Thursday, July 30, 2015

Biography and Memoir

Let me say first that I found Iris Origo: Marchesa of Val d'Orcia by Caroline Moorehead informative and well worth the time spent reading. It offers a detailed account of Origo's long and interesting life.

It struck me, however, as suffering from a problem that biographies of writers sometimes do. Where the material is clearly taken from the subject's own writings, there is the risk that the reader will be comparing them to the book at hand. If the subject was a good writer, the biographer had better be also. So where the biography tracked Origo's memoirs War in Val d'Orcia and Images and Shadows: Parts of a Life, I kept hearing Origo's words behind Moorehead's, generally not to Moorehead's advantage. In a few cases, Moorehead provides slightly inaccurate context, for example quoting Santayana in a way that removes the reference to his revision of The Life of Reason.  I don't know what the biographer of a writer should do, unless generally steer as far as possible from the subject's own words, and include them, in quotation marks and with clear context, where most useful.

Yet there are matters that don't (or once didn't) find their way into memoirs. U.S. Grant's memoirs are wonderfully written and clear throughout on the campaigns he served in and directed. However, he does not mention the drinking that made his peacetime superiors demand that he resign his commission, and that alarmed his subordinates during lulls in the campaigns. Richard Henry Dana could tell you anything about the operation of a brig, or the duties of a "hide-drogher" on shore in California; he omitted, it seems, to discuss the happy concubinage in which he lived for part of his shore time. I suppose that one could complain that St. Augustine's Confessions, explicit enough on his sins, don't tell how he ran his diocese or that Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua tells nothing about university management.

Moorehead supplies what Origo's discretion omitted: Origo's affairs, her mother's, her stepfather's, those of a fair portion of the Anglo-American colony in Tuscany. She says what Origo does not quite say, that her mother was a hypochondriac, and bad company for other reasons as well. She discusses at greater length, if not very clearly, Antonio Origo's relations with the Fascist regime. And some of what Moorehead provides simply did not fit into Origo's memoirs as falling outside the main topics or post-dating the periods covered. If she does not write as well as Origo, she writes clearly for the most part.

Moorehead does have some difficulties with time.
By 1911, it was getting on for half a century since Florence had been, briefly, the capital of Italy, and most of the city's best-known foreign residents,  Swinburne, Dickens, Trollope, the Brownings, Mark Twain, Henry James and the Goncourt brothers, had long since departed, gone home to write memoirs of their Florentine lives, leaving behind much gossip about their visits.
By 1911, everyone on that list but Henry James had departed not simply from Florence but from this life, most of them not very recently. I cannot tell from her account when Bernhard Berenson took up with Mary Costelloe; it is not important to the biography, and I wouldn't care but for the puzzle. In the sentence
That summer the rains arrived early in August, and toads emerged in the garden to sit in the water
I can date "that summer" somewhere between 1927 and 1932, but no more precisely.

Still, I am glad to have read it. It is unlikely that I will look into it again as soon or as often as I will into Origo's memoirs.

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