Biography Corner: Here come the Brits (Jane Dunn, Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters; Selena Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham; Charlotte Gordon, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley)

Short takes on three more biographies, this time on British writers.

du_maurier_cover_2495239aJane Dunn, Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters 

The daughters of the theatrical manager and actor Gerald du Maurier (and granddaughters of George du Maurier, author of Trilby), Angela, Daphne, and Jeanne grew up in the shadow of his histrionic personality and a “thundering homophob[ia],” as Nicholas Shakespeare puts it in The Telegraph, which did not deter the sisters from preferring lesbian relationships.  Daphne, author of Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, and other novels, is the subject of the most compelling sections; it was difficult to keep track of the other sisters’ lives and pursuits (painting, travel) when the most interesting parts were about Daphne’s writing.

Back when I first read Rebecca, the most memorable scene was the one where the narrator, “I,” goes into the morning room and lists every kind of stationery possible all ready for writing. Rebecca is a story of love (for a house), of desire (for Rebecca, on the part of “I” and Mrs. Danvers), and of loss; Du Maurier beautifully captures all three.  Based on this biography, you might not want Du Maurier for a friend or family member, but you’re glad she wrote engaging fiction.

Who would be in your “Glad They Wrote but Happy Not to Have Met Them” Hall of Fame?

Here’s a dismissive review from The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/mar/03/daphne-du-maurier-sisters-jane-dunn-review and a more positive one from The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/9899554/Review-Daphne-du-Maurier-and-Her-Sisters-by-Jane-Dunn.html

maughamSelena Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham

Full disclosure: I went through a serious Somerset Maugham period around my senior year in high school and read everything I could find: Of Human Bondage (read several times), Cakes and Ale (ditto, and I didn’t even know that Hardy was supposed to be the basis), The Moon and Sixpence (I did know about Paul Gauguin), The Painted Veil, The Razor’s Edge; much later, I read Liza of Lambeth. I didn’t know until later that Maugham is supposed to be “at the very front row of the second rate,” as he put it.

The “secret lives” part sounds like something the publisher put in to boost sales, but this is a deeply researched biography and an engaging one to read. Maugham’s bisexuality is apparently the “secret” but doesn’t seem to have been terribly secret back in the day, and it seems even less so now. What I hadn’t known about was his successful career as a playwright, his espionage activities, since I’d never read the Ashenden stories, his later travels in the South Seas, and his later life more generally. Along the way Hastings uncovers blackmail payments, possible sexual abuse, and some very frank letters. Maugham seems to have kept a compartmentalized and well-ordered life but then chosen partners that would blow it up with lots of drama–his wife, Syrie, the decorator; and his partner, Gerald Haxton. Here’s David Leavitt’s NYTimes review: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/25/books/review/Leavitt-t.html

To put it in Hollywood terms: if you’re picturing the urbane but kindly Maugham figure portrayed by Herbert Marshall in a couple of movies, you’d be disappointed. Clifton Webb in Laura and just about everything else is much nearer the mark.

outlawsCharlotte Gordon, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

I had the good fortune to hear Charlotte Gordon’s presentation about this book at The Mount in August 2016. A dual biography would seem to be a natural fit for Wollstonecraft and Shelley, yet no one had done it, and the result is a much more satisfying reading of both their lives. Wherever there was trouble, Wollstonecraft traveled into the midst of it (Paris in the 1790s), wrote about it, and made her own way; her daughter, after a daring elopement with Shelley, seems instead to have been dragged all over Europe by him. Despite their (intermittent?) love for one another and her writing of Frankenstein and other novels, one senses her exhaustion by incessant childbearing and child deaths as well as by trying to get Shelley to focus on their family for more than a few minutes at a time.

Gordon’s method is to switch between the Marys in alternating chapters. While generally engaging, it has an effect something like this: “Oh, look at how happy Fanny Imlay seems to be as a child.” Next chapter: “Oh, no.” Do read it, though.

Here’s Christina Nehring’s NYTimes review (click on picture).

Biography Corner: Short Takes on Clancy Sigal’s Black Sunset and Jean Stein’s West of Eden

Now that I’ve consolidated all the CV material here https://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/news.htm, it’s time to post some updates on recent biographies. A lot of academics read mystery novels for fun, but biographies and history are my idea of a good escape read, so here are two that I read  last summer.

Clancy Sigal, Black Sunset 

sigalIt’s a commonplace (and a cliché) to say that Hollywood–and Los Angeles, for that matter–is not what it seems; isn’t that what Joan Didion’s writing has taught us? In Black Sunset, Clancy Sigal gives us a good idea of what it was really like to be an agent back in the 1950s. I was going to say “a brash agent,” but that’s an unnecessary adjective.  Sigal plays the Hollywood game well by day, with lots of lies and what might politely be called testicular fortitude, but he’s also an idealist, a radical, in a blacklist culture. He’s not afraid to tell stories on himself as well as about others, as when his considerable cadre of lady friends find out about one another and stage an ego-withering intervention.  Really, though, he’s a writer and not an agent, and that’s where this book leaves him: ready to write. Sigal died this past summer, but his voice is a living thing. Here’s a sample at LitHub: http://lithub.com/black-sunset-hollywood-sex-lies-glamour-betrayal-and-raging-egos/

