A summer treat for you: today’s guest post comes to you from biographer and Reader of Modern French at York, Geoffrey Wall, who shares his playful advice to himself on the art of biography.
Sixteen Peremptory Injunctions to Myself as Biographer
Seize upon the detail, the flash of sense that evokes the person, the
place, the moment in history. No need to call it a biographeme.
Don’t spoil the shape of the story with cherished but inert
accumulations of fact. Don’t display your omniscience. It is of no
Escape from the writing desk. Cultivate the sense of place. You will
never be your subject, but you can at least be there, in the same
place, though in another time.
Don’t wait until you know everything. Get writing: sketches, a time-
line, a speculation. Because you will never know everything.
Don’t conceal the gaps. Use them. The gaps are part of the story,
part of the effect. The gap is like the jump-cut in a film, a pleasant
little shock that will refocus the attention of the delighted reader.
Learn to inhabit the past, to walk up and down in it. Learn to read
old buildings, old maps, old newspapers, old drawings. What did
that room smell of? What were the sounds from the street?
Don’t moralise. You may disapprove of your subject’s sexual habits,
his political loyalties, his financial competence. Keep it to yourself.
Cultivate a generous intellectual amusement. You are allowed to be comic-satiric as well as sympathetic-evocative.
Learn to write the simple things, the things that don’t come easily,
description, dialogue and narrative. For this you must renounce
obstinate fantasies of intellectual omnipotence.
Don’t idealise your subject. Don’t be pious, benign and reverential.
Your subject would rather you were moderately demonic.
Attend to changes of tempo in the life of your subject. Some days
are gloriously picaresque, full of bold adventures, exotic landscapes
and strange encounters. Some days are havens of creative
stillness. Some days are boredom or misery. The larger truth lies in
the sequence, the progression, the transformation.
The inevitable dream-encounters with your cherished subject are an
excellent opportunity to speak your mind. Make the bugger listen,
Write a letter or two to your subject. Never post them.
You must be master of the archive, but also and equally master
of the subjunctive. Explore the might-have-been, the path not
taken, the life not lived. Where does your subject keep those buried
Conjecture: originally, a throwing or casting together. Legitimate
conjecture flows from your sustained, playful, obsessive, inward,
conversation with the subject. Conjecture needs to come clean. Let
the reader to be your judge.
Without that lucidly affectionate union of the archival and
conjectural, how can you produce that compassionate effect of the
real, that sudden and delicately compelling enlargement of human
sympathy that constitutes the principle intellectual pleasure of the
Geoffrey Wall is the author of Flaubert: A Life (Faber, 2001). More recently, he has published The Enlightened Physician (Peter Lang, 2013) which explores the medical-political world of Flaubert’s father. Geoffrey Wall is currently working on a biography of George Sand for OUP. Alongside that project, he is also compiling a series of life-history interviews with twelve political activists: Quakers, anarchists, feminists and Trotskyists.