Biography and Fiction

By Nigel Hamilton

NigelHamiltonI wonder whether, in the history of the novel, there has ever been a period in which writers have so turned to biography for their characters, their plots, their dramas, as today?

Doubtless this phenomenon can – and will, if the Société de Biographie develops its research program – be quantitatively as well as qualitatively surveyed. But in the meantime it may be worth asking why, if this is truly the case, this turn should be so pronounced? Does it imply a dearth of imagination on the part of novelists? Or does it, rather, reflect a kind of heightened fascination today with the real – as we see also in the growth of “non-fiction narrative,” as it is called, where supposedly true stories are made into entertaining dramas that can tease our love of suspense, of heroism, of tough competition? Or, could it be that fiction writers who tackle “real life stories,” or use real-life figures in their work, are dissatisfied with the biographies they read – feeling that biographers either fail to capture adequately the drama of the story or the dilemmas of the characters, thus causing the fiction writer to cry out to be allowed to speculate, and invent?

Interviewing actual fiction writers who have gone down this path will give us a better idea, for our knowledge is still today rather slim, and our efforts to understand the intersection between biography and fiction even slimmer.

Thirty years ago Ira Nadel attempted an analysis, in his book Biography: Fiction, Fact and Form (St. Martins, 1984). Nadel was minded to see “fictional biography” as an experimental response to the increasing instability of fact, following the tsunami of literary deconstruction. If the factualness of fact be questioned, then the authorial stance, too, must be unstable – a situation Nadel neatly described as “mimesis versus invention.” Unfortunately Nadel did not undertake or quote interviews with practicing novelists or biographers, and was only able, given his remit at the time, to devote three pages out of 236 to the matter.

The biographical world has moved on a great deal since then, however. For example the prolific biographer Carl Rollyson, in his book Biography: A User’s Guide, (Ivan Dee, 2009), paid tribute to Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde, a fictionalized biography of Marilyn Monroe. Rollyson was delighted to see his own biography of Monroe in the bibliography, and applauded her “reading” of Monroe’s life, which agreed largely with his own. “I also saw that in at least one respect Oates had surpassed me,” he acknowledged, however. “Her evocation of Monroe’s childhood is haunting. The novelist creates scenes – more than could be done with fact alone – in which Monroe’s harrowing encounters with her violently unstable mother create a disequilibrium. If I were to write my biography of Monroe again,” he confessed, “I know that the level of my engagement with Monroe’s childhood would be much greater because I have read Oates.” (Rollyson, 115)

Now such an admission certainly illustrates the two-way interaction, or potential interaction, between fiction and non-fiction. But does it change the essential difference between the two genres – or rather, between the motivations impelling novelists and biographers?

Instinct or intuition tells me, no. While waiting for more serious interviews to be done with the writers of fictional biography, let me hazard a guess: namely that the answer is to be found less in the experimental creative intersection between biography and fiction (despite the many decades of examples, stemming from Virginia Woolf’s spoof biography, Orlando), and more in an analysis of the novelistic Ursprung, or drive and inspiration.

The biographer, we know, proceeds from a desire to understand and record the reality of another person’s life, as it was lived, and as best as this can be researched and truthfully determined – knowing the facts may be unstable, yet the truth nevertheless be worth pursuing. Moreover the biographer’s further motive, beyond the matter of a better understanding and record, is to form a judgment of the chosen subject – whether overtly or by selecting facts and insight that will allow the reader to make his or her own assessment. As Hermione Lee rightly pointed out in her book, Biography: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2009), “Biography is a form of history” – in fact Number 7 of Lee’s “10 Rules of Biography.” Biography, in this respect, is a reflection of what, in a society, we “value,” what “we care about,” in the shape of who we choose to remember as society’s “visible” and “invisible” men and women.

Understanding, recording, valuing – these are the biographer’s essential motivations, and are thus surely quite distinct from that which impels fiction writers. Novelists are seldom interested in society’s valuation of a real person so much as their own interpretation of what interests them in it, as storytellers and inventors. As Rollyson recognized, even the little that Oates knew of Marilyn’s childhood had evoked tremendous compassion in her fecund mind, causing her to use the known facts of Monroe’s life as a starting point. The fictional Monroe became, for her, a crucible: a preliminary form into which she was able to pour her imagination and insight into all human nature, focused on this one supposedly “real,” yet largely invented character. Her aim was not to record a “truer” account of Monroe’s childhood, but a more moving account of a childhood, once fictionalized.

The outcome of such fictionalizing is, in many ways, a bonus for the reader who reads both Rollyson’s biography and Oates’s dramatized version. The reader’s ultimate feeling for, and judgment of, Marilyn Monroe becomes, in this instance, a conflation of the biographer’s factually-based judgment and the novelist’s emotional insight – yet the two approaches to the task, and the driving force impelling them, are and remain completely different.

Again, let us look more closely at what this means in terms of the biographer. In potentially rewriting his version of Marilyn Monroe, Rollyson claims he would have explored more of Monroe’s childhood: recognizing a significance, a weight, a psychological key to the later life that he had perhaps underestimated. But he would still not have been keen, let alone driven, to follow Oates’s path and invent a Marilyn beyond that which can truthfully be researched and determined – for that is not what drives him as biographer. It is just that, thanks to Oates’s intuitive insight, he would appraise Monroe’s childhood differently within his larger judgment of her life and its public value, pace Hermione Lee. Marilyn would remain for him the “real” Marilyn whom he would have been driven to record even more truthfully, if possible – not the pursuit of an Oates fantasy, however brilliantly imagined, or moving in its portrait of a type, a tragic woman who was both a beneficiary of modern life and its victim.

Where does this leave us? Historical valuation, or re-valuation, in the public mind, is clearly a determining motive in writing biography – but not in fiction, where the attraction is the life’s generic interestingness, and the opportunity to tell a moving or dramatic story.

Having said this, however, we have to acknowledge that there are cases where a novelist does seek to value, or revalue, a historical personage, even their agency in history, in the public consciousness. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004) comes to mind – a chilling version of what is known in the trade as “counterfactual history,” or “what if?” In the novel, Roth posited a different historical outcome to the machinations of the isolationist and leader of the America First movement in 1940: the celebrated U.S. airman Charles Lindbergh. Yet even as a counterfactualer, Roth is more interested in dramatizing the outcome of a Lindbergh America on Roth’s Jewish fictional hero – or version of himself. Roth has certainly contributed to the revaluing of the historical and social danger posed, had Lindbergh become president – but in following that path he did not attempt to contribute to our knowledge and understanding of Lindbergh himself. (Lindbergh’s real life was even more extraordinary than Roth could have invented: supporting eugenics and maintaining the public fiction of a loving marriage to the poet Anne Morrow Lindbergh, while secretly running a harem of disabled German mistresses, by whom he sired more children. Ah, the complexities of human behavior!)

My current favorite in fictional biography is, I must say, another exploration of anti-Semitism, drawn from real life: Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy (2013). Here Harris retells the story of the Alfred Dreyfus treason case, seen from the point of view of a dramatized head of the French military intelligence bureau, Georges Picquart. It is a tour de force in terms of storytelling, and very moving in its depiction of nefarious bureaucracy and jingoism – but it is no biography of Dreyfus, nor is it meant to be.

Which makes me wonder whether, in terms of analysis, there is a closer relationship between fiction and “non-fiction narrative” than between biography and fiction.

Fruit for another dessert, or dissertation.

By Nigel Hamilton

Author, “The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942”
Senior Fellow, McCormack Graduate School, UMass Boston

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