NABOKV-L post 0019353, Mon, 8 Feb 2010 14:52:02 -0500

Biographies can be stranger than fiction ...

February 05, 2010


The Written Word: Biographies can be stranger than fiction

Genre shows people’s humanity, goes beyond just simple reporting of the facts
By Jennifer Bastien

At the beginning of his autobiography, “Speak, Memory,” Vladimir Nabokov, best known for his novel “Lolita,” tells an anecdote about one of his father’s friends, a war general, who visits their home and shows young Nabokov a trick using matches.

Fifteen years later, in the middle of World War I, Nabokov’s father is stopped by a man while crossing a bridge. The man, who looks like a peasant, asks him for a light. It turns out to be the same man who had visited their home years before and shown Nabokov the match trick; he has lost everything in the war.

Nabokov concludes the story with, “Those magic (matches) he had shown me had been trifled with and mislaid, and his armies had also vanished, and everything had fallen through. ... The following of such thematic designs through one’s life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography.”

I turn to biography this week after attending a reading and question and answer session with A. Scott Berg, biographer of Max Perkins, Samuel Goldwyn, Katherine Hepburn and more, at the UCLA Hammer Museum on Jan. 19. The event was set up by Mona Simpson, English professor and organizer of the “Some Favorite Writers” reading series at the Hammer Museum.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am currently enrolled in Simpson’s class, “Learning from Chekhov,” and our class attended the reading together. Other than “Speak, Memory” (which I have yet to get through), I’ve never picked up a biography before. I’ve repeatedly stood in the biography section of a bookstore wondering who reads them, specifically the biographies of people I didn’t know existed.

[ ... ]

Maybe biography has the potential to be even more pertinent than the novels and short stories I so admire. Berg had a defense for this too, echoing Nabokov’s objective: “It’s not always as neat as some of the coincidences you find in ‘War and Peace,’ but sometimes it’s even more so, and when it is, it’s thrilling beyond belief. And they do happen. Like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams dying on the same day, on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Any good fiction editor would cross that out – say that’s no good.”

[ ... ]

“Can” here is the key word. A book has the potential to mean everything, but only if we let it. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a biography, a collection of essays or the book so dear to my roommate and me – “How to Marry a Fabulous Man” by Pari Livermore – they all have the potential to change our lives.

Perhaps it will even show up later in life, when I actually am married to a fabulous man.

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