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Posts Tagged ‘biography’

Edward Lear’s Cat

October 29, 2012 | by

He has many friends, lay men and clerical, 
Old Foss is the name of his cat; 
His body is perfectly spherical,
He weareth a runcible hat.


Two thousand twelve marks Edward Lear’s bicentenary year. The author is known for many things: his nonsense verse, his nature art, his letters. If you’ve spent any time with the letters—and if you have, you know they’re utterly delightful—you are familiar with Lear’s faithful feline companion, Foss. A regular presence, both in word and sketch, Foss, who was adopted by the Lear family as a tabby kitten in 1873, was one of the constants in the author’s life.

As we know from Lear’s numerous illustrations, Foss had only half a tail: legend has it, a servant chopped it off, in the superstitious belief that this would keep him from straying.Read More »

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After Patricia

December 29, 2011 | by

We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2011 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

Had Patricia Highsmith and I become partners in crime?

Let’s be honest.

I rue the day I didn’t have my late stepmother whacked.

I’d rather eat dirt than talk to my larcenous cousins.

I haven’t forgiven my father for disinheriting me.

I don’t like families.

Patricia Highsmith (1921–95), America’s great expatriate noir novelist (and the subject of my biography, The Talented Miss Highsmith), didn’t like families either. Among twentieth-century writers, only André Gide has more damaging things to say about blood ties than Miss Highsmith does, and Gide is a little more succinct: “Familles, je vous haïs!” But even the Great Counterfeiter himself never went as far as she did on the subject.

Sitting in the second-floor study of her stone farmhouse in the village of Moncourt, France, her body hunched in front of her scrolled, roll-top desk like a snail confronting its shell, the fifty-one-year-old Patricia Highsmith picked up her favorite Parker fountain pen on a summer’s day in 1972 and confided her feelings about families to her notebook:

One situation—one alone, could drive me to murder: family life, togetherness.

A year and a half later, Highsmith was circling her wagons again around the same thought by way of a nice, organizing little list. Like almost everything she turned her hand to her, her list—“Little Crimes for Little Tots1,” she called it—has murder on its mind, focuses on a house and its close environs, mentions a mother in a cameo role, and is highly practical in a thoroughly subversive way. It’s also vintage Highsmith: the writer who entertained homicidal feelings for her stepfather since grade school looks at six-year-olds and sees only the killers inside them.

Still, in spite of our shared opinion of family life, in spite of my growing admiration for the extremity of her writing voice (here she is as a coed: “Obsessions are the only things that matter. Perversion interests me most and is my guiding darkness”), in spite of the fact that she had the most fascinatingly complicated psychology I’d ever kept company with—living and writing in Highsmith’s cone of watchful darkness was giving me plenty of trouble, harrowing my feelings and upending my sense of myself.

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Annotations

  1. Little Crimes for Little Tots or things small children can do around the house, such as:

    1) Tying string across top of stairs so adults will trip.
    2) Replacing roller skate on stairs, once mother has removed it.
    3) Setting careful fires, so that someone else will get the blame if possible.
    4) Rearranging pills in medicine cabinets; sleeping pills into aspirin bottle. Pink laxative pills into antibiotic bottle which is kept in fridge.
    5) Rat powder or flea powder into flour jar in kitchen.
    6) Saw through supports of attic trap door, so that anyone walking on closed trap will fall through to stairs.
    7) In summer: fix magnifying glass to focus on dry leaves, or preferably oily rags somewhere. Fire may be attributed to spontaneous combustion.
    8) Investigate anti-mildew products in gardening shed. Colorless poison added to gin bottle.

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The Angel of Forgetfulness

August 1, 2011 | by

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was first published fifty years ago this fall. Heller’s biographer, Tracy Daugherty, marks the occasion with a consideration of the author’s legacy.

Joseph Heller in Rome, summer 1966. Courtesy Erica Heller.

In the early 1970s, during the period he was writing his second novel, Something Happened, Joseph Heller, approaching his fifties, fretted about his health. He was shocked by how bloated he looked in mirrors. The double chins in his publicity photos bothered him. He began working out regularly at a YMCA in the sixties on Broadway in Manhattan, running four miles a day on a small track there. “The Angel of Death is in the gym today,” said the Y’s patrons every so often. Not infrequently, ambulance crews showed up to cart away, on a stretcher, an elderly man in a T-shirt and shorts who had collapsed while running or doing chin-ups.

