None so brave as a Greer bi­og­ra­pher

A new Life risks the wrath of the con­tro­ver­sial fem­i­nist – but it wasn’t re­ally worth it, finds Anna Leszkiewicz

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - BOOKS -


480pp, Scribe, £20, ebook £13.57

it­er­ary bi­og­ra­phy has al­ways up­set its sub­jects. Ge­orge Eliot de­clared bi­og­ra­phy the great “dis­ease of English lit­er­a­ture”. Al­fred Ten­nyson re­port­edly called bi­og­ra­phers “car­rion vul­tures”, and said the form treated great men “like pigs to be ripped open for the pub­lic”, while Os­car Wilde named them “the mere bodys­natch­ers of lit­er­a­ture”. But per­haps none has been so ex­treme in their vi­o­lent metaphors as the se­cond-wave fem­i­nist Ger­maine Greer, who in 1986 pro­claimed bi­og­ra­phy a form of “rape… an un­par­don­able crime against self-hood”.

In 1994, she also called bi­og­ra­phers of liv­ing sub­jects “the in­tel­lec­tual equiv­a­lents of the flesh-eat­ing bac­terium”: the ef­fects of the bac­terium’s “in­eluctable ac­tiv­i­ties” in­clude “toxic shock, paral­y­sis and death”. Re­fer­ring to her own bi­og­ra­pher Chris­tine Wal­lace, Greer wrote: “I no more want to clap eyes on this in­di­vid­ual than I want to study a slide of my in­testi­nal flora […] No­body ac­tu­ally wants to sit down and have an hour’s con­ver­sa­tion with a tape­worm – but tape­worms have dif­fi­culty fig­ur­ing this out.”

This is the poi­sonous en­vi­ron­ment the aca­demic El­iz­a­beth Klein­henz wades into with her new book, Ger­maine. After the bile spat at Wal­lace, it’s a sur­prise that any­one vol­un­teered to write a se­cond bi­og­ra­phy. What’s more star­tling is that the book should turn out to be so anaemic.

Ger­maine Greer has long been a con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure: her ca­reerdefin­ing 1970 fem­i­nist text, The Fe­male Eunuch, was mocked by op­po­nents of “women’s lib” and cri­tiqued by other prom­i­nent fem­i­nists, but adored by thou­sands of read­ers. In the decades since its pub­li­ca­tion, Greer has been seen by some as a dar­ing last voice of a dis­missed gen­er­a­tion of fem­i­nists, and by oth­ers as a con­tro­versy-court­ing rent-a-gob, rag­ing bigot, and failed Celebrity Big Brother con­tes­tant.

Klein­henz does rat­tle through po­ten­tially shock­ing anec­dotes: Greer’s one-night stand with film­maker Fed­erico Fellini, her de­ci­sion to pose naked, bar­ing “anus, vagina and face”, feuds with fam­ily and friends too nu­mer­ous

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