness of human motivation or that focus on the intersection of an individual life and the eddies of history that swirl around it.
Looking back, I am struck that the very first biographies that I read fell into these two categories. As a teenager immersed in the worlds of mathematics and the physical sciences, I chanced upon in an uncle’s library two recently published books. The first was Chandra, a biography of the astrophysicist and Nobel laureate, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, by Kameshwar Wali. And the other was The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel, on the mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Neither of these books stood out for its craft, but they illuminated their subjects in very different ways.
Wali begins by drawing our attention to a photograph in Chandrasekhar’s study. This is of a man on a ladder perched against a massive building. When Chandrasekhar first saw the picture in a newspaper, he wrote to the artist asking for a copy. In turn, the artist agreed to let him have it—if he could explain why he wanted it. Chandrasekhar replied that the picture captured his own feelings about the pursuit of scientific knowledge: even if the man climbed atop the ladder, the highest levels of the glimmering structure would be out of his reach; meantime, the shadow of the man on the building suggested that his achievements were even lesser than what they appeared. The motivations for science as a vocation have seldom been captured better.
Kanigel, by contrast, has no access to the interiority of his subject or the well-springs of his genius. Indeed, Ramanujan’s religiosity and references to divine revelation strike the biographer as quirks stemming from a highly traditional and restrictive upbringing. Where Kanigel succeeds, however, is in placing Ramanujan’s life in the context of colonial rule and administration in India, in underlining the importance of wider imperial connections, and in stressing the role of key individuals—Hardy and Littlewoods in Cambridge—as well as larger events such as World War I. By so doing, Kanigel manages to explain how the unknown genius from Kumbakonam ended up as a Fellow of the Royal Society and of Trinity College, Cambridge.
Good biographies, like all good books, speak to the reader in intimate ways. But the genre itself has been geared to wider societal needs. In the early decades of the first millennium, Plutarch and his contemporaries wrote biographical sketches of famous Greek and Roman figures in order to draw exemplary lessons in morality and conduct for their own generation. Well until the 19th century, Plutarch’s Lives continued to be required reading for all aspiring statesmen and politicians. Between the Late Antiquity and the end of the Middle Ages, the lives of saints—hagiography—emerged as the most popular form of biographical writing. While the attraction of both these forms of life writing has drastically diminished, they continue to inflect the way that we write and think about ostensibly exemplary subjects.
It is only from the second half of the 18th century that biographies started telling the lives of their subjects in vivid detail and greater depth. This led in the next century to the writing of tombstone biographies: multi-volume monuments aimed at cementing the posthumous reputation of their subject. The 19th century, that age of nationalism in Europe, also saw the production of ‘national’ biographies—collective biographical portraits of good and the great, such as the British Dictionary of National Biography.
With the advent of literary modernism, biography too began to move in newer directions. Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis provided one powerful impetus to biographers: this took the shape of an inordinate interest by biographers in the childhood and sexual life of their subjects. Another came from the irreverent and cynical eye cast by Lytton Strachey upon the sanctified figures of the Victorian age. This set the tone for much of the best biographical writing that followed. Biography came into its own and flourished in the second half of the 20th century. Literary biography, in particular, shot into prominence. Richard Ellmann on Joyce and Wilde; Michael Holroyd on Strachey and Bernard Shaw; Richard Holmes on Shelley and Coleridge; Justin Kaplan on Mark Twain; Carlos Baker on Hemingway; Victoria Glendinning on Trollope; Hilary Spurling on Matisse; Matthew Bruccoli on Scott Fitzgerald: all the landmarks of contemporary biographical art date to these decades.
After years of enjoying this repast, though, my taste for literary biographies has dulled. The laser-like focus on what the subject wrote and the relentless attempt to connect all aspects of the life to the art have given a formulaic quality to many recent biographies of writers. Even such innovations as thematic treatment of a life have been bogged in the mire of predictability. Occasionally, however, there appears a literary biography that transcends the well-worn charms of the genre and reminds us why biography is still worth reading.