While exercising, Heller avoided meeting anyone’s eyes. He pursued his laps with grim seriousness. He worried about the slightest ache or twinge—in his lower back, bladder, calves, the tendons of his ankles, or bottoms of his feet. Sometimes, faint vertical pains shot through his chest and up through his collarbone. This was a hell of a way to try to feel better.

In this melancholy spirit (stretching, rolling his arms to ease the needling pains), he squirreled away portions of Something Happened in a locker at the Y, in case fire ran through his apartment or his writing studio, or he keeled over one day.

In the spring of 1974—a fit fifty-one-year-old—he completed the manuscript to his satisfaction and decided to copy it for his agent. He took his teenage daughter, Erica, with him to the copy shop. “I figured if a car hit me, if I got mugged, or if I dropped dead of a heart attack, the manuscript might still be saved,” he later told Erica. Read More »

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The Subject Talks Back

July 7, 2011 | by

Maryam Jameelah, the subject of Baker’s biography The Convert.

Anyone who has ever written about a living person knows the wait. Sometimes you receive a laundry list of grievances. Sometimes word trickles back of rage and feelings of betrayal. There might be a letter from a law firm or simply a punishing silence. When all is said and done, the person you have written about has a kind of hold over your work that a reviewer can only dream of. I’d nearly given up waiting when there it was, wedged between the water bill and a bank statement, an airmail envelope addressed to me. Familiar handwriting, familiar return address in Lahore, Pakistan.

My first book was a biography of an obscure American poet born in 1901. When I approached her in 1989, she was living as a recluse in a Florida citrus grove. Fifty years before, she had not merely renounced her own poetry but everybody else’s as well. Through an intermediary, she conveyed to me that I should write a sample chapter (she assigned the topic). If it met with her approval, we would work together on her biography. She could use a secretary, she said.

But before I could reply, she fell ill. When she heard I had proceeded without her, she wrote me angrily, calling me “sluttish.” Her minions sent me lengthy poison-pen missives, dissecting my character. She never read a word of what I’d written. The day after I sent the final manuscript to the publisher, she had a heart attack, as if my book and her life were paired like Siamese twins and I had killed her by finishing it. This is the kind of magical thinking that binds the biographer to her subject.

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Douglas Coupland on Marshall McLuhan

February 1, 2011 | by

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980).

Douglas Coupland is the author of Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, a pithy biography of the Canadian professor and communication theorist. McLuhan, who was born in 1911, is perhaps best known for coining the phrase “the medium is the message” and for anticipating the Internet decades before its arrival. Earlier this month, Coupland answered a few questions about his work as a biographer and what drew him to McLuhan.

You used an unconventional form for your biography of Marshall McLuhan such as MapQuest, an autism assessment test, use of Wikipedia as a source.

I did.

Was this innovative method a deliberate reference to McLuhan’s own idiosyncrasies? Or is it the reflection of a personal quirk?

Since starting the project I’ve felt like an unwitting manifestation of McLuhan’s beliefs about the effects of media: born 1961, TV child, Photoshop user, and so on. Having said that, I think I started the book at the crisis point in the history of biographies, and it’s a happy coincidence it happened to be Marshall.

Crisis point?

Twofold. First, if I want to know about Marshall or anyone, I can YouTube them, hear their voice, see them in action, read capsule biographies and dissertations on them—you name it. You can get a subjective and highly factual dossier on most anyone in the public realm almost instantly. It’s why publishers don’t worry about author photos any more; people just google a person and get on with things. Second, we’ve obviously entered the age of near total medicalization of personality. To write a biography of anyone, let alone someone so neuroconnectively fascinating as Marshall, seems like a gross abnegation of duty to truth. The biography has begun to morph into the pathography. Note: Marshall McLuhan’s left cerebral cortex was vascularized in a way only ever before seen in mammals in cats. He wasn’t just different; he was very different.

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Writers Obsessed with Writers; Fancy Magazines

January 28, 2011 | by

I love books, like Nicholson Baker’s U & I and Ian Hamilton’s In Search of J. D. Salinger, that are as much explorations of one writer’s obsession with another as the critical studies or biographies they purport to be. Can you recommend anything else in this vein? —Anonymous

Can I ever! First, if you haven’t read it yet, get hold of Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence. A sample:

Looking back it seems, on the one hand, hard to believe that I could have wasted so much time, could have exhausted myself so utterly, wondering when I was going to begin my study of D. H. Lawrence; on the other, it seems equally hard to believe that I ever started it, for the prospect of embarking on this study of Lawrence accelerated and intensified the psychological disarray it was meant to delay and alleviate.
That is sentence one. Things go, hysterically, downhill from there. Read More »

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