Sunday, May 13, 2007

History and Imagination

I don't normally read much non-fiction but lately I have read two excellent, and very different, biographies: Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn and Claire Tomalin's Jane Austen: A Life.

Writing a biography is a curious mix of the factual and the imaginative and I enjoyed seeing how these two writers balanced those aspects. Jane Austen left little behind other than her novels when she died. She didn't keep a diary and her sister Cassandra destroyed much of their correspondence, particularly the letters that might have contained more 'sensitive' material. Therefore Tomalin has many gaps to fill in Austen's life. One way that she overcomes this is through her meticulous research. She often finds illumination in round-about ways; Jane's cousin Eliza is a prolific letter writer and Tomalin gleans information from here. Also, Tomalin is able make inferences about Austen's life through the information we have about others who were in similar situations. In the end Tomalin's biography is very rich despite the lack of material and she seems to never fall into the trap of using too much creative license. In fact, she is very honest about the process and makes it clear to the reader when she is delving into imaginative recreation. Tomalin refutes the claim that others have famously made that Jane Austen led an uneventful life. Jane Austen might not have had much control of her circumstances in life but she certainly led a very rich inner life and endured her fair share of domestic dramas. Her lively, open-minded nature and a fierce intellect shine through in this biography, confirming what most readers have already worked out from reading her remarkable novels.

Nick Flynn is writing about a subject much closer to home, his own life and the life of his father, however he does face some of the same issues as Tomalin in Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Flynn's father is mostly absent throughout Flynn's life. His father is a troubled man whose chaotic life and alcoholism eventually lead him into homelessness. Father and son's lives intersect when Flynn's father becomes a regular at the homeless shelter where Flynn works. Eventually Flynn establishes some contact with his father and interviews him extensively, however his father is the ultimate unreliable narrator due to his deteriorating mental condition, his alcoholism and his desire to say whatever his audience wants to hear. He tells his son that he has a 'photogenic memory', revealing an interesting truth in his malapropism- he remembers what he wants to remember.

Flynn takes an impressionistic approach to the material, trying to get at the essence of his father's life through some quite imaginative techniques. He chooses to write one chapter as a Beckett-like play script, another as a stream-of-consciousness riff on the language of drinking. While this may sound pretentious, it works amazingly well and by the end of the novel I felt like I understood both Nick and his father, even if the dates and details of their lives were still hazy.

Biography is always going to require a certain amount of imagination. It is impossible to know the innermost thoughts of another person, and the difficulty of this only increases the more time that passes between the subject and the biography. Writers like Claire Tomalin and Nick Flynn acknowledge the role of imagination in their work and it is this honesty and openness that makes what they write more valuable to me than any number of more authoritative-sounding works.

7 comments:

Dorothy W. said...

I enjoyed reading about the Austen biography -- I'm going to head over to Book Mooch to see if I can get a copy ...

meli said...

Nick Flynn sounds cool. I think I have a photogenic memory too. ;)

jess said...

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on Tomalin's biography, Dorothy. I'm sure you'll find it interesting.

Meli, Nick Flynn is definitely cool! I'll be curious to see what he comes up with next. I think he'd write great fiction.

meli said...

Hi Jess, I got tagged for a meme by Eva at A Striped Armchair, and now I'm tagging you! The idea is to list 8 random things about yourself, and then tag 8 more people. The full rules are on my blog. If you don't have time don't worry about it, but it would be fun to see your list!

acquisitionist said...

I'm tagging you for the 'eight things about me' meme. No obligations of course but details are at a recent post at my site.

jess said...

Thanks for the tags Meli and Acquisitionist, but I think I'll have to pass. I've been neglecting my blog lately and have lots of books to write about, so I probably won't get around to a meme.

meli said...

no problem!