To Know Them Is To Love Them

I find myself wondering whether it is a help or a hindrance to know about an author whose work you love. Can we ever properly understand what authors are doing without the benefit of biographical knowledge, or does it somehow reveal the magician’s trick, undermine the power of the mystery, to see a novel’s composition unravel under the influence of autobiographical data? These questions have come to mind whilst I’ve been reading the biography of Marguerite Duras, provoked in part by a comment on the previous post from Caroline, who had such a strong emotional reaction to reading about Duras that she says she would never go near her work again, and in part from a much milder reaction of my own but one in which I do feel my understanding of Duras’s novels changing in the light of what I’ve read.

The thing is, Duras was one of my dissertation writers and it’s hard to find the words to explain the depth and complexity of that relationship. For three years, in a doctoral thesis, you live, eat, sleep, dream the work of your authors. Their imaginative world is your playground; they get under your skin and into your perspective. Their concerns become your concerns, their fears start to bother you. After a while you see the ghostly outline of their preoccupations, their obsessive storylines, everywhere you look. And because you choose the work of authors towards which you are instinctively drawn, you often find parts of yourself disconcertingly reflected back, in ways that are quite unexpected. Now, where I did my graduate studies, we were not concerned with biographical material, in fact it was something of a no-no to get involved with it. The English department was well known for chucking everything into the melting pot of interpretation, but in Modern Languages we followed a more rigorous and theory-based model that meant we considered nothing but the text. So I ended up deeply enmeshed in my authors, knowing everything about their fantasy worlds, but knowing nothing about their lives.

When I read about Colette’s life (my other dissertation author), I had a sort of emotional double-take. I thought she was an admirable person and was almost shocked to find out she was…, well, let’s say human. With Duras I wasn’t expecting her to be a saint (and indeed no!), but again I found myself feeling uncomfortable at places, this time because of the way I had read her books. For instance, The Lover, one of her last, and certainly one of her greatest, novels is based on Duras’s childhood in Indo-China, but should not be considered autobiography – well, I’d had no problem with that, given the context in which we studied. But it wasn’t until I was reading about the writing of that book, when Duras was old, and very ill, and yet bound up with another difficult relationship, that I could see how much idealization had gone into it. It was already the third or fourth time Duras had told the story, but somehow I didn’t see the imaginative progression so clearly as when I realized what she had wanted that story to do for her, for her memories of herself and her evaluation of her life. I felt I understood that book better, saw it more clearly, felt it more acutely, for knowing how and when it was written.

Duras and a very young Depardieu

I’m not talking about authorial intention here. I still think that’s something to steer well clear of. After all, Duras is a perfect case in point. A few years after writing The Lover she turned against the book and more or less disowned it, saying it was an airport novel, written when she was drunk (not that that distinguished it from any of her other works). Her favourite piece of creativity was a completely bonkers film entitled Le Camion (The Lorry) which she wrote, directed and starred in, alongside Gérard Depardieu who played the part of a long-distance lorry driver, picking up an old lady and giving her a lift out of the kindness of his heart. All Duras did was sit in a mock-up of a lorry cab and pontificate endlessly, philosophically, talking a lot of twaddle basically, and that’s the plot. Duras adored this film and thought that her improvised chitchat was pure brilliance (wrong!) and that the film was one of the best articulations of her art (wrong!). Trust me on this: do not go near Duras’s films, well with the exception of Hiroshima mon amour which is really Alain Resnais’s film whatever Duras subsequently said, unless you are having serious trouble sleeping at night or are a committed cinema buff and into the experimental stuff. But if you want to read Duras, start with The Lover; it’s by far and away her most accessible and engaging novel.

I found I had a new appreciation of The Lover, having read about Duras’s life. But at the same time, that biographical information had entered into my reading of the book and was not about to go away. I felt my responses to it settle down and solidify. You can read a book multiple times and feel differently about it on each occasion, but somehow, once the context of a book’s production informs the reading, it eats into the flexibility of the imagination. I feel myself more tempted now to say ‘Ahhhh, so that’s what it means!’ and yet I am sure this is a fallacious belief. There is no absolute and definitive reading of any book, for we rely on their internal ambiguities to keep us interested over decades and eventually centuries. So am I glad or not to have read the biography? Glad, I think, because it was so interesting. But at the same time, I will have to think carefully about how to moderate its powerful influence on the way I read her novels.


24 thoughts on “To Know Them Is To Love Them

  1. I am sure that I would need to read another biograhy, maybe Laure Adler, to get another picture, a more rounded one. I only read Lebelley. It did put me off. Moderato Cantabile is a beautiful book. Funny enough I never liked The Lover although I read it when it came out, long before any biography… It is probably like when I read Deidre Bair’s biography of Simone de Beauvoir. That put me off as well. Even more so I think.

