In the age of the ghost-written celebrity autobiography (Katie Price a.k.a Jordan, the glamour-model-turned-businesswoman, has no less than three out so far, with a fourth on the horizon), it has become popular to moan that the genre has been pushed to its limit, or perverted into the realm of hagiographical sketches that read like the better-bound pages of gossip magazines.
When post-mortem biographies can now be produced within months (or sometimes even weeks in the case of e-books) of their subjects’ death, it is easy to feel uneasy for the future of the painstakingly researched, fact-heavy, historical tome that aims to resurrect a little-known figure from the grave.
Here to defend the serious biography, on the fourth day of the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival, however, was a panel comprising some of the heavyweights of the genre, who have written on such disparate characters as Graham Greene, the Dalai Lama, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa and Lord Curzon. The authors spoke about the challenge of writing about lives that have already been sketched, the joy of resurrecting obscure figures from history, the sheer weight of the research that sometimes goes into the biography and the difficulty of negotiating interviews with relatives and the subjects themselves, in the case of living subjects.
Wade Davis, a Canadian anthropologist, ethnobotanist, author and photographer, whose biography of George Mallory and the team that climbed Everest took 12 years to research and write, began with the statement in defence of the genre. “People have no idea of the amount of work that goes into the construction of a biography,” Davis said. “I had the idea to write it and got an advance in 1999, and then three months later Mallory’s body was found on Everest and, within a year, there would be ten books out.” His publishers were encouraging, he said, and pursued the project with the assurance that they didn’t want any old biography on Mallory—they wanted one written by him.
“Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac that there is writing and there’s typing… Well, there’s research and there’s Xeroxing, and most (of the other Mallory biographies) had just repeated material that had appeared in other books,” said Davis.
David Gilmour spoke about the research behind his work ,The Last Leopard: A Life of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (2007), as the most exciting part of the process. Sifting through the ruins of Lampedusa’s old home, he said, “I came across letters from his mother, photographs, in one cellar the diary that he’d kept when he was writing The Leopard. Actually finding this and sitting in his house, I knew it wouldn’t happen again.”
In response Pico Iyer—author of a work on Graham Greene, The Man Within My Head (2012), and the Dalai Lama, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (2008)—said he felt like an impostor. “I’m not a real biographer,” he said. “I did no research. For Graham Greene I read all the books that had been written so I knew what had been covered and then I sat in a room and read his books again and again.” With the Dalai Lama, he said, “I’d known him for 30 years before I did the book.”
“People say to be a proper biographer you have to be a conscious enemy of your subject to avoid hagiography,” Davis told the panel, asking Iyer how he managed to keep that in mind while profiling a beloved figure such as the Dalai Lama, who spoke at the festival on Friday.
Iyer responded that he was conscious of the burden of such adulation. “Just saying that is almost to diminish him,” he said. “I’m not a Buddhist, I’m not a monk, I’m the opposite—a journalist. I tried to ask him the most difficult questions… To what extent has Tibet died on his watch, how has he managed to transform celebrity culture without being transformed by it. He said, ‘I wonder if I’ve done enough.’”
Gilmour, who also wrote a biography of Lord Curzon in 1995 and had worked in Lebanon earlier in his career, said he felt better suited to biography than political writing.
“I wasn’t very good at going to Damascus and talking to the Syrian minister of information and saying, ‘I’m not sure I believe what you are saying.’ I was better with documents. When I write about the causes of the Lebanese civil war I think, ‘Well, what do I put in?’ With a biography there’s a beginning and an end. Once you’ve got access, especially if you’re the first person to do so, it’s very satisfying.”
In turns out, the biographer can act as researcher, historian, academic, journalist and in some cases, a repository of knowledge that even his subject has lost, said Davis. He described the lengthy process of writing a biography of his teacher, Richard Evans Schultes, a fellow botanist and a man with a fabulously colourful past. Davis had included imagined dialogue in the book, he said, crafted from scenes he knew to have occurred. As he got older, Schultes began to forget whole periods of his life, and something strange happened.
“He kept the book on his bedside while he was dying and he just read of his life. He’d forgotten all he’d achieved and I had brought his life back to him.” If there’s a better defence of the art of the biography, I don’t know what it is.