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Posts Tagged ‘biography’

Solitude & Company, Part 1

April 21, 2014 | by

gabriel-garcia-marquez-007In 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—read the complete text here.

 

At the end of 2000, I spent three months traveling around Latin America—Barranquilla, Cartagena, Bogotá, Mexico City— to interview friends and relatives for an oral biography of Gabriel García Márquez. Autobiography is central to García Márquez's fiction, and I was curious how the people (many of whom make appearances in his work) who knew Gabo as a young man would remember him.

People were generous with their memories—everyone, it seemed, had encountered the Nobel Laureate—and I spent afternoons listening to stories. In Barranquilla, I talked with García Márquez's neighbors from Aracataca (the model for Macondo, the town in One Hundred Years of Solitude), where he was born and lived with his grandparents for several years; and with his friends from Sucre (the place where the murder in Chronicle of a Death Foretold took place), where he moved when he was thirteen to live with his parents.

Rafael Ulloa, a distant relative of García Márquez, showed up unexpectedly one afternoon, with a folder full of clipped newspaper stories under his arm, and insisted on giving me his only copy of the special supplement that El Heraldo (the newspaper where García Márquez worked in Barranquilla, writing a column that paid so poorly the only place he could afford to rent was a room in a brothel) had published when Garda Marquez received the Nobel Prize in 1982.

Another afternoon, Juancho Jinete brought along Enrique Scopell, and over the next two hours, and two bottles of scotch, they revived the rowdy group of young writers, artists, and journalists who befriended García Márquez when he arrived in Barranquilla in 1950: Alejandro Obregón; Álvaro Cepeda; Germán Vargas; Alfonso Fuenmayor; and Alfonso’s father, José Félix. García Márquez used to show them early drafts of One Hundred Years at Japi, a bar where, as one of them told me, Faulkner, had he lived in Barranquilla, would have gone drinking. García Márquez has said they were the first and last friends he’s had. A writer’s solitude should always have this kind of company. Read More »

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New Candor

April 10, 2014 | by

Rebecca Mead, Jill Lepore, and a new direction for biography.

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A portrait of George Eliot by Frederick William Burton, 1864.

Feminism, Paula Backscheider explains in Reflections on Biography, transformed the study of history. “The arresting power of women’s deepest feelings, their comments about their own bodies, and the stark force of their drive to work” are part of the new candor, she says. And there are new things to consider: “How do you do justice to boundary-breaking acts, such as learning to read, or, as with [George] Eliot, not marrying?”

It was thanks to feminism that the relationship between biographer and subject took on a new life—for women to tell other women’s stories, they had to find ways to reconstruct those women’s lives. Ordinary women and their domestic lives became respectable subjects. Their diaries, letters, photographs, and other records could be taken seriously as evidence. Minor details, even in non-events, nuance the undertaking.

Reading Rebecca Mead’s intimate and scholarly My Life in Middlemarch, her memoir about George Eliot’s masterpiece, got me thinking about this shift in biography. What is it that compels one woman to explore the work and personality of another, often with centuries between us—and what are we trying to say? Read More »

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Nails by Ray Bradbury, and Other News

March 31, 2014 | by

burned paper

Photo via Jezebel/Imgur

  • Discovered in Harvard’s library: three books bound in human flesh. (“One book deals with medieval law, another Roman poetry and the other French philosophy.”)
  • One of the perennial dangers of interviewing writers is that they may turn the experience into a short story, with you in it. “Updike had transcribed—verbatim—their exchanges, beginning with the helpful suggestion that the interviewee drive while the interviewer take notes, and extending to trivial back-and-forth unrelated to the matter at hand.”
  • The estate of Ted Hughes has ceased to cooperate with his latest biographer, barring access to Hughes’s archives. “The estate was insistent I should write a ‘literary life,’ not a ‘biography.’”
  • Writing advice from James Merrill: “You hardly ever need to state your feelings. The point is to feel and keep the eyes open. Then what you feel is expressed, is mimed back at you by the scene. A room, a landscape.”
  • Go on. Give your fingernails that sexy, on-trend Fahrenheit 451 look. You deserve it.

