Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Novels with Indices

At a holiday dinner party, I was introduced to a woman who had recently seen the new Sandra Bullock movie, The Blind Side. She liked it very much, bubbling, “and it’s a true story!”

Why do movie publicists insist on telling us that their film is “based on a true story”? Because they know that we connect more deeply to true stories. And why is that the case? Because despite the American emphasis on independence and individuality, there’s another, perhaps more sensible part of us that is reassured by the similarity of our loves and struggles. We like to be reminded that we are all in this together; there is a part of us that is inevitably drawn to the chance to see ourselves in others and others in ourselves.

I go to maybe one movie a year, and I read far more nonfiction than fiction, mostly biographies. Contemporary fiction tends to be too formulaic to hold my interest, and I’m at an age when I don’t have time to burn anymore. When I do read fiction, I like to have it aged, like a wine, before I crack it open. But biography is my hands-down genre of choice.

Last month, I discovered a biographical treat in a wonderful Oxford series called “A Very Short Introduction.” Oxford has issued Very Short Introductions since 1995 and now there are over two hundred topics covered in as many volumes. The books are a lovely small size 6 3/4” by 41/2”, soft cover but with front and back flaps, very pleasant to handle. Some of the subjects must have been harder to make into Very Short Introductions than others — Nationalism for example, or Logic or International Migration or Psychiatry. Others, maybe Relativity or Schopenhauer or The World Trade Organization might have provided less of a challenge to the assigned writer.

But it was Biography that I read, written by Hermione Lee, the well-known British biographer of Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton. I bought a copy for myself and one for my brother, who is the genealogist in the family — his occasional essays on family members qualify as biographies in every way . . . which raises the question: “What is a biography?”

Obviously there are many styles of biography — syncophant whitewashed versions, ax-grinding versions, boring versions, wildly Freudian versions. Stepping back from those choices, the biographer must first choose a subject — again, there are many interesting or tedious options. The traditional biography covers a birth-to-death time-frame, but some of the most fascinating ones focus on several people who lived and acted together on a particularly climactic stage.

Ms. Lee quotes John Updike as saying that biographies are just novels with indexes, which nicely sums up the trail-mix of supposition and documentation that every biographer must serve up. The best biographers are continually chewing on the problems of how their subjects define and shape the purpose of their lives, and how they give and find value in those choices. Thinking about these issues in the context of someone else’s life is easier than confronting them in one’s own life, but reading a good biography can give us a helpful nudge in the direction of a more personal application.

Ms. Lee argues that philosophy and biography both try to describe and understand human thought and activity. The narrative of a human life leapfrogs between a person’s thoughts (which we cannot see) and a person’s activities (which we can see). But what is the connection between the two and how is each weighted differently in different people’s lives? In part, that is what the biographer is trying to answer by sifting through letters, pictures, journals, articles, reminiscences, lies and truths about his or her subject.

Each of our lives is a true story, and like all true stories, the characters have the opportunity to grow and change in ways that are sometimes surprising, sometimes predictable. This never-ending combination of strangeness and familiarity is what casts the spell that binds us together.

[Kit Bakke is the author of Miss Alcott's Email; a work of fiction, with an index.]

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