Sunday, 10 May 2009

Body Parts: essays on life-writing by Hermione Lee

This is a collection of essays, mainly on the nature of biographical writing but also including some short biographical sketches. Lee discusses the biographer's approach, the relationship of the biography to history and to fiction, and emphasises the need for the biographer to
convey the physical presence of the subject, hence the title. Her essay on Shelley analyses the different descriptions of his cremation, the varying ways in which those present are said to have participated, and the adventures of his heart (or perhaps his liver), removed from his burning corpse by Trelawney. This relic symbolises the need for those who write, or attempt to control, biographies to relate their work to sensual experience, in order to establish a physical connection for the writer and reader with a subject who may be long dead. Her piece on The Hours, both book and film, their relation with the life of Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway, is amusing and trenchant, showing how the film's portrayal can distort the biographical image of Woolf, and questioning whether it matters. There are enlightening essays on Rosamund Lehmann, Penelope Fitzgerald and Jane Austen, although even Lee's entertaining piece on Angela Thirkell hasn't made me want to read Thirkell's work.

The book ends with a fascinating survey on how biographers deal with death. Do you record your subject's death as a simple fact, unrelated to his or her life? Or do you make the death symbolic of the life? Do you make use of the convention of a summary of the life in the closing paragraphs, allowing the subject's life to flash before the reader's eyes? Most biographers cannot simply allow death to happen without further interpretation, without connecting it somehow to the subject; Lee has rarely found it treated as a simple inevitability, although I can think of one or two examples from my reading (Claire Harman's biography of Sylvia Townsend Warner, for example). I think this question relates back to biography's relationship to either fiction or history. In both forms (if indeed they are separate forms) it is hard for events to be random and without significance. Everything, including death, must have meaning that relates to the whole subject.

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