Biography is “the least like life” of any of the arts, says Craig Brown in The TLS. A comprehensive one would “last as long as its subject’s life”. John Richardson published his first Pablo Picasso biography in 1991; by the end of volume three he was 83 and Picasso only 50. Richardson died aged 95, with “Picasso still going strong”. But such heavy detail can blot out the subject. Beatles biographer Mark Lewisohn banged on about trivialities like George Harrison’s first car – a “second-hand, two-door blue Ford Anglia 105E Deluxe, bought by George from Brian Epstein’s friend Terry Doran” – over 1,698 pages. Just say “a Ford Anglia”.
Biographers have bigger challenges. In most cases, their subject’s head is “a closed book”. Robert Lacey’s biography of the Queen describes her state of mind after Princess Diana’s death. Was he “crouching in her brain, like one of the Numskull cartoon characters”? First-hand accounts are hardly more reliable, thanks to the slippery nature of both memory and biographers. As Peter Ackroyd once said, “Fiction requires truth-telling, whereas in a biography one can make things up.”
To be entirely fresh, each new biography must create a template of its own. To break into Oscar Wilde’s inner world, biographer Thomas Wright set about reading all 2,000 books in Wilde’s library. A number were torn, testament to Wilde’s eccentric habit of “tearing off the top corner of a page as he read it, rolling the paper into a ball and then popping it into his mouth”. Another was jam stained, and Wright laughed to imagine Wilde clutching his toast. That’s more like it. The tidily chronological cradle-to-grave biography, however dutifully rendered, is just “a sort of magnified CV”.
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