Biographies and Autobiographies

Other people’s lives. It’s not that we are peeping Toms or voyeurs. It’s just that if we know something about that “other person”, we can understand them better. Biographies and autobiographies. I could tell you about my life too for each of us has a story to tell, and writing things down helps us understand ourselves as well. Maybe that’s why we do it. Take Nabokov for instance. I’m fascinated by the fact that he has synesthesia – a word I’d never heard of before, associating colors with things. And you, Tony Judt, I can never get over your courage as you showed us how intricate and productive the human mind is. And while I don’t have a book, and only some letters, on Leo Steinberg, what you told and wrote me and recorded for the Getty Museum are worth more than having someone else write about you. Not everyone has your gift for words though. True, Diana Athill, you lived a full life but I don’t find a whole chapter on how your companion gradually succumbed to his illness all that interesting. Your life story, Jenny Diski, is much more fascinating for you survived incredible odds and in your last struggle with cancer let us partake of your thoughts. It is an approach to living, and to dying, that makes me admire you. What would we be without memory? Could we understand Van Gogh without his letters? Or Shakespeare without knowing more about his environment? They are all biographies, and we try to find  the crack in the nutshell so we can get at the meat.

Now here you pose a problem, books of mine. What category do you fall into? Autobiographies, well that’s obvious. I know, Augustus John Cuthbert Hare, that you wrote several volumes of your rather disastrous upbringing. I was never able to get those though, although an abridged version of the six volume original, Peculiar People, would be a fitting addition to my library. For now I’ll settle for your musings on Italian hill towns and Rome. It has been said and I think it hits the mark that in whatever you write there is a part of you, of your life and experiences. Otherwise how could you write about them? And you, my dear de Waal, when you try to understand where your netsukes come from, you are stepping over into the realm of biography. And I love it. It means transposing oneself to another time, to another way of thinking, to another period in history.  What, for instance, did Flaubert think as he sailed along the Nile? And Florence Nightingale?  Here biography also becomes history. Take  Camilleri’s Letters to his great granddaughter Matilda. They are autobiography, and, dear Camilleri, you were very honest even putting in episodes you might have wanted to forget. You are giving us a panorama of the history of Italy and how it affected your life. Indeed, you tell Matilda that unless she knows what Italy went through, she cannot understand her great grandfather.  Come to think of it, the line between studying a person’s oeuvre and delving into their lives is very subtle. I don’t have to tell you that,  Simon Schama, when you track the lives and works of Rembrandt and Rubens. I had never really considered it, but my life too reflects the world I grew up in. As must be true for everyone.

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