Look, I understand that in some fundamental way one’s interest in a biography cannot be completely divorced from one’s interest in the subject. So, unlike other forms of literary art, even biographies of wide acclaim don’t necessarily presume a large readership outside of the already converted. Despite knowing this, I’m just going to say it: for the most part, biographies are really boring—and here’s the kicker—even when the subject is of great importance to me. I’ve picked up lengthy tomes on some of my favorite writers, only to find myself drowning in the banal minutia of ancestors and hometown history and childhood development—and before long I’ll close the book in frustration, muttering something about how I couldn’t give a shit about what my heroes were like as kids, at least not in punishingly comprehensive detail. Get to the part, I think, where they accomplish the things that made me want to read a biography about them in the first place!
The reason I’m complaining at all is because I really love a good biography, and moreover, I really need them to do my work. So when I come across ones that hold my attention—or even rivet it, in some cases—I’m profoundly appreciative of its author for turning what might have been a grueling and tedious chore into a joyous and illuminating experience. Biographies are a vital art—they offer insights utterly unique to the form—but not all are as artful as they are useful, and you need the art to compel readers through to the utility. Here are a bunch of biographies that not only provide intelligent commentaries on their respective writers’ lives but also function as fascinating and engrossing works of literature themselves.
Capote by Gerald Clarke
Gerald Clarke’s biography of Truman Capote is one of my very favorites, both because Capote is such a fascinating figure on his own (he was vengeful, manipulative, deceitful, and positively overflowing with self-regard; but he was also brilliant, perceptive, and just as filled with talent as with hubris) and because Clarke’s effortlessly readable but also impossibly addicting prose makes this 600+-page bio a real thriller.
Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford
Another of the great biographies. Milford (no slouch in biographical terms: her previous bio of Zelda Fitzgerald is a classic in the genre, too) is the exact person to take on the wild and the wit of Edna St. Vincent Millay, a poet of uncanny cleverness and a woman way ahead of her time. She was bold, outspoken, bisexual, and unapologetically promiscuous, and she had romantic relationships with the likes of critic Edmund Wilson and writer Susas Glaspell. Though similarly dense as Clarke’s Capote, Savage Beauty has a different kind of rhythm, a beat pulsing from Milford’s passion and Millay’s inimitable vibrancy.
Marcel Proust by Edmund White/ Charles Dickens by Jane Smiley
In the late 90s and early 2000s, Penguin Books did a series of short biographies of great writers written by contemporary masters, which are fantastic not only because these lives are condensed into a tight, digestible size, but mostly because the biographers are themselves wonderfully gifted writers. Edmund White’s Marcel Proust and Jane Smiley’s Charles Dickens are by far by favorites of this bunch. White, the noted novelist of gay themes, investigates like no one before him Proust’s homosexuality; while Smiley applies her deftly critical eye to Dickens’ stylistic grandiosity.
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Balzac by Stefan Zweig
Here’s another study of a great writer by another great writer—Austrian author Stefan Zweig, a once-internationally popular figure whose collected stories were recently reissued by Pushkin Press, takes on one of literature’s most eccentric and energetic producers. Balzac—who at a certain point decided that, no, his name was actually de Balzac—was nothing if not a workhorse, and in fact many of his writing habits have become notorious, e.g., his consumption of 50 cups of coffee a day, or his marathon writing sessions that could stretch to 10 or 15 hours. For God’s sakes, Balzac’s life project was The Human Comedy, a series of novels and stories (91 completed; 46 unfinished) that would capture the whole of Parisian society in post-Napoleonic times. Zweig, an ambitious and prolific writer himself, clearly saw a kinship between himself and the great French master of realism, and this connection runs through the biography and makes it doubly edifying and enjoyable.
Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr
In the preface to his monumental biography of Tennessee Williams, John Lahr notes the initial origin of the project was as a sequel to Lyle Leverich’s Tom, the first volume in a planned multi-volume series. Leverich died in 1999 and bequeathed scores of research material to Lahr for the second book. But in writing his version, Lahr soon saw that he needed to revisit William’s youth and his family, thus requiring his bio to become its own independent book. This, I think, is partly why Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh is so incredible—because Lahr first endeavored his project as a sequel and thus begins when Williams is a young man, the narrative functions more like a novel or a bio-pic, with the more tedious aspects of Williams’s childhood relegated to flashbacks and expository illuminations on the present moment. So although Lahr’s book is comprehensive, it is also structurally interesting and, despite its length, narratively economical.
Bolaño: A Biography in Conversations by Mónica Maristain
In 2003, Mónica Maristain interviewed Roberto Bolaño for Playboy, not realizing that it would be his last. When she heard he died (the very month her interview was published), she decided to find out what Bolaño’s friends and family and fellow writers thought of him, as she herself had found “an amazingly generous writer” and wanted to hear from other, closer sources. The result is a book that is both biography and testimony, the story of a life told mostly by those orbiting it, not unlike the oral history of the visceral realists (a play on the real-life Infrarealist movement founded by Bolaño and Mario Santiago) in his novel The Savage Detectives. A more detailed and comprehensive bio will inevitably appear in the years to come, but Maristain’s book will always remain a pivotal enterprise in the scholarship that surrounds (and will probably always surround) one of Latin America’s most important literary figures.
Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice by Janet Malcolm
Ostensibly, the unparalleled journalist and critic Janet Malcolm’s Two Lives attempts to answer the question, “How had this pair of elderly Jewish lesbians survived the Nazis?” and to be sure, Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas’s shared home in Vichy, France during WWII does provide a perfect mystery to pursue. But Malcolm extrapolates from this period numerous observations and insights into the legendary couple’s lives, both together and separately. It is the kind of work that proves that one needn’t elucidate every single detail or period from a biography in order to capture some essential truths about the subject under scrutiny. Janet Malcolm is, without a doubt, one of America’s best critics and journalists, and Two Lives is a stellar addition to her remarkable oeuvre.
Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life by Lyndall Gordon/Virginia Woolf: A Portrait by Vivian Forrester
I couldn’t decide between these two takes on the life of one of the 20th century’s best writers, so I included both. Both are award-winners (Gordon’s won the James Bait Black Prize for Biography; Forrester’s the Prix Goncourt award for biography), and both were written by outstanding biographers with wonderfully contrasting approaches. Lyndall Gordon’s 1984 bio, as its title suggests, traces Woolf’s development as a writer as a way of locating formative and transformative influences on her personhood. Much of Gordon’s insights into Woolf’s literary maturation come from Woolf’s writing itself, leading to an authoritative portrait. Vivian Forrester’s recent Virginia Woolf: A Portrait (published in France in 2009 and in English, by Columbia University Press, in 2015) is a much more poetic rendering of the great Modernist, though that isn’t to say Forrester hasn’t unearthed some previously unpublished material as her sources, only that her language sings with artful and abstract fluidity.
The Butterfly in the Typewriter by Cory MacLauchlin/Every Love Story is a Ghost Story by D.T. Max
Here are two absorbing biographies of young and brilliant writers who ended their own lives prematurely. Cory MacLauchlin’s The Butterfly in the Typewriter examines the too-short life of John Kennedy Toole, whose posthumously published novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, not only won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, but influenced a generation of comic and satirical novelists. We learn of his time spent in the Army, his unsuccessful attempt to publish A Confederacy with Robert Gottlieb of Simon & Schuster, and his final roadtrip in 1969 that ended with Toole running a hose from the exhaust into a cracked window in his car. He was thirty-one. David Foster Wallace, on the other hand, managed to publish numerous books in his lifetime and to earn the widespread acclaim that had so eluded Toole. But despite the huge success of Infinite Jest and the pre-viral popularity of his journalism, Wallace struggled with severe depression and suicidal tendencies, and in 2008, hung himself in his home in California. “Suicide is not simple,” MacLauchlin writes while considering the innumerable explanations offered in Toole’s case. “Despite our best efforts to understand the ghastly human potential for self-destruction, it cannot be explained by a series of events like some kind of formula. And yet we tend to approach the question of suicide from this insupportable angle, seeking the single, loosened lynchpin that caused a mind to come undone.” Toole might still have taken his own life if he had published his novel to fame and fortune; just as Wallace might still have even if he’d never published a word. It’s a tragedy that these great minds no longer pulse with their particular brilliance, and moreover that we no longer get to enjoy the enormous benefits of those minds—but their personal struggles are not ours—not for us to figure out or explain—and instead of trying to locate the “causes” of their deaths, it seems more worthwhile to celebrate the fact that we had them at all.
American Lady: The Life of Susan Mary Alsop by Caroline de Margerie
Susan Mary Alsop is not a household name; rather, she was an extremely well-known name among many of those who would be considered household names. In the mid to late ‘40s, she hobnobbed in Paris with Evelyn Waugh and Winston Churchill and Christian Dior, while in Washington in the ‘50s and ‘60s she entertained Henry Kissinger and Robert McNamara at her home in Georgetown. Though she was not a writer herself, Alsop was a very influential person among many major artists and decision-makers of recent history, and her story, as told by Caroline de Margerie, is as idiosyncratically American and as quintessentially 20th century as you can possibly get.
Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris
I challenge anyone to read the virtuosic prologue to Edmund Morris’s Theodore Rex, the story of Teddy Roosevelt’s two terms as President, and not see how amazingly it would translate into an HBO-type TV series. The book opens with the assassination of President McKinley in 1901, and Roosevelt, suddenly thrust into the Presidency, travels by train from the Adirondacks to Washington, D.C. Through this journey, the reader is expertly introduced to all the major players (including Senator Mark Hanna and journalist and publisher Herman H. Kohlsaat) and all the major themes, as well as given a portioned view of the United States at the time. As a pilot episode, the prologue is so engrossing that reading the rest of this nearly 800-page tome becomes a matter of course, and through which Morris maintains the pulsing energy and tells an incredible American yarn.
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