 

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The Sicilian Defense

January 10, 2014 | by

Photo: Martin Lopatka, via Flickr.

Photo: Martin Lopatka, via Flickr

Dear Mr. Ross,

Thank you for sharing with us your review of Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Roth Unbound. The piece is colorful and sharp, and it is with regret that we say it does not suit our needs at this time.

Too much of the writing reflects back to the writer himself—to you yourself. (And, inexplicably, to your father.) While we certainly don’t mind personal inflection, and even tolerate the insertion of an occasional “I,” a review must be grounded more firmly in the subject or book under consideration. (And less so in the reviewer’s father.)

Critiques such as yours are redolent of ego. We say this not as admonishment, but as something of which you may want to be aware as you continue what looks to be a promising writing career. We wish you the best of luck in placing this piece elsewhere, and will be happy to consider your queries in the future.

Sincerely,
The Editors
The New York Review of Books

The difficulties began when I attempted to write, for The New York Review of Books, a review of Claudia Roth Pierpont’s critical biography of Philip Roth. My intention was simple: to demonstrate that I appreciated Roth’s work with a higher degree of sophistication than Pierpont. But articulating my Sophisticated Appreciation was tough to do. At first this didn’t bother me—an inability to articulate one’s Sophisticated Appreciation, I reasoned, may itself be proof of how complex and nuanced that appreciation is.

I’d been invited to submit to NYRB based on the success of an essay I’d written about Philip Roth for The New Yorker’s Web site. (An NYRB editor had e-mailed me to commend its “substantial humorousness,” and asked me to pitch an idea his way.) I wanted badly to be published in NYRB. I had some friends who’d been published in NYRB, and I was jealous of them. Moreover, my father is an avid NYRB reader—“It’s so wonderfully stuffy,” is his line; “the official periodical of leather armchairs and lowballs of Scotch”—and placing an essay in its pages, I believed, would recompense him for having twice paid my tuition to the universities where I’d learned to appreciate things sophisticatedly. (He would be pleased, too, to learn that I’d written something that wasn’t about him, as opposed to everything else I’d published—excepting the Roth piece—since finishing graduate school.)

NYRB’s editors expected six thousand words from my desk. Yet for several days I was too nervous to begin. More than anything else, the review would need to establish for NYRB’s readership how intelligent I was—establishing the writer’s intelligence seemed the purpose of most NYRB reviews, and I have always liked to fit neatly into prevailing systems. If it didn’t prove my intelligence, though, my review could only prove my lack thereof, and nothing was more terrifying to me than the idea of being exposed as intellectually inadequate. Read More »

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Many Happy Returns, Penelope Fitzgerald

December 17, 2013 | by

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Image via the Guardian.

“Everyone in Penelope Fitzgerald’s family called her Mops, no one ever called her Penelope unless they met her later in life. And she didn’t like the name Penelope. But it would seem very peculiar for me to call her Mops all the way through.” —Hermione Lee, the Art of Biography No. 4

 

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Don’t You Forget About Me

August 6, 2013 | by

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Some people revere Jean-Luc Godard, others obsess over finding subliminal messages in the films of Stanley Kubrick. Much as I love the work of these masters, the filmmaker whose work I tend to think the most about is John Hughes. From the iconic films he both wrote and directed (The Breakfast Club, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles) to those he wrote and produced (Home Alone) the movies Hughes helped create between 1984 and 1991 are all classics in my eyes. (Even I will admit that after that his work gets really iffy: 101 Dalmatians, anybody?) I grew up laughing at his films, and when I eventually found myself homesick for the Chicagoland area I knew growing up, I’d revisit the copies of his films that I still watch on a monthly basis. Eventually I’d come to the realization that while David Kamp rightfully called Hughes the “Sweet Bard of Youth” in his 2010 Vanity Fair piece on the late director, I came to realize—thanks in large part to the distance between me and the place where I grew up—that Hughes was something even more; that he was to Chicago and its northern suburbs what Woody Allen was to Manhattan in the seventies and eighties. He made being from those bland suburbs seem more interesting than I recalled.

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