Patrick French’s life of Naipaul is one recent example. Few contemporary writers have so completely swathed their personality in myths of their own making as has Naipaul. Despite being an authorised biographer, French deftly unpacks his subject’s life in The World Is What It Is, leaving hardly anything standing of the image that Naipaul has so carefully cultivated. What’s more, he enables us to glimpse the brooding energies that at once powered Naipaul’s extraordinary work and devastated lives around him. Confronted with this Janus-faced quality of Naipaul’s art and life, we come away understanding both better.
Another instance of a literary biography transcending the narrow confines of the genre is David Gilmour’s book on Kipling, The Long Recessional. This ‘imperial life’ of Kipling sets the subject’s work in a broad context of the shifting fortunes of the British Empire from the late 19th and the arrival on stage of other great powers like the United States and Germany. More importantly, it shows how Kipling’s work shaped the manner in which his countrymen saw their own relationship to the Empire—even if they failed to take adequate note of the prophetic quality of his imperial vision. Another work in this vein, if on a grander scale, is Roy Foster’s magisterial two-volume life of Yeats. Unlike previous works that focused all but exclusively on Yeats’ poetry, Foster paints a brilliant portrait of ‘a poetic genius who was also, both serially and simultaneously, a playwright, a journalist, occultist, apprentice politician, revolutionary, stage-manager, diner-out, dedicated friend, confidant and lover of some of the most interesting people of his day.’ He also shows how Yeats influenced the biography of his country—not only did his best poetry help define an Irish identity but his life showcased the troubled yet tangled relationship between Ireland and Britain. Foster’s injunction that one can read from a work of art its conditions but not always the other way round is one that literary biographers would do well to heed.
This is part of the reason I continue to read scientific biographies, although my enthusiasm for science has long since cooled. Indeed, in writing the life of a scientist—especially of a theoretical bent—it is difficult to make any straightforward connection between the work and its wider context. On the one hand, the intellectual and technical history of these sciences is not easy to master for most potential biographers. On the other, those who come to their subjects from a scientific background often lack knowledge of the background. In consequence, scientific biographies frequently end up presenting a picture of an isolated genius or playing up the oddities of their public selves. But when a biographer manages to combine both technical and contextual mastery, the results can be revelatory. The best such work that I have come across in recent years in Graham Farmelo’s The Strangest Man, a biography of the physicist PAM Dirac. A theoretical physicist himself, Farmelo presents a lucid and engrossing account of Dirac’s role in the discovery of quantum theory. He also manages to probe the inwardness of one of the most notoriously reticent scientists of the 20th century. To top it all, he shows us how Dirac belonged to a generation of ‘Red’ scientists—men and women whose political consciousness was shaped by the decade of depression in the 1930s and who maintained a commitment to social justice alongside the pursuit of science.
As a historian, I unavoidably end up reading a lot of political and historical biographies. I am intrigued by the fact that the biographies that have most impressed me in the last 15 years are those of two most villainous figures in the 20th century: Hitler and Stalin. It is easy to slip into the mode of demonology when dealing with such individuals: think of Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s book on Mao. Presenting a plausible portrait of such figures is rather more difficult. Ian Kershaw’s two-volume biography comes as close any account can to being labelled a definitive life. This is perhaps because Kershaw went against the grain of his own intellectual formation in choosing to write a biography. A well- known historian of the ‘structuralist’ school of modern German history, Kershaw had long been interested in the deeper structures that undergirded the turbulent destiny of that country. So, when writing of Hitler, Kershaw is able to conjoin the details of the individual life with the larger historical forces at work—and, more importantly, show how Hitler was both shaped by and shaped these forces.
