Posts Tagged ‘biography’
November 5, 2014 | by Sam Stephenson
On reimagining what a biography can look like.
In December 2012, I spent several days in Laurel, Mississippi, with my wife, researching her grandmother’s family history and childhood. I also did a lot of thinking about Stella and Blanche DuBois, the sisters who, as imagined by Tennessee Williams in A Streetcar Named Desire, also hailed from Laurel. They would have been roughly the same age as my wife’s grandmother. When we left Laurel, we followed Stella and Blanche’s path down to New Orleans. While in the city, we made several visits to Faulkner House Books in the French Quarter; I’d seen a brick of a book there called Tennessee Williams: Notebooks, edited by Margaret Bradham Thornton, and couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Williams has been on my mind for the nearly two decades I’ve been researching W. Eugene Smith, who declared that the plays of Williams were a major influence on his photojournalism. I thought I knew the names of all the prominent Williams scholars, and I’d heard in 2011 that John Lahr was working on a major biography for Norton. So this huge volume of Williams’s notebooks (it weighs close to four pounds; Lahr’s recently published Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh weighs just over two, by comparison) and its editor were a bit of a mystery. A one-line bio on the jacket flap simply describes Thornton as “a writer and independent scholar,” with no other credentials and no photograph.
The book was puzzling in structure and detail, too. Williams’s handwritten diary entries are transcribed in chronological order on the right side of each spread—on the odd-numbered pages—in a font that couldn’t be larger than eight or nine points. On the left side of each spread are meticulous annotations by Thornton in an even smaller font, maybe six points, that correspond to numbers on the opposite page. The results are parallel tracks of text: one, a series of odd, cryptic personal notes jotted by Williams over the course of his life; the other, 1,090 annotations, occupying equal space, that contextualize Williams’s arcane references many decades later. All told, I later learned, the book contains 265,000 words. Read More »
September 18, 2014 | by Sam Stephenson
Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Irish playwright Seán O’Casey’s death. Sam Stephenson tracks his appearances in W. Eugene Smith’s archive.
On August 15, 1965, W. Eugene Smith was up late, as usual, in his dingy fourth-floor loft in the wholesale flower district, a neighborhood desolate after dark. He was working on the first issue of Sensorium, his new “magazine of photography and other arts of communication,” a hopeful platform free of commercial expectations and pressures. He was editing a submission by the writer E.G. “Red” Valens, whom he had met in 1945 when both were war correspondents in the Pacific. Despite the late hour, Smith decided to give his old friend a call.
Valens’s wife answered the phone just before the fifth ring. She’d been asleep. She gave the phone to her husband. He’d been asleep, too.
“Good morning,” said a groggy Valens.
“You don’t stay up as late as you used to,” joked Smith.
He then apologized for calling so late. Valens wasn’t irritated. He even resisted Smith’s offer to call back at a more reasonable hour.
Thirty-six minutes and nineteen seconds later, the pair said good-bye and hung up. We know this because Smith taped the phone call. When he died in 1978, this clip was among 4,500 hours of recordings he made from roughly 1957 to 1966. Read More »
August 26, 2014 | by Nicole Rudick
Congratulations to Hermione Lee, who has won the 2014 James Tait Black Prize for her biography of the Booker Prize–winning novelist Penelope Fitzgerald. One judge described Lee’s biography as “a masterclass in writing of this type … the perfect marriage of an excellent subject and a biographer working at the very top of her game.”
Lee was at work on the book during her Art of Biography interview last year: in the course of their conversation, Louisa Thomas discovers a blanket-covered box that contains the Fitzgerald family archive. Though Lee denies having set out to be a “woman writer writing about women writers,” she has almost exclusively chosen women authors as her subjects. Still, for a biographer of Woolf, Cather, Wharton, and Bowen, Lee found Fitzgerald to be a special case:
I don’t have a theory about Penelope Fitzgerald. I’m deeply interested in the shape of her life, and I’m fascinated by lateness, late starts. She didn’t start publishing novels until she was sixty, for a variety of reasons. I feel there was a powerful underground river running through her life. She was a brilliant young woman, and everybody thought she was going to be a writer and she was writing away like mad in her teens and early twenties, and she was the editor of a magazine. And then it all went underground. Meanwhile, she’s writing notes in her teaching books, which are a form of apprenticeship, and she’s bringing up her family, and she’s coping with her husband. And then he dies. And then up it comes, this underground river, at the age of sixty, and she writes thirteen books in twenty years. I don’t have a theory about that. Nor do I want to blame anyone. But I want to understand it and show it happening as best as I can.
The complexity of women’s lives is, naturally, at the center of Lee’s interview, and it’s a thread that connects Lee to her subjects intimately. The first woman to hold the Goldsmiths’ Chair and the first woman president of Wolfson College, Oxford, she recalls walking across the grass of New College and thinking of Virginia Woolf, who, in trespassing momentarily on the lawn, was chased off by a beadle. As Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own, “Instinct rather than reason came to my help, he was a Beadle; I was a woman. This was the turf; there was the path. Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me.”
Lee, however, feeling the benefit of the “strenuous labors of my female predecessors,” can stray from the path; she makes a point of walking across the grassy quad, because “I had the right to be there.”
August 19, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
I watched two biopics this weekend. Both had been well reviewed, and both featured bravura lead performances from actors who played, in both cases, bona fide geniuses. You walked out of the movie knowing more about these geniuses’ careers, their achievements, their impact on the world. But both movies were a mess: filled with pacing issues and downward-spiral clichés. Which, I guess, makes a certain kind of sense. Most real lives have third-act problems.