westofeden

Jean Stein, West of Eden: An American Place

Jean Stein comes at the myth from a different position; she’s Hollywood royalty, the daughter of Jules Stein of MCA.  Like her book on Warhol muse and protégée Edie Sedgwick, Edie: American Girl (1982), of which I remember only its sense of hovering tragedy, West of Eden is an oral history, this time of places rather than persons. The book is divided into the addresses of five families: the Dohenys, the Warners, Jane Garland, Jennifer Jones, and the Steins. The first section, on the Dohenys, is the most sensational and will seem familiar to anyone who’s read Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep or The High Window, seen There Will Be Blood, or read about the Greystone mansion.  A mysterious shooting (murder or suicide?), a police coverup, a corruption trial–you’ll have to read it for yourself. One fun fact: did you know that the well-known and highly regarded science fiction writer Larry Niven was Doheny’s great-grandson? I didn’t. The other stories range from strange (the Warners) to profoundly disturbing (Jane Garland and mental illness) to deeply sad  (Jennifer Jones and her family). Stein’s chapter is more about the house itself –the parties there, its secret barroom, its ruined pavilion–but also has excerpts from Jules Stein’s unpublished memoir.

Next up: here come the Brits (Jane Dunn, Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters; Selena Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham; Charlotte Gordon, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley)

Elaine Showalter, The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe

Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life

Biography corner: Robert Gottlieb’s Avid Reader and the New Yorker revolt of 1987

gottlieb [Note: like all the “biography corners,” these are informal impressions, not real reviews, so caveat emptor.]

For lunch and breakfast reading this week, I’ve been reading Robert Gottlieb’s Avid Reader: A Life .   I’d been curious about Gottlieb ever since reading Michael Korda’s Another Life: A Memoir of Other People (2000) years ago, a book with great stories about publishing for those who enjoy relaxing by reading that sort of thing (that would be me) and who enjoy Korda’s stories about his life (also me).

anotherlifeIn Another Life, if I remember correctly, Gottlieb bursts on the scene at Simon & Schuster with immense talent, direction, and a love of books, and he (along with Korda) revitalizes the place. He’s a life force or maybe a publishing force, a Superman of books, until he leaves for Knopf in a whirlwind of energy some years later and The New Yorker in the distant future and I don’t know what after that because I haven’t finished Avid Reader yet.

In Avid Reader Gottlieb is much more modest and charming about his accomplishments than he has reason to be, and this is a generous memoir. Gottlieb doesn’t do the name-check-and-thank thing that a lot of memoirists do; he tells the stories of collaborations, things that worked, and a few things that didn’t. (Here’s Paris Review interview.)

Right now I’m in the section where he’s editing The New Yorker, which was a famous contretemps 30 years ago.

abouttown

Ben Yagoda’s About Town, New Yorker book that looks promising.

Editorial aside: There’s a whole cottage industry devoted to memorializing The New Yorker, which you could spend your life reading if you had endless time, which I don’t, so I haven’t. Some are devoted to an ubi sunt lamenting the demise of its excellence, which is sort of like the perennial clickbait about whether SNL is still funny or not, so if you’re interested, those books are out there for you.

Back to 1987. With apologies to Mr. Gottlieb, I’m going to retell this in a nutshell, so put on your padded shoulders sweater, pouf up your hair ’80s style, and follow along.

In 1987, William Shawn, at nearly 80, had been the legendary editor of The New Yorker for a looooong time, with both the magazine and his magic ways (and neuroses) having survived Thomas Wolfe’s infamous attack “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!”  in April 1965.  This was the piece that drew the famously reclusive J. D. Salinger out of hiding to attack the attackers, but that’s another story.

The 1987 story, as reported in an innocent time and place apparently so bereft of news that an editorial shakeup could inspire multiple stories, was that the new owner, S. I. Newhouse, had rudely booted Shawn from his perch and installed a young upstart.

Gottlieb’s version makes more sense and has a more humorous aftermath. This is my version of his version, so any mistakes are mine. The link above gives a different version.

  1. Newhouse meets with Shawn over lunch. Shawn says, “You’d probably prefer that I leave sooner rather than later.” Newhouse, not knowing this is his cue to say, “Of course not! You’re irreplaceable!” gives a quiet fist pump and says “Yes.”
  2. Shawn leaves thinking this is the first step in a process that will leave him in place. Newhouse leaves thinking “we’re done here” and installs Gottlieb.
  3. All or most of the New Yorker writers sign a letter saying that Gottlieb is a cad and a bounder, and that he should not take the job. They send it to him.  Oops, they sent the wrong letter. Would he mind not reading that one but read this one instead? Gottlieb, don’t take the job, and also, you’re a cad and a bounder (paraphrasing).
  4. Gottlieb gets to work.
  5. Lillian Ross, famous New Yorker writer and skewer-er of Hemingway and others, who was also Shawn’s lover and the author of an unpleasant memoir about their affair, Here but Not Here, demands that Gottlieb re-install Shawn at The New Yorker in some capacity, and, when he doesn’t, quits.
  6. Gottlieb hires people like Adam Gopnik, which some old-liners think is a mistake but which I am here to tell you, as a New Yorker reader, was a great decision.
  7. According to Gottlieb:

    “To end the Lillian saga: Some time later someone passed along to me a movie script she had written about a great and noble magazine editor ousted by a coarse mogul and replaced by a clever but brash young book-publishing executive (not an editor, however; a public relations/marketing man.) The heroine–an intrepid young girl reporter–came to the rescue when this poor specimen failed at the job, by convincing the mogul to bring back the great man. And then–this was the beauty part–she married the young publishing guy, who had gone back to where he belonged: marketing.”