  2. Barrage contre le Pacifique! That’s it! When I first read you wrote your thesis on Duras, I couldn’t remember which novel put me off her works. I thought it was L’Amant, but no, it was Barrage contre le Pacifique.
    Who was your third author?

  3. This is such a fascinating meditation. I used to avoid biographies of my favorite writers; I was deathly afraid that learning about their flaws would “ruin” their books for me. Now I usually find it reassuring, or at the least thought-provoking, to learn about their lives, and learn that they were human, acted poorly/irrationally/etc. It’s nice to find that my enjoyment of their books is sturdy enough to withstand knowledge of their poor behavior. At the same time, I do empathize with the phenomenon you mention – the “easy out” of reading a novel as purely biographical once you’re familiar with the author’s life. There’s a whole school of Woolf criticism that goes WAY too far in that direction, in my opinion. Just one more place in which to find balance, I suppose, between assimilating the knowledge but still remembering it’s not the be-all & end-all of the art.

  4. Oh, and thanks for the recommendations on French lit! Ndiaye was already on my list for France, and now Darrieussecq has joined her. And I just ordered Ravissement de Lol v. Stein from the Book Depository; looking forward to all these great French-language reads.

  5. I love your description of my discipline being so undisciplined as to be ‘chucking everything into the melting pot of interpretation’. Makes it sound more like rag weekend. Sadly how I would have loved that approach, but it hadn’t evolved during my time, so we were strict text bashers, without even Theory for amusement.
    On your real topic I think you are right to keep the biographical in check. Let loose it can distort and impede. If I wasn’t so nosey I should be totally against it I suppose! What I really don’t like is when the work, which is a thing apart, is denigrated because of the writer’s life, opinions and views. Recently Philip Larkin’s anniversary has provoked a re-emergence of this diatribe about him, but what has that got to do with his visit to and reflections on a visit to a church in one of his poems? Is it a less good poem? {I refer to ‘Church Going’ as it’s well known]. I expect a lot of this will die away when the current critics die away, as it is probably sour grapes over his eminence as opposed to their lack of it. If Shakespeare were a man of his times he would have held many unacceptable [to us] views in life. Lucky the writer we know nothing personal about in that respect.

  6. I really enjoyed your musing here. I’m a big fan of Hemingway and love to read about him as well as to read his work; he’s definitely a dangerous one to start considering from these angles. Thanks for an interesting post. I’m going to go read The Lover.

  7. I love knowing about the authors. Once I’ve made enough of a commitment to pick up a book, especially a novel, I can’t think of a context whereby I would ever not want to know about the person who wrote it.

    It’s like ever hoping to know a plant or a flower without knowing the soil and climate in which it was grown. What the vintners call terroir. Certainly I could (and have) appreciated many flowers and known nothing of the dirt that supported them. But once I’ve taken an interest in a plant, from tomatoes in the garden to the orchids my wife cultivates, learning about the climate and soil it prefers, where and how its species evolved, is a pleasure to me.

    Similarly, authors’ lives and the formative or amusing or startling events that become their highlights are also a pleasure. And I can’t see it detracting from appreciation of the work. Just as I can still hold a blossom up and enjoy it without thinking of its origins. Intrinsically pleasurable, of itself.

  8. I’ve been thinking about the various things that influence our readings of books, including what we have heard about it from other people such as biographers, or bloggers. I’ve enjoyed my experience of reading a couple books recently that I knew nothing about and had no expectations for, and I know the experience would have been different if I had read a plot summary first. It’s not that I don’t want to know things about books beforehand, because often I read a lot about them, but that means I read the book in a different way.

  9. Litlove, this is so interesting. There are many ways to read a book. I don’t think one invalidates another. To read it with knowledge of the writers’ life is another reading. What I mean is that I think of my books as new each time they’re read by another reader who brings her own understanding and ideas to it. So then, if the same reader then comes to the same book differently, that is yet another re-creation. In my mind, that’s a good thing.

  10. Very interesting. I’ve tended to fall back on biographical information as a kind of short-cut for understanding the novel better (or thinking I understand the novel better). But I’m also aware (and more so from reading this post) about the drawbacks of this knowledge. I also like the idea that every reading is somehow different. I’m very aware of how my current mood colours the books I read.

  11. I don’t seem to have this problem with books but I do have it with movies. Once I find out something really disturbing about an actor, usually I never go to see his or her movies again. Yet despite the fact that I would never have wanted to share airspace with T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, that doesn’t impact my assessment of their poetry at all. I have no idea why this is so.

  12. I am far too nosey not to want to know everything I can about someone I find interesting, and I love biography. Creative people can be very fascinating studies.

