On Biography

By Miguel Fernandes Ceia

William Gaddis’ attack on the institution and on the entertainment industry, in his posthumous novel, Agapē Agape, claims that there is a ‘whole supified mob [that is] turning the creative artist into a performer (…) the man in place of its work’. Aside from the fact that a performer can be a creative artist as well, what William Gaddis was trying to warn us about was how too much importance was being given to the living subject, the person and its actions, and less to his work. No one cares how Marcel Proust was as long as we have A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu. Likewise, it is of no importance at all that William Faulkner was a drunkard, or that William Burroughs was a lifelong heroin addict. What stands, what remains, is their work, not their fascinating personalities. Nevertheless, none of these writers, with the exception of William Gaddis, who thoroughly wrote about it, lived in the post-Microsoft age: until recently, information travelled neither quite as widely nor quite as quickly as it does now. These days, we are confronted with endless biographical titles, albeit some of them more fictionalised than fiction, since writers’ lives are seen as being as important as the work itself, if not more important.

Still, the notions of biography and fiction are close to each other, so much that one could easily state that all fiction is biographical and all biography is fictional. It is not surprising, then, when writers use their own lives as the subject material for their fiction. They recreate their own predicaments in their characters, weaving together fact and fiction.

Looking at Philip Roth’s novel, My Life as a Man (1970), the reader is told by the narrator, who, conveniently, is also a writer, about his relationship with a woman he hates, but because of his upbringing is unable to break up with. At one point, he is telling how she lured him into thinking she was pregnant ‘[she] took a specimen of her urine to the drugstore for the pregnancy test—only it wasn’t her urine (…) She approached a pregnant Negro woman pushing a baby carriage and told her she represented a scientific organization willing to pay the woman for a sample of her urine’. In the follow up of this sequence, he continues, ‘I want you to marry me regardless of how the test comes out tomorrow (…) I would do my best to make it appear that in marrying her I had acted out of choice rather than necessity’. This, naturally, was and is sold as fiction—nicely concocted fiction.

Eighteen years later, in Philip Roth’s autobiography, The Facts, the reader is confronted with the following sequences, ‘the urine specimen that she submitted to the drugstore for the rabbit test was purchased for a couple of dollars from a pregnant black woman she’d inveigled one morning into a tenement across from Tompkins Square Park’; and, ‘without doubt she was my worst enemy ever, but, alas, she was also nothing less than the greatest creative-writing teacher of them all, specialist par excellence in the aesthetics of extremist fiction (…) Reader, I married her’.

These examples taken from Philip Roth’s repertoire illustrate thoroughly the relation between fact and fiction, and the act of writing both. Here, there are three temporal moments to be considered when looking at the relations between biography and fiction, a) the time when it happened, b) the time when it was fictionalised and c) the time when it was written as an autobiography.

Many other examples could be summoned, both from other writers and from Philip Roth’s own oeuvre. And the question arises, is it necessary, in order to have creative vigour, to lead a troubled life? Well, not necessarily. Many writers, and examples could easily come from the science-fiction genre, did not have to endure the predicaments present in their characters and their plots in order to write. Furthermore, normalcy, or middle-class bourgeois normalcy, is, these days, predicament enough. Still, each individual’s account, in fiction or real life, is full of drama because it is one’s own.

Notwithstanding, the act of using one’s own experience to write fiction is not to transform oneself into a celebrity or to transform one’s fiction into mere entertainment; it is not, by and large, to put the man in the place of the work. The transitional movement from fact to fiction, from personal to universal, when successful, is a subjective emanation to the artistic.

References

GADDIS, William (2004). Agapē Agape and Other Writings. London: Atlantic Books.
ROTH, Philip (1993). My Life as a Man. Vintage: New York.
ROTH, Philip (2007). The Facts. A Novelist’s Autobiography. London: Vintage Books.

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Written under a Creative Commons License, with edits: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0/

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