I have been putting off writing this post because I am tired, having ridden my bike for three hours this afternoon and having worked pretty hard. Long hard rides leave me feeling content but wiped out. It’s hard to do much else after them.
But I did have something on my mind to write about, which is that I’m not entirely sure what I think about using biographical information to help interpret the books I’m reading. I’m thinking about this because last night I read the chapter on Virginia Woolf’s novel Night and Day in Julia Briggs’s book Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, and I found myself feeling irritated when I learned about all the real life people that the characters are modeled on. Not that there’s anything wrong with modeling one’s characters on real-life people — in fact, in Hobgoblin’s novel and in the novel of another friend of mine, I have great fun figuring out the real-life people the characters reflect. And there’s nothing wrong with the way Briggs identifies who is who, pointing out, for example, that that a minor character was modeled on Henry James and that while Woolf claims her main character Katherine is based on her sister Vanessa, she bears a great resemblance to Woolf herself. There’s a long list of such correspondences or potential correspondences.
It’s just that as I read the novel I was happy thinking of the characters as simply themselves and not needing any further explanation, and when I read about all the biographical details, I didn’t like the fact that there was a whole other dimension behind the book that I couldn’t know about unless I had access to inside information.
Yes, the book still makes plenty of sense without knowing the background information; that information is there if I want it to add another layer of meaning, and I can ignore it as much as I like too.
Part of what bothers me is the sudden revelation that my understanding of the book is missing a major element, that there are interpretations other people know about that I don’t. Even more so, I don’t like the attitude — not a part of Briggs’s book as far as I can tell but surely the attitude of many a biographer — that biography can be the key to a book, that biographical information trumps other ways of reading. I like to know an author’s biography, but I also believe that the relationship of an author’s life to a piece of writing is only one small piece of a larger picture.
What it comes down to, ultimately, is that I’m not temperamentally suited to be a biographer. I may have some of the qualities a biographer needs — patience, organization, an interest in research, an ability to pay attention to detail (though surely there are plenty of other qualities I’m missing) — but I would also feel that what I was doing was a little beside the point. I’d rather stick with the text itself.
This is a purely personal judgment, however, and I’m grateful to biographers for doing what they do. What do you think — could you write a biography? Would you want to?