Critical Mass

Critical Library: Blake Bailey on Biography

By Eric Banks

From time to time Critical Mass asks writers and critics to name five key books that ought to be in any reviewer's library. In a slight twist on the usual query, we asked Blake Bailey, the recipient of this year's NBCC award in biography for his Cheever: A Life (and whose A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates was a finalist for the award in 2004), for five exemplary titles in the genre. Here's what he had to say:

5 Biographies (in no particular order, more or less off the top of my head) and Why I Like Them:

Eminent Victorians, by Lytton Strachey: Strachey has what I'll flatulently call a well-integrated sensibility–he looks down upon the world as though from a great height, and with a kind of humorous fondness. It serves him well, whether or not you find such a sensibility congenial (i do, up to a point). The death of Thomas Arnold–a rather ridiculous but lovable creature–is a masterpiece of humorous poignancy.

Malcolm Lowry: A Biography, by Douglas Day: Compared to the other major biography of Lowry–Pursued By Furies, by Gordon Bowker–Day's is inferior in every respect save one, and it's the one that matters most: Day has a better feel for Lowry as a writer and human being, and thus brings him to life on the page in a way that Bowker, with all his assiduous research, simply cannot. Oh, and Day is a better writer. That said, I wish Day had spent another couple years in the library, and not been quite so chummy with the widow, but I still love his book.

Capote: A Biography, by Gerald Clarke: Clarke spent as many years as it took to get the goods on Capote, and then just let it rip. From Clarke we learn that Capote hired goons to terrorize recalcitrant lovers, and was, well, let's face it, just a ghastly mess in those final years. He was also, at his best, funny, charming, generous, courageous (underline that), amazingly gifted and disciplined, and I closed Clarke's book forgiving him everything.

Vladimir Nabokov, by Brian Boyd (both volumes): For my money perhaps the greatest all-around literary biography, maybe even better than Ellmann's Joyce (though there are things Ellmann does that nobody can touch).  Boyd is so judicious, both about the life and work, so utterly conscientious, that he sees every episode absolutely in the round.  Also, I adore the devastating footnotes wherein he eviscerates (decorously) his wayward predecessor, Andrew Field.

Quest for Corvo, by A. J. A. Symons: Writing a biography is a matter of passionate curiosity, and the process is nowhere dramatized better. Symons, a marvelous man, is a little disconcerted to discover that his somewhat soulmate, Corvo, was a monster.  We biographers know what that's like–that is, to recognize ourselves (never mind our subjects) as monsters.