Stephen Kotkin’s biography of Stalin is another exemplar of the craft. In the first of three projected volumes, Kotkin displays an enviable ability to combine the widest sweep of history with microscopic details as seen from Stalin’s office. This book simultaneously offers the most accessible history of Russia in a Eurasian setting from the late 19th century to the early 1930s and the most convincing explanation for Stalin’s choices and excesses. If the next two volumes measure up to this standard, then we are surely reading one of the first great biographical enterprises of the 21st century.
While biography has flourished in the Anglo-American world for the past six decades and more, it has failed to strike root in India. To be sure, shelves groan under the weight of biographical accounts; but most of these are shoddily researched, poorly written and adulatory or polemical in approach. In a witty and perceptive essay, Ramachandra Guha asked why despite a profusion of subjects of character and interest we don’t write good biographies. The answers he offered were the dominance of Hinduism and Marxism, neither of which valued the individual life; the absence of well-preserved personal archives; and the fear of giving offence. My favourite life of an Indian written by an Indian biographer is the exception that proves these rules.
This is the life of the philosopher and statesman Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan by his son Gopal. Better known as the official biographer of Nehru, Gopal got down to writing on his father only towards the end of his career. The fact that he had all his father’s papers at hand naturally helped. More importantly, Gopal was able to learn from the experience of writing on Nehru. The three perfectly proportioned volumes on Nehru are works of high scholarship as well as precocious and perceptive interpretations of the making of Independent India. But they fell short of the highest biographical standards on two counts. For one, Gopal threw a veil on Nehru’s personal life. For another, he was excessively and unfairly critical of almost all of Nehru’s contemporaries. As with the Nehru biography, Gopal situates Radhakrishnan’s life in the larger historical context and uses the life to illuminate the times. But he also lays bare the inner recesses of Radhakrishnan’s life. He begins by admitting that Radhakrishnan was most probably born of an illicit relationship. He goes on to reveal the string of extra- marital relations in which Radhakrishnan indulged. ‘Radhakrishnan,’ he writes, ‘even enjoyed being double, a religious philosopher luxuriating in the company of women.’
Gopal’s candour drew, not unexpectedly, a good amount of ire and opprobrium from a prudish Indian readership. Why, several reviewers asked, was he sending the effigy of his father crashing from its plinth? The Indian Post, which published a review by MV Kamath, was inundated with hundreds of letters from readers who felt that Gopal had acted against all established norms of Indian culture and Hindu scriptures holding fathers greater than gods. The editor joined the debate with a column that wondered whether ‘we need to re-learn the lesson of objectivity’. Gopal’s response was tart:‘If what some of your correspondents describe as tenets of the Upanishads are to prevail then no proper biographical writing would be possible at all.’ Radhakrishnan, he added, had ‘left me all his papers and would not have wanted to be dishonest or conceal anything.’ Rather than write hagiography, he had sought to portray Radhakrishnan ‘not [as] a lifeless god or icon, but a very great human being, who, starting from below scratch, conquered his circumstances’.
In its depth of research, firm grasp of the historical background, acuteness of judgment and quality of prose, Gopal’s Radhakrishnan remains a triumph of the biographer’s art. In the years since its publication, only one other Indian biography has touched these heights. Ramachandra Guha’s Gandhi Before India is a brilliant re-telling of one of the most frequently told lives in the past seven decades. By treating Gandhi’s years in South Africa on its own terms—not just as the making of the Mahatma—Guha recasts a story that might seem familiar. He does this partly by widening our angle of vision: Gandhi’s life is set against the intellectual and political backdrop of imperial politics around the turn of the 20th century. The range of the biographer’s archival sleuthing—from India and Britain to South Africa and Israel—is matched by his superb grasp of the social and cultural milieus in which Gandhi moved in India, Britain and South Africa. A signal achievement of the book is to capture the layers of Gandhi’s persona by drawing extensively on his contemporaries’ writings to and assessments of the man. This makes Gandhi seem at once less familiar and more understandable. The second and concluding volume is currently in the works. It is the Indian biography I most look forward to reading.