There are exceptions, of course, both in life and in art—you don’t need me to enumerate the pleasures of Lawrence of Arabia. And I am all for a long life well lived. A cradle-to-grave biopic presents certain inevitable challenges, especially if your subject’s death is a peaceful one. And the clumsiness in such films is no crime; most of them don’t do much more than fall into well-trodden, safe paths; after the inevitable narcissistic degradation—the drug-fueled rages, the alienation of faithful retainers—we see the hero, more or less well aged by makeup, making amends, embracing, basking in former glories and the comforts of old age. Sometimes he sings.
But what would happen if, instead of the triumphant reunion, the bygones being bygones, we ended with something along the lines of a Frozen Peas commercial? I’m thinking of the infamous recording of an old, diminished Orson Welles caviling over the script for a 1970 British peas commercial by a company called Findus. It’s a short clip—a mere four or five minutes. But there’s more rage, tragedy, and pathos packed into it—more truth about a life—than in most of the baggy biopics of the last ten years combined.
DIRECTOR: Can you emphasize a bit “in”? “In July.”
WELLES: Why? That doesn’t make any sense. Sorry. There’s no known way of saying an English sentence in which you begin a sentence with “in” and emphasize it. Get me a jury and show me how you can say “in July” and I’ll go down on you. That’s just idiotic, if you’ll forgive me by saying so … That’s just stupid. “In July”? I’d love to know how you emphasize “in” in “in July” ... Impossible! Meaningless!
April 25, 2014 | by Silvana Paternostro
In our Summer 2003 issue, The Paris Review published Silvana Paternostro’s oral biography of Gabriel García Márquez, which she has recently expanded into a book. In celebration of García Márquez’s life, we’re delighted to present the piece online for the first time—this is the last of five excerpts we’ve run this week. Read the complete text here.
ROSE STYRON: Somehow, everyone on Martha’s Vineyard seemed to know that he was coming to visit us. Everyone wanted to meet him. Harvey Weinstein, spotting me in Vineyard Haven, hurried over to say, “Please invite me—he’s my favorite author—I’ll sweep the floors.” President Clinton, whom Gabo admired and hoped to talk with, wanted Chelsea to meet him. We decided a large cocktail gathering on our lawn would be prudent, to be followed by a very small seated dinner so the president and Gabo and our Mexican guests, the Carlos Fuenteses and Bernardo Sepulvedas (he was the former foreign minister), could chat in relative quiet. At dinner Gabo’s goddaughter, our friend Patricia Cepeda, translated ably. Our Vineyard neighbors, the Vernon Jordans and the William Luers, and Hillary Clinton completed the table. We all remember that President Clinton’s sweater sported an Elvis crossword puzzle.
WILLIAM STYRON: Although I wasn’t listening closely, I could tell—I have enough Spanish to know—that Gabo and Carlos were engaging him in a talk about the Cuban embargo. They were both at that time passionate about the embargo. Clinton was resisting this conversation, I presume because his mind was already made up. He wasn’t about to be budged even by people that he admired as much as Gabo. So Bill Luers, sitting closer, seeing Clinton’s eyes glaze over, as an ex-diplomat spoke out firmly enough to change the tone of the conversation from politics in Cuba to literary matters. It changed the entire tone at the table. Someone, Bill Luers or perhaps Clinton, asked everyone at the table to give the name of their favorite novel. Clinton’s eyes lit up rather pleasurably. We had a sort of literary parlor game. I recall that Carlos said his favorite novel was Don Quixote. Gabo said The Count of Monte Cristo, and later described why. He said it was the perfect novel. It was spellbinding, not just a costumed melodrama, really a universal masterpiece. I said Huckleberry Finn just off the top of my head. Finally, Clinton said The Sound and the Fury. Immediately, to everyone’s amazement he began to quote verbatim a long, long passage from the book. It was quite spellbinding to see him do that because he then began to give a little interesting lecture on the power of Faulkner and how much Faulkner had influenced him. He then had this kind of two-way conversation with Gabo, in which Gabo said that without Faulkner he would never have been able to write a single word, that Faulkner was his direct inspiration as a writer when he was just beginning to read world literature in Colombia. He made a pilgrimage to Oxford, Mississippi. I remember him mentioning this to Clinton. So the evening was a great success, though a total failure as far as politics went. Read More »
April 24, 2014 | by Silvana Paternostro
In our Summer 2003 issue, The Paris Review published Silvana Paternostro’s oral biography of Gabriel García Márquez, which she has recently expanded into a book. In celebration of García Márquez’s life, we’re delighted to present the piece online for the first time—this is the fourth of five excerpts. Read the complete text here.
MARÍA LUISA ELÍO: I got a call from Spain about 4 a.m. that Gabo had been awarded the Nobel Prize. I put on a pair of pants and a sweater and left for his house, and there was Mercedes with all the phones off the hook. There was a big sign on the door of their house that said Congratulations. He had these big eyes wide open as if he were hallucinating.
JUANCHO JINETE: Obregon went to visit Gabito in Mexico. The address he had for the house was where rich people live, like Mexican soap stars. The day he went to visit was the day Gabo got the Nobel Prize. So when he got to the address, there were flowers everywhere, and he thought, Oh my! He’s dead!
HECTOR ROJAS HERAZO: When the Nobel came around, Colombia went crazy. Everybody was talking about Gabito. That must’ve changed him. The moment comes that he has to be faithful to the success he has achieved. Read More »