Good Biographer

As long-time readers know, every year around my birthday I indulge my love of the biography genre. This year I lucked into the greatest biographer I ever encountered.

There are two problems biographers tend to experience. The first is the desire to relate every detail they have been able to uncover, which makes even the most fascinating life sound tedious. I once reviewed here on the blog a biography of Somerset Maugham that drove me nuts with the interminable lists of every person the extremely sociable writer ever met. The author of the book pouted over the review but I stand by it. The incapacity to self-edit and organize their material haunts many biographers.

The second problem is that instead of s biography many authors create a hagiography. It’s impossible to write about your subject without falling in love with him or her at least a little. But too often biographers begin to sound like they are writing an authorized biography of Lenin in the 1974 USSR. Their subject sounds so perfect that a reader drowns in pink, sloppy goo of adoration.

Thankfully, Charles Moore, the author of the three-volume Authorized Biography of Margaret Thatcher is nothing like that. He is a genuinely talented author who can write about a minor policy dispute in 1959 in a way that makes you turn over the pages with shaking hands, desperate to find out how things turned out. He’s not overawed by his subject, elegantly taking the piss out of Thatcher whenever the situation warrants it.

Moore is extraordinarily good at organizing his information in a way that keeps you riveted to the page. And riveted I am. I’m walking into walls and forgetting to leave my parked car because I can’t unglue myself from the book.

Crucially, Moore doesn’t insert himself into the narrative. I have absolutely no idea how he feels about any of the political ideas discussed in the book. And that’s a blessing.

2 thoughts on “Good Biographer

  1. I’m sure you’ve answered this but since I can’t find it:

    What do you see as the essential, salient differences between a bildungsroman and an (auto)biography? Why do you love biographies but hate (or are tired of) bildungs?

    Do you think this authorized biography qualifies as a bildung in the first volume?


    1. This is a great question. A really great question because I need to think about the answer.

      An autobiography I’d never read because the author needs an inhuman sense of humor to make it anything but a self-congratulatory, dishonest slobber-fest. Somebody like Clive James could produce a good autobiography. But he’s an extremely unusual sort of person.

      The biography is definitely a Bildungsroman in many ways. Its saving grace, I guess, is that the Bildung part exists not for its own sake but in service of a much larger issue that’s of a huge public interest. In my book on female Bildungsroman I said that the collective Bildungsroman is a lot more interesting than the individual, and I stand by that. On an individual level, once you described a process of a child’s development into an adult once, you’ve described all of them. It’s like changing a diaper. The first time somebody teaches you, it’s fascinating. But after that, it’s rote.

      Great, great question. Maybe my love of biographies does have something to do with the endless frustration of reading a hundred Bildungsromane.


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