Thursday, February 5, 2009

Artists' lives and works...

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Suggested by Simon Thomas:

Have you ever been put off an author’s books after reading a biography of them? Or the reverse - a biography has made you love an author more?

I can think of writers and other artists whose work I don't enjoy. I can think of biographies that I found unreadable, usually they are what I call the toe-nail-clippings-and-all biographies. You know "and then Hemmingway ate his breakfast on February 3rd, it was Thursday, in a small cafe, spending 1 franc. His daughter found the receipt in his shoe. He then got his shoes polished before visiting Gertrude and Alice." But I cannot think of a situation where reading about someone's life has made me not enjoy their work. I've learned some pretty nasty things about Wagner, but I still like hearing and seeing his operas. Picasso was cruel to some of his women, but his work I can admire again and again. I have had the case, with Virginia Woolf, where, in researching a play I directed about her life, I read everything about her and I continue to (although I've yet to read the latest book about her relationship with her servants). All the diaries, the letters, most of the essays, Leonard Woolf's memoirs, the two-volume biography by Quentin Bell - her nephew - Hermione Lee's biography, all sorts of more general Bloomsburiana, like the Victoria Glendenning biography of Vita Sackville West. The intimate details of their worst qualities has yet to put me off her fiction or any of the work of that fascinating circle of artists.


gautami tripathy said...

I like that bit about Hemingway. Never could read him!


Here is my BTT post!

Rebecca H. said...

What was the play you directed about Woolf's life? I haven't yet read everything about Woolf, but I'm working on it slowly!

Beth F said...

An author's personal life and conduct is of less concern to me than more disturbing deep-felt hate issues.

SmilingSally said...

I read for the pure joy of reading; I don't often read biographies. Happy Booking Through Thursday!

Sheila O'Malley said...

I love biographies. To me, they also represent the "sheer joy of reading".

I actually have contempt for people who base their opinions on artists in terms of their political affiliation or how they conducted their lives personally. I know contempt is a sharp word, but whatever, I have fought so many battles on my site that I feel entitled to use it - when I try to write about the Oscars and some moron shows up in the comments and says, "How could you like that movie?? That actor is a lefty Socialist!" (or whatever, it usually goes in that way).

Now I'm no lefty Socialist, but seriously, if I like your art - you could be a Stalinist and I wouldn't care. I mean, I hope you're not in CHARGE of a COUNTRY if you're a Stalinist ... but if you give a good performance or write a book I love or paint something I adore ... I honestly don't care what you believe.

I'm the opposite: I find it all fascinating.

I find it fascinating that Yeats swayed towards fascism. I find it fascinating that Joyce couldn't have cared about any of it. I find it fascinating that so many great minds were duped by Stalin (Shaw, Wells, and others) - I find it fascinating that John Updike was pretty much the lone supporter in the literary world of the Vietnam War.

But none of this would matter to me in the slightest if I didn't already think the art was good.

Same with personal lives.

Humphrey Bogart was a serial cheater (until he met Bacall), and could be abusive physically, as well as a mean mean drunk. Whatever. I don't care. He's a great actor.

Anonymous said...

The truth is, at least for me, knowing the life of an author might incline me to read more of the works. Knowing is key to understand the authorial meaning in fiction. After all, author is a life, reading an author is just getting to know the life.

Ted said...

GT - Hemmingway has done some wonderful things! Every try A Moveable Feast?

Dorothy - It's called Virginia by Edna O'Brien.

Beth - I guess I might not admire that fact about an artist, but I don't need them to be exemplary, or even nice, for me to be interested in their work.

SS - I must admit, I'm a big fan of biographies - I love other people's narratives.

O'Malley - I'm with you on this one.

Matt - As you say, knowledge gives you a hint at the author's context for what they created which may or may not be the experience we as a reader then walk away with.

Rebecca H. said...

I just saw a dramatic reading of that play in the basement of the drama bookshop in NYC -- it was really good, and I'd like to read it now.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Ah Virginia! What a gorgeous play!