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Literary Lives: Five Great Biographies of Famous Authors

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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.

J.M. Coetzee & the Life of Writing

J.M. Coetzee may be the world’s greatest living writer. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for novels which plumb the moral and political underpinnings of Apartheid in South Africa, and of the cruelty and exploitation inherent in human history.

Attwell is a fellow South African and a literary scholar who has studied under Coetzee and worked with him on a collection of essays and interviews. The Life of Writing painstakingly peels back Coetzee’s early draughts to reveal the ways in which the novelist’s famously impersonal work nevertheless has its roots in the most intimate facts of his life. Attwell’s book is a fascinating read for Coetzee fans, but it will also intrigue anyone who has ever wondered how a great artist does it. 

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Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston (Lisa Drew Books)

Zora Neale Hurston is a major figure in twentieth-century literature—and history. In her work as an anthropologist she investigated and preserved the Black culture of North America, and as a writer and a pivotal figure of the Harlem Renaissance she helped to create it. But she also saw herself as a writer in a tradition that she believed could transcend the questions of racial identity that hemmed her in her whole life. Her masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God, probably demands be understood as both an African-American novel and as a Great American Novel if it is to be understood at all.

Valerie Lee is the first Black woman to produce a biography of Hurston, and she is acutely alive to these complexities. Lee’s admiration for her subject is palpable, and by the time you’ve finished Wrapped in Rainbows, yours will be too.

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Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is one of literature’s most iconic figures. Although her fiction transformed the twentieth-century novel, and her feminist writing conspires to inspire today, she is often reduced to a symbol for the tortured artist, especially the female artist.

Hermione Lee’s biography pays tribute to Woolf’s talent and courage. But Lee is also sensitive to Woolf’s struggles with the depression which eventually claimed the writer’s life. Lee refuses to attribute Woolf’s suffering to her history of abuse or to the cataclysmic times in which she lived—Woolf was horrified by the violence of both World Wars—and instead portrays Woolf as someone whose creativity emerged from her mortal conflict with mental illness.

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Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life

Philip Larkin was the pre-eminent British poet of his generation, and one of the most quotable poets of the twentieth century. It was Larkin who said, ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad,’ and it was also Larkin who declared in ‘An Arundel Tomb’ that ‘what will survive of us is love.’

Andrew Motion, as well as being a poet himself, was Larkin’s friend and literary executor. He is unsparing in his assessment of his friend’s life.

The Larkin who emerges from Motion’s pages is hard to love. He wrote pornography to get his creative juices flowing. He wrote to his mother, whom he professed to hate, every day. Professionally, Larkin was a successful academic librarian at the University of Hull, where he seems to have treasured the silence of the library and despised the students who insisted on coming in to finger the books. In his personal life, Larkin was an adulterer and an appalling manipulator of women.

Motion knew that his biography would prompt a major re-examination of Larkin’s poetry. It ends up being a fascinating study of the relationship between the life of an artist and his work.

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James Joyce

James Joyce’s Dubliners set the blueprint for the modern short story and his epic novel Ulysses continues to inspire and daunt to this day. Very few people, however, have read Joyce’s final novel, Finnegan’s Wake, and even fewer people have the faintest idea what it’s about.

One man who did take on the Wake was Richard Ellmann. An American literary scholar who focussed on the work of Irish writers, Ellmann let nothing daunt him in his quest to understand Joyce the man and the writer. Anthony Burgess, the author of A Clockwork Orange and possibly the only other person who knows what’s going on in Finnegan’s Wake, called Ellmann’s James Joyce ‘the greatest literary biography of the century.’

The young Joyce contemplated a career in the Catholic clergy, and he devoted himself to his writing with a monastic single-mindedness. Ellmann’s biography is a clear-eyed account of just what it takes to create not one but several enduring masterpieces (and one totally baffling one). 

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I'm a copywriter based in Dublin. Bookwitting about literary fiction, mostly.

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