Literary Lives: Five Great Biographies of Famous Authors
Flaubert famously insisted that ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi.’ Writers can borrow other people’s appearances and mannerisms for their characters, but when it comes to creating thoughts and feelings, there’s only one place they can borrow from: their own heads.
All of us contain many different personalities, from the Eagle Scout who attends your job interviews to the murderer who turns up when your housemate leaves his butter knife in the sink. Writers must spend more time than most in this interior hall of mirrors. Only by capturing those fleeting moments in which she feels not quite herself can a novelist bring her characters to life. Madame Bovary may have been the thing Flaubert professed to despise above all others—a provincial bourgeois—but her frustrated passion and her flights of romantic fantasy are all Flaubert’s own.
This makes the literary biographer’s task a particularly tricky one. Writers leave more evidence of their interior lives than most subjects, but the evidence is dispersed between dozens or hundreds of characters, and cleverly disguised to boot. The cunning biographer must be detective, psychologist and literary critic all at once.
When she succeeds, the result is often something of a masterpiece in its own right. Precisely because writers mine their own personalities for their work, a writer’s life story, even when it is wandering or unlikely, can tell us more about what it means to experience a particular life in a particular time than the biography of, say, a political figure, whose inner life may only be accessible by speculation.
On this list you’ll find biographies that invite you into the lives and times of famous writers, and attempt to penetrate the mystery of artistic creation.