Por­traits from Life: Mod­ernist Nov­el­ists and Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy

THE (Times Higher Education) - - BOOKS - Char­lotte Jones is lec­turer in English lit­er­a­ture at St Hilda’s Col­lege, Ox­ford.

By Jerome Boyd Maun­sell Ox­ford Univer­sity Press 304pp, £20.00 ISBN 9780198789369 Pub­lished 11 Jan­uary 2018

Our fas­ci­na­tion with celebrity cul­ture harks back to the Vic­to­ri­ans. With the pro­lif­er­a­tion of new me­dia – mass­mar­ket news­pa­pers, il­lus­trated pe­ri­od­i­cals, pho­tog­ra­phy – came an ob­ses­sion with the pri­vate lives of the rich and fa­mous. The celebrity au­thor be­came a par­tic­u­lar fo­cus of height­ened con­sumer in­ter­est: by the 1880s sev­eral spe­cial­ist pa­pers fo­cused on “news” as­so­ci­ated with the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try, and se­ries such as Ed­mund Yates’ “Celebrity at Home” in­ter­viewed well­known au­thors re­lax­ing at home or so­cial­is­ing in their lit­er­ary clubs.

“His­to­ri­ans of the fu­ture,” Yates later wrote in his Rec­ol­lec­tions, will es­chew in­tel­lec­tual bi­ogra­phies and in­stead ex­am­ine an au­thor’s “daily life and per­sonal habits…his tricks of post-touch­ing and tead­rink­ing, his gen­eral method of toss­ing and gor­ing all those dif­fer­ing from him in opin­ion”.

It’s against the back­drop of this vo­ra­ciously pruri­ent pub­lic­ity cul­ture that Jerome Boyd Maun­sell sets his study of Modernism and au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. It’s a unique an­gle of ap­proach, fo­cus­ing on the pe­ri­ods when seven ma­jor nov­el­ists – from Henry James, Joseph Con­rad and H. G. Wells to Ford Ma­dox Ford, Edith Whar­ton and Gertrude Stein – sat down to de­pict their own lives in mem­oirs and au­to­bi­ogra­phies; or, rather, to per­form that act of pub­lic reve­la­tion. As Wyn­d­ham Lewis (the fi­nal fig­ure un­der con­sid­er­a­tion here, pic­tured in­set) wrote in a draft pref­ace to his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy Blast­ing and

Bom­bardier­ing, “I am about to gos­sip. I am go­ing to be ex­ceed­ingly ‘per­sonal’ about cer­tain per­sons”, and he placed the blame squarely on his read­ers: “it is be­cause of you that I de­scend to th­ese pic­turesque de­tails” (al­though we don’t get quite as far as learn­ing about how any­one touched their post or took their tea).

Many of the writ­ers gath­ered to­gether in this short, ele­gant book de­lib­er­ately de­vel­oped new forms of life writ­ing, in some in­stances dra­mat­i­cally re­ar­rang­ing events to play with chronol­ogy, mem­ory and iden­tity. Yet if the forms and func­tions of au­to­bi­og­ra­phy changed rad­i­cally at this time, Maun­sell is less con­cerned with ex­per­i­ments in genre or the­ory; this is, he warns us, “an ex­per­i­ment in…group bi­og­ra­phy” rather than a crit­i­cal study.

What Por­traits from Life lacks in dra­matic state­ments, it more than makes up for in sub­tle, unas­sum­ing, de­ci­sive in­sights. Maun­sell is right that lit­er­ary crit­ics are quick to chart artis­tic pro­cesses when it comes to fic­tion, but the writ­ing of rem­i­nis­cences – a task that fre­quently took years, ab­sorb­ing a writer’s cre­ative en­er­gies some­times ob­ses­sively – tended un­til very re­cently “to be pre­sented…as a fait ac­com­pli, as if th­ese books some­how wrote them­selves”. Por­traits from Life “re­con­structs the act of re­mem­brance”, as well as what is be­ing re­mem­bered, and paints a fas­ci­nat­ing tableau of an al­ter­na­tive side to lit­er­ary pro­duc­tion in this pe­riod as a re­sult. It’s strik­ing how of­ten au­to­bi­og­ra­phy was pro­duced out of contingency rather than de­ci­sive retrospection: ur­gent fi­nan­cial need; to es­cape writer’s block; at the urg­ings of a friend or col­lab­o­ra­tor. It’s not just au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal con­tent that is scarred by ab­sences, gaps, miss­ing ev­i­dence – the very process is marked by dis­junc­tion: picked up, put down, put off, end­lessly re­vised.

Lit­er­ary self-por­trai­ture may be an im­pos­si­bil­ity, never quite em­body­ing its sub­ject, but it of­fers us “achingly close sim­u­lacra”, Maun­sell writes – “lives frozen, re­con­fig­ured, re­made”. Gertrude Stein once wrote that bi­og­ra­phy is akin to the de­tec­tive novel: it risks killing its sub­jects, sub­sti­tut­ing them for some­one else. Maun­sell brings his back to life.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.