john aubrey and the art of literary biography

3bc4bfc2-bce9-11e4_1131715hStuart Kelly at the Times Literary Supplement:

It is a curious phenomenon that while fictional narratives of lives have constantly, even aggressively, sought new forms in which the idea of how lived life might be conveyed and understood in prose, literary biography has been stuck, for the most part, with Maria in The Sound Of Music: “Let’s start at the very beginning / A very good place to start”. Even she had to try something more innovative fairly quickly after that. Chronological tied shoelaces aside, there are few biographies that interrogate certain questions which writers of fiction and writers of philosophy have had to confront: is the self a discontinuous phenomenon? Since memory is always reconstructive, what value do we give to any recorded memory, either by the subject or another? – Ulric Neisser’s “Snapshots or Benchmarks?” made this an issue over three decades ago. Likewise, many of the clichés of the Creative Writing Industry – what is your character’s motivation? what’s their backstory? what are they struggling against? – miss the point by a country mile. Fictional characters are held to far lower ethical and philosophical ideals than we shambling actualities.

It is against this background that Ruth Scurr’s extraordinary John Aubrey: My own life shines so brightly. As an experiment in the art of biography, it illuminates both its subject, himself a biographer, and the unquestioned presumptions behind biography itself. Antiquarian, astrologer, scientist, toponymist, playwright, folklorist, educational theorist, hint-keeper, snapper-up of unconsidered trifles, assiduous collector, Aubrey is a figure of frustrating brilliance.

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