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.

Read more »