  13. Very interesting post, LL – as always. Sometimes it is good to have that extra information of an author after reading their works. Generally, I don’t think it’s a good idea to read such things before the works as it very well would muddy up interpretations of them. Rand is one I knew a little about AFTER having read a few of her works. Some things one could easily infer through her works, but the violence of her life experience prior to getting out of the USSR could only be understood through her first and most poorly written (but most emotionally compelling)book: “We the Living”. That book meant more to me after understanding some Russian history circa Lenin and Stalin and also drove me to have more compassion for the author since she lived through some of it [I also had the benefit of not hearing all the bad things about her first, nor the reverential terms her “followers” designated for her before doing so. Don’t read the bios of her, however, as they’re tripe]. Anais Nin is another. Reading “Delta of Venus” I had a reverence for her work. I remember scoffing at the person who said “It’s literature!” until I read it. Now, while picking my way through her diaries I can easily understand how she did what she did. Her insights were brilliant, her awareness – astounding. It adds something to her works as well to know something of her.

    Perhaps, instead of biographies, the bias they espouse, are not at all necessary. Instead we might look for more of the author’s words on themselves, their histories, and simply infer from there. Information is a tricky thing and all it takes is one ambitious person who wants to villify or deify the subject for the whole thing to merely be built to support those ends. Reading something like that is not beneficial to anyone who wants to know facts.

  14. Your post makes me think of Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author, text only and long live the reader. I could never adopt that view though. I like to explore backgrounds, world views, theoretical stance, psychological makeup even. That way I can appreciate an author’s work more. Just like watching films on DVD’s. The special features are my favourite parts: the making of, the commentaries, …etc. even the deleted scenes and the director’s reasons for discarding them. Interesting post and dialogues.

  15. I suppose I think its best to read and read thoroughly an author’s complete works, steering clear of biography or autobiography, to judge the texts for themselves, and then later, if the interest remains, to study the writer’s life and background in relation to the test. This is a completely subjective opinion, but it works best for me. I’m afraid of letting my knowledge of the writer inform my initial reading of a text. I don’t want to know until I’ve dealt with their invented world on its own terms. Then I can step back and see the two (the text and writer) in relationship to one another.

  16. I tend to avoid biographies of fiction authors who I love (and I don’t read any blogs by modern authors), because I like to know them only through their books. I’m afraid I’ll find out something I don’t like about the author herself and then not be able to enjoy her work as much! But I read Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf, and it was such a marvelous book, one that if anything made me appreciate Woolf’s own writing more. So it’s not quite a hard-and-fast rule! But it’s rare for me to seek out a biography of an author, unless I’m interested in their historical times as well, not just their writings. For instance, I’m curious about the new Louisa May Alcott biography because I’m developing an interest in New England, not because I loved Little Women as a girl.

  17. This gave me pause, litlove. I decided last year to take up the experiment of writing my first novel in plain view of a blog audience, warts and all (and there are plenty). I don’t know if it will help me or hurt me. There is something about the magic of anonymity, not knowing the author, so you are willing to believe about them what you want for the story to be real in your own head. You are right. Hmmmm. Thanks for this post.

  18. Caroline – I’m really tempted to think that the fault lies in Deirdre Bair – I read her biography of Anais Nin and could feel Bair’s disdain and dislike of her seeping through the pages. Most disconcerting! I’m sure it’s always a good idea to read a couple of biographies, to really know a subject, but so often only one is available. Completely agree with you about Moderato, but I did love The Lover, too. Probably The Ravissement de Lol V. Stein is my favourite, though.

    Em – just the two authors, Duras and Colette. I have to say I have never read Barrage contre le Pacifique, but I can well imagine that falling on the wrong work of Duras at the wrong moment could put anyone off her. She was fantastic to study and write about, but less of an obvious pleasure read! Em, if you ever come back over these comments, I’d love for you to leave a link to your blog – I can’t follow through on your name and I’d really like to visit.

    Emily – I quite understand – I never read biography to begin with because I was always oriented towards lit crit of the texts and felt it would interfere. It is a difficult balance to pull off, involving the life and its influence, but allowing the books still to stand independent of it. And I am so excited to think of you reading these French authors – can’t wait to hear what you have to say about them!

    Bookboxed – It is amazing what the biographers are digging up about Shakespeare – I have two biographies about him on my shelves, plus Greer’s account of his wife! I am completely in agreement that it’s a real shame when the work is undermined because of the author’s personality – there are pretty unlikeable scientists and economists and archaeologists and mathematicians too, but they seem to get off lighter than those in the arts (always the case!). It’s the anti-semitism or racism that really kills an author these days – give us another 50 years and the no-nos will change again. Oh and I should point out that the English department at Cambridge has rather a lot of pride in its maverick approach and there are probably other departments who still embrace more orthodox methods!

    Pages of Julia – A Movable Feast is the only thing I’ve read of Hemingway – and that I loved. Oh and actually I suppose I did read some of a biography (it was a four-part tome so I never got through it all) because I was so interested in his relationship with his mother. You’re right he is a real classic subject for exploration! Do hope you enjoy The Lover.

