Why do we read literary biographies?

by Emrys Westacott

I have just finished reading Curtis Cate's 2005 biography of Nietzsche. At close to six hundred pages one would expect it to be exhaustive, the kind that is routinely described in the back cover blurb as “definitive.” ImgresAfter all, Nietzsche's life, apart from his thoughts and subjective experiences, was not especially eventful or interesting. Born in 1844, the son of a Protestant pastor in a small German village, he went to an elite boarding school and excelled at university as a student of classical philology. He spent the next decade working as a professor at Basle in Switzerland except for a short period when he served as a medical orderly during the Franco-Prussian war. Plagued by ill health, he resigned his professorship in 1878 and spent another decade as a rather solitary nomad, moving between locations in Switzerland, Germany, France, and Italy, writing a series of books that found few readers at the time but eventually secured him lasting acclaim. In 1889 he suffered an irreversible mental breakdown and spent the rest of his days as a mentally incapacitated invalid until his death in 1900.

Whatever adventure and excitement there was in Nietzsche's life occurred in the realm of the spirit; it concerned the books he read and wrote, the music he listened to and composed, and the conversations he engaged in. This holds true even of his encounters with the two people he befriended who affected him most profoundly: Richard Wagner, whose music he revered yet eventually came to distrust; and Lou Salome, the brilliant young woman to whom he proposed marriage and whom he viewed as a possible disciple before their relationship foundered on reefs of petty envy, disillusionment, and misunderstanding.

So I perhaps shouldn't have been surprised if Cate's biography was less than riveting. If one wants adventure and excitement, one should presumably read about people who actually do stuff–like travel to far off lands, explore continents, suffer shipwrecks, lead revolutions, fight duels, command armies, wield political power–or at least raise a family and hold an interesting variety of jobs. The simple fact is that writers of remarkable books often don't lead especially remarkable lives.

Conclusive proof of this general proposition is provided by Andrew Motion's biography of Philip Larkin. Imgres-1 Motion's method seems to have been to arrange Larkin's poems and correspondence in chronological order and document the mundane happenings that filled up the time between the writing of one poem and the next, occasionally connecting these events to certain verses. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but the result is decidedly plodding. Larkin's life highlights included helping to install a new library at the University of Hull where he worked as the university librarian, a year spent on a fellowship at Oxford compiling an anthology, some messy on-again off-again romantic relationships, regular visits to his mother in Loughborough, and occasional road trips to Scotland. The poems are pearls; the life is the string.

Good biographies will themselves have literary merit, of course, which is one reason to read them. The prose should make vivid the people, places, and times, the events described and how people were affected by them. The author should offer interesting insights into their subject's thoughts, words, deeds, moods, feelings and motivations. And the organization of the material should distinguish between information that is genuinely significant or adds value to the picture being drawn, and trivial details that simply clutter up the canvas.

Cate's account of Nietzsche's life, while it is certainly informative, falls down at times on the second and third counts. For instance, he records what classes Nietzsche taught at Basle, but says virtually nothing about what he was like as a teacher. Nietzsche's frequent insomnia, eye-aches, migraines, vomiting fits and other maladies are logged meticulously, as are the details of his endless travels by train or coach. Yet Cate chooses not to tackle the question of what caused Nietzsche's illnesses and eventual breakdown. Twice, in passing, he mentions the suggestion that Nietzsche contracted syphilis, but he doesn't take up the issue to assess the evidence for and against. Another surprising silence concerns Nietzsche's attitude to women and their attitude to him. One thing that emerges very clearly from Cate's book is the fact that of the few people Nietzsche respected and with whom he had friendly relations in the 1880s, several were emancipated women. These included Mawilda von Meysenbug (author of Memoirs of an Idealist), Meta vov Salis (an advocate of women's suffrage, and the first Swiss woman to earn a Ph.D.), and Helen Zimmern, (who later translated Nietzsche into English). So how did these women respond to the many unpleasant remarks about women, especially the emancipated sort, that occur in Nietzsche's books? And why would he hold such opinions given his friendship with these women. These are obvious and intriguing questions, but here, too, Cate offers no insight.

Yet despite the uneventfulness of the lives described and the sometimes pedestrian quality of the writing, I still found both Cate and Motion compelling reading. The question thus poses itself: why do we like to read about the lives of people who spend much of their sitting in a chair reading, chewing a pencil while staring out of the window, or, when things get really exciting, walking around making occasional jottings in a notebook?

In many cases we become so familiar with the works, and so enamoured of them, that we feel a kind of closeness to the writer. The feeling may be illusory, but it is surely common, especially when the writing speaks to us as a kindred spirit. In the case of Nietzsche it is hard to avoid this feeling, at least if you're a man who considers himself intellectually gifted yet unappreciated–a not uncommon type–since Fritz regularly addresses you as one of his “friends” or “brothers,” implying thereby that you belong among the chosen few who share his lonely depth of soul.

A similar feeling of kinship can be engendered by the simple but unremarkable experience of encountering a literary representation of a familiar experience. Recognition and understanding is proof of attunement, of a common pleasure or, more often, a shared misery. Most of us, one would hope, are rather less Eeyoreish than Larkin, or at least than the persona presented by the poems. But Larkin wouldn't be one of Britain's most popular poets if the bleak thoughts and moods his verses so beautifully captured were not states of mind that normal people are well acquainted with.

Reading about people we feel close to (regardless of how that feeling arises, or whether it is justified) is understandable. After all, we would naturally be interested in anything written about close family and friends. But we also read biographies of writers with whom we may feel no very special emotional affinity but whose works we simply admire. In my case this includes Kant, Wordsworth, and Dickens. One possible reason for our interest in such cases is the hope of discovering an esoteric key to the meaning of the work, or an explanation of the phenomenon we loosely label genius. But this hope is rarely, if ever, fulfilled.

Ultimately, I believe we read about the lives of thinkers and writers who don't do much except think and write because once we have steeped ourselves in the world of words, of mental productions in philosophy and literature, events in this world become just as exciting to us as being captured by pirates or conquering some territory. In fact more so. In this sense we are Hegelians. Quite simply, we view the realm of the spirit as ultimately the most interesting dimension of human history and human existence. It is more real to us. It is more familiar. So to people who dwell in the world of words, a literary biography is always something of mirror. At least we like to think so.