Lives that really got under the skin
This year, biographers picked up a trick or two from novelists. About time too, says Iona McLaren
There was a time when, barring the odd unreliable memoir or experimental novel, the category of fiction felt clearly distinct from the category of biography. Novels were about imaginary people, and biographies tended to be cradle-to-grave life stories of a formidable length.
Now it’s all muddied up. Novelists have become more like memoirists, writing books narrated by characters who share their name, like Michael Chabon’s Moonglow, or even their life story, as in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autofictional epic series My Struggle. And since most of the cradle-to-grave lives we might conceivably want to read have already been written, biographers need more artful ways to dish up their material – either a new cross-section through a life, or an untried combination of characters. In other words, they’ve been forced to learn a trick or two from the novelists.
To add to the confusion, some of the year’s best memoirs were written by off-duty novelists. Outstanding was
by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton, £12.99), a miraculous little book, the second instalment of her “living autobiography”, in which she picks apart the strange business of ending a marriage and starting a new life at the age of 50, avoiding the script of self-pity laid out for women like her and instead savouring her “walk through the black and bluish darkness” of it all.
Each sentence is exquisite, but not in an insipid way. “To separate from love is to live a risk-free life. What’s the point of that sort of life? [...] I stopped by the fountain, only to find it had been switched off. A sign from the council read, THIS FOUNTAIN HAS BEEN WINTERIZED. I reckoned that is what had happened to me too.” Over the last decade, new books as a rule have become noticeably woollier. Levy’s crispness is a reminder that it doesn’t have to be that way.
More baggy and bitty, but still enjoyable, is by Michael Chabon (Fourth Estate, £10). In these assorted pieces of journalism about parenting, his voice is a pleasure to hear, as he recounts, for instance, how becoming a father made him realise his capacity for damage. When one daughter, aged 14, gets an “out-there” haircut, she asks how it looks. Distracted, he takes a few seconds to click into action. “‘Beautiful,’ I told her, but I knew it was too late: she had a crack in her now, fine as a hair but like all cracks irreversible.”
A surprising disappointment was (Chatto & Windus, £14.99) by the usually excellent Rose Tremain. The early part, nostalgic to the point of fruitiness, records childhood in an Edenic Hampshire, until her cold mother sent her to boarding school, where she was underfed. The trouble is, she overdoes the upper-middleclass self-pity. Of her own mother’s homesickness at boarding school before the war, Tremain writes: “Surely Charles Dickens in his blacking factory can scarcely have been more miserable than my mother was at this young age.”
If only Tremain had waited for Christie Watson’s
(Chatto & Windus, £14.99), the novelist’s memoir of her years as an NHS nurse, and a masterclass in how to count your blessings when really you feel like crying, or Dave Eggers’s rags-toriches tale
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