WRITING LIVES: Principia Biographica by Leon Edel

WRITING LIVES: Principia Biographica

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The task and the duty of biographical narrative is to sort out themes and patterns, not dates and mundane calendar events which sort themselves."" Edel, the master-biographer of The Master, Henry James, has been arguing the merits of the artfully constructed, psychologically sophisticated biography since 1957--when an essay-group called Literary Biography first appeared in book form. Here, he reprints one of those essays (""Quest""), offers revised versions of several others, and adds a few new pieces from recent years--urging biographers to be ""cold as ice in appraisal, yet warm and human and understanding."" A new essay on ""Transference"" warns against the dangers of falling in love with one's subject, of identifying too closely--with an uneven cluster of examples: Maurois, falsifying Shelley's life (because of his own romanticism) and evading Disraeli's (and his own) Jewishness; Mark Schorer's problems--too sketchily indicated--with a Sinclair Lewis biography; the excesses and deceptions of Lytton Strachey, ""the eccentric father of modern biography,"" in dealing with queen-mother figures; and Van Wyck Brooks, whose biographies were distorted by his own grappling with ""the male-female bondage in which he found himself."" From 1965 comes a lecture on the perils of getting lost in ""the monumentality of modern archives. . . . A biography is not an engagement book."" A 1966 essay salutes Virginia Woolf's struggles in writing the Roger Fry biography, ""caught between her leaping imagination and mundane fact."" (Edel's essay on Woolf's fictional biography, Orlando, appears too, in a tightened version of the 1957 piece.) And the volume concludes with three casual articles about the writing of the Henry James quintet. Less vigorous and challenging than the biographical studies in Stuff of Sleep and Dreams (1982)--but an agreeable mixture of Edel's straightforward basic principles and some intriguing (if not always fully persuasive) specifics.

Pub Date: Oct. 29th, 1984
ISBN: 0393303829
Publisher: Norton