    Ombudsben – I do like your analogy to the vintner’s terroir, very nice. I guess when you are writing criticism about a text, the question of whether you let the biographical angle in or not becomes a bit more vexed. Certainly, now I no longer write professionally about books, I am really enjoying being able to plunder biographies (being a very curious sort of person myself!). One thing about writers, they do always seem to have very incident-filled, unusual lives!

    Dorothy – I know just what you mean. It’s really easy for a reading to become contaminated by the reviews you’ve read or recommendations, or worse, other people’s negative opinions. That said, these days I hardly ever seem to read anything innocently – but I’m pretty sure I appreciate it more when I do.

    Lilian – I think every time we read a book we read it differently – life is dynamic and our range of experiences cannot help but change. I suppose my worry is that biography halts that dynamic shift, because instead of tying the reading to our changing subjectivities, we tie it to the sense of the author we’ve got from reading a biography. The life can sometimes explain the work, and thus reduce it. But on the other hand, there’s no absolute necessity for that to happen – anything must be possible, after all!

    Pete – doesn’t it just? Even over the course of reading a book, I can feel my responses and opinions change, depending on mood, context, something I’ve read or heard about the book or its author. I think the problem can arise because so much of fiction is drawn, consciously or unconsciously, from the author’s life, so it can be all too easy to link the two together irrevocably.

  19. Mary – how interesting! I wonder why it should affect you with movies and not books? Perhaps it’s the visual dimension – being able to see the actor brings those real-life associations closer to mind. Intriguing, though.

    Grad – lol! Me, too! I am hugely curious about other people, and I do find authors’ lives in particular to be strange and compelling.

    Anonymous – (I think I know who you are but don’t dare risk it in case I’m wrong!). I do agree that heading towards biography AFTER beginning with the primary works is perhaps the most sensible thing. It’s like not reading too many reviews until you’ve read the book itself – all that sort of information can prejudice and influence. But if you love the work, why not go ahead and find out more about the author – often the stories about the genesis and production of a work of art are every bit as fascinating as the art itself. As for authors and their autobiographies, ah, alas, the one thing authors know how to do is make a good story out of whatever material is available. With the best will in the world they may not be the most reliable witnesses to their own lives. But reading between the lines can work!

    Arti – you are so like my husband – he adores the extras disc in the DVD pack! At the time I was studying in university, that Barthes essay was very influential, and to some extent, when it comes to reading stories in a literary critical sort of way, I still think it’s best to look at them in isolation from biographical material. It’s liberating – you can read them more courageously, I think, more adventurously, without that backstop of knowing what the author wanted to do, or how their own life played into the scenarios. But I am hugely curious about the biographical, so I do love it as a complement to ordinary reading.

    Michelle – I have to say that this is mostly the approach I take (unless for some reason I happen to hear about an author through the biography of someone else and get interested in their work). I like to have my own feelings about the text and then learn more about the life.

    Eva – I have such a yen for group biographies. I read Partisans last year about the group of writers working on The Partisan Review – Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Edmund Wilson, Robert Lowell, et al, and it was wonderful. Hearing about groups and artistic movements is just fascinating, and all the social history that comes with that. So I can quite see you’d make an exception for some cases!

    Melissa – as far as I can see, every author these days is forced along the self-promotion route, told to build a platform by whatever means available. I have never followed a contemporary author I like on twitter or whatever, as I don’t want to spoil the magic of their books by knowing how much they struggled over them! But I do like the blogs that talk about the creative process and the experience of publishing in an informative sort of way. It must be so hard to hit the right note, but it is certainly asked of all authors these days to try.

  20. Hmmm, yes, I can see how Duras would not always be a pleasure read. I must say I much prefer Colette, although I don’t think I have read that many of her books. I definitely read La Chatte and probably a few more when I was younger.
    You can find my blog at

  21. I’m always a little curious about authors and want to know more about them, but I’ve seen on more than one occasion that a biography or memoir will illuminate ugly facts about an author whose work I’ve loved. It seems a little unfair to expect an author to have lived a perfect unblemished life (certainly I don’t and haven’t) yet I want them to be perfect because I admire how they write or what they write about. I’m not sure what the solution is. I suppose I have to be able to separate the two–have read enough of their work to know my appreciation is solid, and be willing to learn a little bit more even if all the details aren’t perfect.

  22. Biography is a tricky thing. Once you know about the author’s life it is hard to not read their biography into the fiction. An author’s life of course has influence on the writing and can and maybe sometimes should color our interpretation, but I think reading solely through the lense of biography is a mistake to avoid. My trouble is I want all my authors to be good people and when I find out they aren’t and sometimes were actually bad, mean, horrible people, I have a hard time wanting to continue to read their work as if I am somehow punishing them for their behavior.

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