Monday, June 03, 2013

Concerning History, Biography, and Richard Holmes

I've probably mentioned Richard Holmes on this blog more than any other writer except possibly Dorothy Dunnett. His Age of Wonder was magnificent, and pretty crucial to me forming a specific interest in the Enlightenment, and also pretty crucial to my novel, in an indirect but also direct way, not to be vague or anything.

Richard Holmes is not really an historian, as you might think from reading that book. He's a biographer, which, I've come to realize, is really an art of its own, and a calling. For him, at least. He has the ability to invest himself so deeply in the past that he once bounced a check because he dated it 1772. One time he got so involved in a biographical subject's insanity that he nearly went nuts himself. He's a method biographer, so to speak.

(It is my duty to point out that going nuts when writing anything long is simply the nature of writing anything long, but it really doesn't help if you're writing about your subject's irreversible descent into madness and subsequent suicide.)

(Further aside: the subject in question was Gerard de Nerval, who sometimes went for a walk with a lobster on a leash. He was quoted by a friend as saying this: "Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog? Or a cat, or a gazelle, or a lion, or any other animal that one chooses to take for a walk? I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. They know the secrets of the sea, they don't bark, and they don't gnaw upon one's monadic privacy like dogs do. And Goethe had an aversion to dogs, and he wasn't mad." While I agree, that does not mean Nerval wasn't mad. He was.)

But back to my story. Over the past week and a half, I read one of Holmes's rather old books, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. When I say "old" I mean it was published in 1982, which means I just unintentionally made an ageist crack about myself. Well, some mornings are better than others. Point is, this book was so good kept my attention on an airplane, which usually requires something light like a mystery novel. True story: I always think I'm going to die on airplanes (it's a part of flying that I have learned to accept), and one time before a flight I checked out a book called Death of a Minor Character because I thought it would be amusing if I died in a plane crash reading that book. Worth it! Someday when I do die, please look at what I have checked out from the library because it might be funny. Checking out that book merely for its title was a stroke of luck, actually, because it turned out I really liked it, and went on to read more by the same author, including one of the single most frightening books I have ever read in my life, which just goes to show that there are a lot of really good books that deserve to be read that are probably being discarded by libraries because no one is checking them out. Which implies that there are also a lot of seriously underrated authors, because fame begets fame even when people have stopped deserving it MICHAEL CHABON GET IT TOGETHER but I would never name names.

Anyway, Richard Holmes seems to have been born to biograph, as it were, and I was as fascinated by his take on biography as I was by the people he covered in this book (R. L. Stevenson's twelve-day trek through the French countryside, Mary Wollstonecraft in during the French Revolution, Shelley and the origin of his mysterious "Napoleonic charge," and of course the unfortunate Nerval -- in case you wanted to know). In fact, this entire post has been in aid of setting up this quote from the book. Holmes has been talking about making friends in Paris and finding an identity apart from the identities of the people he's been writing about:

"It taught me at least two things. First, that the past is not simply "out there", an objective history to be researched or forgotten, at will; but that it lives most vividly in all of us, deep inside, and needs constantly to be given expression and interpretation. And second, that the lives of great artists and poets and writers are not, after all, so extraordinary by comparison with everyone else. Once known, in any detail and any scope, every life is something extraordinary, full of particular drama and tension and surprise, often containing unimagined degrees of suffering or heroism, and invariably touching extreme moments of triumph and despair, though frequently unexpressed. The difference lies in the extent to which one is eventually recorded, and the other is eventually forgotten."

This is what I love about Richard Holmes: how he offers up these often obscure histories unabashed, convinced of their importance, with every expectation that they will be met with like-minded interest simply because they deserve to be; and how his biographies take into account the reality of how complex it is to be alive and always has been. I rarely catch him condescending to his subjects, as if they were quaint relics of bygone times; if anything, in this book, he over-identifies with them, taking their struggles almost too much to heart. I was worried for the young Richard Holmes as he literally followed Stevenson's footsteps through France -- that he wouldn't find the personal connection with Stevenson that he was looking for and would be so disappointed he'd throw himself off a bridge or something. But it's through biography that he eventually made the connection, between himself and Stevenson, and Stevenson and me, and me and him. And that, it seems to me, is how you make history live: by investing yourself in it and then sharing the dividends. Holmes is a master at this (and so, for that matter, is Dorothy Dunnett).

One last note: if you ever want someone to write a biography about you, leave a paper trail. It is apparently a grievous disappointment to your biographers if you don't write letters. Please feel free to address them to me. I'll keep them safe in the vegetable drawer of my fridge. As a side benefit, this will also save the United States Postal Service.