Posts Tagged ‘graham greene’

On Reading Literary Biographies

March 16, 2013 2 comments


I have a thing about fiction: I hate reading books over a certain length (about 300 pages). My optimum novel is probably 220 pages in length (Exhibit A: Toby’s Room by Pat Barker) and it’s no coincidence that I try to write novels of a similar length too. But there is a type of book where bigger is better, for me at least, and that is the literary biography. I only read biographies of writers and only if I respect them for their work, and I generally read bios as part of a ‘general immersion’ in writers I especially like. Put bluntly, I binge on great writers and their biographies are often a heavy though satisfying side dish. There’s nothing I enjoy more than curling up in bed with an overweight biography – like the 500+ page tome on Raymond Carver I’m currently reading. Why?

I guess literary biographies are a way of communing with (mostly) dead writers, of exploring their zeitgeist, of absorbing the lessons of their life. Writers’ lives are often chaotic, the morality of their actions very frequently questionable, their behaviour often loathsome. But a literary biography is almost always a tale of redemption, in that the Great Work eventually gets written and published, often in spite of the author’s lurchings through life. These biographies are a form of nourishment for the acolyte writer such as myself, but writers rarely offer good role models in terms of their behaviour. Perhaps it’s the type of writers I enjoy reading, but it seems to me that literary biographies often allow writers a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card for their bad behaviour in exchange for the Great Work they have produced along the way.

Here’s a list of some literary biographies I own and have read. The better ones are bolded.

The Inner Man: The Life of J G Ballard – John Baxter

Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S Burroughs – Ted Morgan

The Lost Years of William S Burroughs: Beats in South Texas – Rob Johnson

Cursed From Birth: William S Burroughs Jr – edited by David Ohle

Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life – Carol Sklenicka

Raymond Chandler: A Life – Tom Williams

The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved – Judith Freeman

Raymond Chandler – Tom Hiney

Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K Dick – Lawrence Sutin

Search for Philip K Dick: 1928 – 1982 – Anne R. Dick

Graham Greene: The Man Within – Michael Shelden

Nothing Is True, Everything Is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin – John Geiger

James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B Shelden – Julie Phillips

In addition to the above, there are a number of writers whom I would love to read full length biographies on. English novellist Pat Barker is in her seventies now so she should be prime for this treatment. American writer Harry Crews died recently and I would love to read a book on him, although I’m not sure he’s popular enough these days to warrant one. There is rumoured to be a follow-up volume to his amazing memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, so that would be almost as good, should it ever appear. I’d like to read a biography of William Gay too. But for now, it’s back to the boozing and philandering of Raymond ‘Running Dog’ Carver.

Writer of Interest – Graham Greene

September 13, 2012 1 comment

I first read Graham Greene in 2002, when I was around 20-21 years of age, at a time when I was supposed to be working on my Honours thesis. I remember this distinctly: in the course of around six weeks, I ripped my way through something like 20-25 of Greene’s shortish novels, very much to the detriment of my neglected thesis. Some time after that, I read a couple of biographies, one of which paints Greene the man in a dim light, but as an artist he is unparalleled. For sheer readability, he is king. I remember reading in one of the biographies that Greene considered 500 words in a day to be a suitable rate of production, including polishing those words. He figured that if he kept this up every day, then he’d have a novel a year or so. It worked for him; I don’t know another writer whose prose is so uniformly strong and succinct.

I’ve just started listening to an audiobook version of one of his early novels, a so-called ‘entertainment’ called A Gun for Sale (the film, which I haven’t seen, is called This Gun for Hire). Over the first third or so, I was just stunned by how clean the words are (even if Greene’s content is often decidedly grubby). He’s a master of the English language. A Gun for Sale does take a small turn for the worse in the second half, in terms of the shift in the behaviour of the central character, but it takes some kind of writer for something this strong to be considered a minor work.

So what’s it about? A Gun for Sale begins as a fast moving crime thriller in which the villain is also the main character: nasty, harelipped James Raven. After killing an official – whose death may precipitate a world war (the book was published in 1936) – Raven flees to industrial Nottwich, where he accosts a young woman called Anne. What follows is an increasingly zany but never flippant series of misadventures. Anne nearly gets suffocated by an obese man with Turkish Delight sugar on his fingers, for Christ’s sake. Only Greene could think of that.

Graham Greene might seem passe or old school, but it’s a mistake to dismiss his work. If you are even remotely interested in pursuing the craft of writing (or you just want something highly readable to sink your teeth into) then you can do far worse than give one of Graham Greene’s novels a spin.