The moral of this post, and maybe of this book, could be that we all do this because we believe that reading and writing are at the center of who we are, and maybe a little bit that writing well is the best revenge.

Biography Corner: Unsensationalizing Ted Hughes by Jonathan Bate

Biography Corner: Unsensationalizing Ted Hughes by Jonathan Bate
hughes
As a counterpoint to reading for work, my reading for pleasure tends to be nonfiction on either subjects (British literature), disciplines (history), or time periods close enough to be interesting but with enough distance to provide an escape. In practical terms, these tend to be biographies (John Hay, Jack Kerouac) or popular nonfiction (The Bully Pulpit, Stephen Crane Remembered).

Since these are reading for pleasure, I don’t pretend to have any special insight into the subjects they cover but thought that this blog might be a good place for thoughts about them.

The most recent book is Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life by Jonathan Bate. The press surrounding this book has tended to sensationalize its revelations (go read them if you want to) and has earned the condemnation of Janet Malcolm, whose The Silent Woman on Sylvia Plath and the perils of biography I’ve read several times and who condemns this work and what she calls its superficial readings. Bate has gone on record saying that the Hughes estate’s withdrawal of permission to quote from Hughes’s poetry forced him to cut out huge portions of the manuscript.

baskinWhat struck me about the book, even in this truncated form, isn’t the gossip but its its account of Hughes’s process of poetic creation. I knew something about this (Graves’s The White Goddess, etc.) from a grad class in which we read “The Jaguar” and Crow, but it’s not until the later chapters that Bate speaks powerfully to this. Bate clearly sees Lupercal and to a lesser extent Crow as the highlight of Hughes’s career, with occasional descents after that into vatic self-importance amid some genuinely good poems and a host of public performances (as Poet Laureate and public intellectual) that diluted his gifts.

Despite praise for Hughes’s translations, which were (I looked this up) his poetic reconstructions or renderings from a word-for-word translation created by a fluent speaker of the language (Hughes could speak French but not other languages), Bate sees these as an evasion, too.

Bate sees Hughes as roaring back to life with The Birthday Letters (1998), however. What the chapter on The Birthday Letters reveals is that they were written over the course of years but unpublished due to fears of feminist and other critical backlash. (Feminists and critics in this book are represented pretty much as shrieking harpies and vultures, respectively.)

birthdaylettersBate shows Hughes as constantly on the edge of a more confessional mode–in the early 1970s, for example–but held back by these fears. It’s as though Hughes teeters on the confessional versus vatic/safe imagistic poems precipice and goes with safety but then unleashes his powers in The Birthday Letters. The Birthday Letters frees him, but Hughes expresses the thought that it may be 30 years too late for the electric voltage of the early poet of “The Thought Fox” and “The Jaguar.”

Bate spends chapter 30, “The Sorrows of the Deer,” in explicating both a later volume, Howls and Whispers (509) and a Silvine notebook, likely composed before 1969 (511), called The Sorrows of the Deer. Containing 22 poems, the notebook could, claims Bate, have “expiated both [Hughes’s] grief and his guilt” if published in the 1970s. It’s a chapter about Hughes in elegaic mood, but the meta version is that Bate expresses some sorrow, too, for the poet that he thinks Hughes could have been.

Bate repeatedly compares Hughes to Wordsworth, right down to his use of his vivid journals being similar to the use that William made of his sister Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals. Another notebook, a “Challenge Triplicate Book,” contains a 5,000 word draft of what could have become Hughes’s version of Wordsworth’s The Prelude. Bate reads in detail a poem called “Black Coat: Opus 31,” linking it to Hughes’s life but also demonstrating how its Wordsworthian “spots of time” of grief, memory, and loss recall Wordsworth. Bate says that there are thousands of unpublished pages in the archives and that a whole book could be written on the composition of The Birthday Letters.  Knowing academics, I’m pretty sure there’s probably one in production right now.

I haven’t finished the book yet–two chapters left to go– and can’t say whether Bate has a grand summing-up on Hughes’s career. I’m also not up on the status of Hughes’s literary reputation.

What interests me primarily is this book’s achievement as a literary biography, even in its current form, and a question. Does Bate believe that Hughes has somehow failed the poet that he might have been by refusing to take (in a Frost quotation he uses often) the road less traveled? Is it the biographer’s place to judge the achievement of his or her subject, and, if so, to what extent?