The Art of Biography saw four world renowned biographers Richard Holmes, A.N. Wilson, Ray Monk and Andrew Graham Dixon in conversation.

A British author and academic, Richard Holmes, is best known for his biographical studies of major figures of British and French Romanticism. He has written award winning biographies on Coleridge and Shelley.

Andrew Michael Graham-Dixon is a British art historian who has written on the 16th century artist, Carvaggio.

A professor of Philosophy at the University of Southampton, Ray Monk has written award winning biographies of people like Bertrand Russell. His most recent work is based on Robert Oppenheimer’s life.

An English writer and newspaper columnist, A.N. Wilson’s biographies have won many awards. His book on Leo Tolstoy won the Whitbread Award for the best biography of 1988.

The main focus of this session was to explore biography as a work of art and concept, through the eyes of literature enthusiasts and what actually motivates these biographers to pursue this less explored but astounding genre of literature.

The moderator of our session, Peter Godwin, begins by asking our revered panelists on what moves one to spend so much time into the life of another.

“For me the question is can you tell the truth about human life,” Andrew Graham-Dixon says. Good biographies are able to get a grip on what makes a man or woman important and interested. On one hand he writes novels, on the other hand he writes biographies, and somewhere, they intersect, he says.

Agreeing with his contemporary’s point, Ray Monk adds, “I actually got into writing biography through the philosophy of mathematics of all things, because I was studying Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Mathematics, and it occurred to me that one way of correcting some misunderstandings that have been put forward in the literature would be to understand Wittgenstein. It seemed to me that to understand Wittgenstein, the man would lock off certain misunderstandings of his philosophy.”

That is how, Ray Monk says, he got into the process of writing biographies of other people.

Richard Holmes says, “Life is short and I believe we have only one go at it, and therefore it is very special. And to know the life of another is one of the things we’re on Earth for, in my view.” He goes on to speak of how the average life of Homo sapiens is seventy years and we are asleep for twenty of those years. This puts things in perspective for him, he says.

“Terrible things happen to a person as soon as they die,” says Graham Dixon. With the event of their life and their persona exaggerated, becoming almost a caricature of themselves, their lives lose a certain amount of reality, he believes.  “I think the reason that I wrote my book about Caravaggio is that he was given so much stage make-up by those who came after him, and to introduced to him, and who wrote these very peculiar lives of him…I wanted to recover from the real materials of history some sense of his complicatedness as a person…” he says.

“I think the question about the remarkable people we’ve written about is, is there a connection between the day-to-day life and the thing which they became famous for?” A.N. Wilson asks, stunning the audience into silence.

It is Peter Godwin’s cue to enter, and he does so, by asking what are the main difficulties biographers face when writing biographies, and how they approach the subject of their book, the person, on a craft-basis.

“It is possible that some of the most important things in a person’s life are not documented and that’s I think a fear that haunts every biographer, and is present in every biography. I went to great lengths to track down some correspondents between Wittgenstein and some of his friends because I knew it would be interesting…It was like being a private detective or something,” Ray Monk says, as he had to follow every lead possible to ensure he hadn’t missed out on anything. “The biographer is not in complete control of the finished product. The biographer is always subject to and limited by what survives. And that is a big frustration,” Monk adds. 

According to Richards, “Biography is a test, in a way, of a free society. Because, how open are the archives? What are you allowed to write in a biography? Are there any limits?” Biography almost always begins with recording the lives of great men and then great women. It finally moves on to the lives of ordinary men and ordinary women. In short, biography tests the air of democracy.

Graham-Dixon speaks of Richard Holmes’ book, ‘Footsteps’ and how he employed the method of following in someone’s footsteps when he was writing the book on Caravaggio.

“I did follow in his footsteps, and one of the things that I was really struck by doing that, and you wouldn’t get it unless you did do the journey, is the extent to which Caravaggio’s paintings, because Italy is a place that is so steeped in its own history still, Caravaggio’s paintings, evidently are created to a huge degree in response to the places that call them forth. So when Caravaggio’s in Rome, he paints pictures that are redolent of Rome,” he says. Richard paints an intangible yet vivid picture of Caravaggio in our minds, as he gives several examples to illustrate his point.

Peter Godwin asks Ray Monk of his approach to writing a book on Robert Oppenheimer, ‘The Father of the Atomic Bomb’ as Monk was a philosopher.

“Right, I’m not a physicist. And it does seem to me, as a biographer, important to deal with your subject’s work. And therefore I did set myself the ambitious task of understanding Oppenheimer’s physics…” Monk says. He also speaks of the long time it took him to finish the book, because he needed to go back to school to understand Oppenheimer’s work and the history of Quantum Mechanics.

The art of writing biography is a craft, for to write a biography one has to inquire into the life of the subject one wants to chronicle the life of, and assume their life, possess them, and investigate into each facet of that person’s life. The mundane and the insipid are not to be ignored, as they contribute as much to the making of the person, as the interesting and the colourful do.

The best way to conclude this session would be on Ray Monk’s words, “I think what a biography does is, it traces the interplay between what goes in the wider world and what is going in the mind of one subject.”

The Penguin India Blog

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