Lives that re­ally got un­der the skin

This year, bi­og­ra­phers picked up a trick or two from nov­el­ists. About time too, says Iona McLaren

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - CONTENTS -

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

Liv­ing The Cost of Rosie of Kind­ness Pops The Lan­guage The Monk of Mokha

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