Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Woolf, dogged by biographers?

Frances Spalding reviews Julia Briggs biography Virginia Woolf: an inner life. One immediately asks: do we really need another biography of this particular writer? Spalding reckons Briggs' is worthy of a welcome because she tries an unusual method:

Abandoning the conventional from-cradle-to-grave procedure, [Briggs] mentions such rites of passage as birth, education and marriage only in passing. Chronology, too, goes more or less by the board, with the result that Briggs sometimes has to bring us up to date in a rather breathless summary. The focus, as the subtitle reminds us, is on the inner life. Woolf would have approved. She once remarked on how little we know of ourselves, let alone of others: "In spite of all this, people write what they call 'lives' of other people; that is, they collect a number of events and leave the person to whom it happened unknown."

Woolf's point corresponds to my own experience of biographies. For sure, unlike some New Critical ideologues, I don’t have a problem with biography in general, only with the sense of disappointment one almost invariably gets upon finishing them.

Curiously, it’s often by indirection that one gets what one wants from a biography. Somewhere, I read of Kafka running down a flight of stairs because he was late for an appointment. The observer described how his knees jerked upwards and away from his body as he descended. This is an image I retained while all the facts of his life went in one eye and out of the other. And the best overall portrait of the same writer, as I’ve said on many occasions, came in Kafka’s Last Love where the focus is on his last love, Dora Diamant.

Not that such descriptions make Kafka known as such, only that indirection is underrated as a means to such knowledge. Perhaps the moment on the stairs comes from Kafka's public life, so, in addition to Virginia Woolf: an inner life, Julia Briggs needs to writeVirginia Woolf: an outer life and then, if she has time, Virginia Woolf: a shake-it-all-about life.

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