Tag Archives: the problems of biography

Elizabeth Finch: Julian Barnes

Elizabeth Finch, from Julian Barnes examines the relationship between the narrator, Neil, and his one-time professor. The novel explores the problems of memory and biography and asks how well can we ever know a person–especially a multi-faceted, private person such as Elizabeth Finch.

Elizabeth Finch teaches an adult education course, “Culture and Civilisation.” The students range in age from 20-40, and there’s a great deal of speculation about Elizabeth, a curious woman of contrasts, and her private life. Neil notes that it easy “to stray into fantasy.” As a lecturer/professor, Elizabeth Finch, or EF as Neil later refers to her, is challenging, yet she provides a reading list which is “optional” and notes “I may well not be the best teacher, in the sense of the one most suited to your temperament and cast of mind.” That last sentence, which seems so casually spoken on the first day, turns out to have great significance.

She appeared to have settled on her look some time ago. It could still be called stylish: another decade, and it might be antique or, perhaps vintage. In summer, a box-pleated skirt, usually navy; tweed in winter. Sometimes she adopted a tartan or kiltish look with a big safety pin (no doubt there’s a special Scottish word for it). Obvious money was spent on blouses, in silk or fine cotton, often striped, and in no way translucent. Occasionally a brooch, always small and, as they say, discreet, yet somehow refulgent. She rarely wore earrings (were her lobes even pierced? now there’s a question). On her left little finger, a silver ring which we took to be inherited, rather than bought or given. Her hair was a kind of sandy grey, shapely and of unvarying length. I imagined a regular fortnightly appointment. Well, she believed in artifice, as she told us more than once. And artifice, as she also observed, was not incompatible with truth.

The novel can be sliced into 3 sections: the introduction (and departure) of Elizabeth Finch, the middle section which is Neil’s long-delayed student essay on Julian the Apostate, and the final section which covers the end of Elizabeth’s career and Neil’s conclusions about his former professor.

I loved the first part of the book as Neil charts his relationship with Elizabeth Finch. Sometimes it’s the hard to define relationships that are the most interesting. EF rather uncannily reminded me of a professor who later became a friend for several decades, and so when I read that Neil intended to become EF’s biographer, I was fascinated. Unfortunately, when Neil delivers his student essay as some sort of post-death tribute to Elizabeth Finch, this entire middle section threw me in the Slough of Despond. I probably wouldn’t have minded reading about Julian the Apostate if I’d sought a book on the subject, but as is, the plot seems hijacked…no … abandoned. In the final section, Neil returns to the subject of EF and the novel revives as he discovers that he was not the only student who maintained a relationship with this very private, exacting person. Meanwhile, Neil tries to excavate details of EF’s private life and finally talks to a former student who has an entirely different opinion of the professor. Ultimately, we are left with more questions than answers, and the mystery of a professor who became one of the most significant people in Neil’s life, while another student remembers her as rather ordinary. What does that say about our perceptions, our biases, our memories?

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The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi

“Otherwise, these days, no sooner has someone been sodomized by a close relative than they think they can write a memoir.” Author Hanif Kureishi seems to be an author readers either love or hate, and this theory is arguably authenticated by a number of vicious, personal comments about the author left on this blog–comments far too nasty to see the light of day. The Buddha of Suburbia was an amazing book, but Kureishi surpassed it with his phenomenal Something to Tell  You, and as Kureishi is not a prolific author, I was delighted to see that he’d written another novel: The Last Word.  This is a story of a young man, Harry, who’s commissioned by a flamboyant, out-of-control publisher, Rob, to write a biography of a Lion of British literature, now in his 70s, the aging Mamoon Azam. Harry goes to live with Mamoon and his second, expensive Italian wife Livia in order to gather material for the book, conduct interviews and gather information from the diaries of Mamoon’s first wife, Peggy. The last wordThere was some gossip that The Last Word was based on V.S. Naipaul, his approved biographer, Patrick French, and the resulting book The World is What it Is, a ‘warts and all’ “confessional biography” (Ian Buruma). Author Hanif Kureishi denies the connection, but when reading The Last Word, it’s impossible not to think of Naipaul–and not just because Naipaul and Mamoon Azam are both “eminent Indian-born writer[s]” who’ve made their careers and homes in England. There are other connections between the lives of the fictional Mamoon and the living Naipaul, and as we might anticipate from a writer of Kureishi’s subtlety, there are also some differences. While Naipaul apparently complied with his biographer’s demands, Mamoon proves to be slippery and the most difficult of subjects. The Last Word begins brilliantly with Harry travelling with Rob by train to Mamoon’s estate. Harry is busy thinking, somewhat dreamily, of the monumental task ahead of him. He’s a book reviewer and a teacher with just one well-received biography under his belt, and now contemplating his future & home ownership, “it had occurred to Harry, in the last year, at least as he matured, that he needed to be well off.” While Harry chews over the project of writing a biography about Mamoon, his publisher Rob, acknowledging that it can “inhibit” a biographer to have a living subject, wants something sensational. Something “mad and wild“:

Harry, the Great Literary Satan is weak and woozy now like a lion hit with a monster tranquilizer. It’s his time to be taken. And it’s in his interest to cooperate. When he reads the book and learns what a bastard he’s been, it’ll be too late. You will have found out stuff that Mamoon doesn’t even know about himself. He’ll be dead meat on a skewer of your insight. That’s where the public like their artists–exposed, trousers down, arse up, doing a long stretch among serial killers, and shitting in front of strangers. That’ll teach ’em to think their talent makes them better than mediocre no-brain tax-paying wages slaves like us.

So of course, we are in for a romp. Here’s Harry commissioned to write an authorised biography of a living legend–a man “too cerebral, unyielding and harrowing to be widely read, [Mamoon was] becoming financially undone; despite the praise and the prizes.” Mamoon is considered a serious writer whose work wrestles with moral issues, and yet publisher Rob, sniffing that there’s plenty of dirt under that stiff writer persona, is pushing for an expose, a dirt-slinging, tabloid style biography which will be a bestseller. According to Rob, Mamoon’s fiercely protective, expensive wife, Livia, is “a man-eater who never passed on a meal,” and Rob even suggests that Harry should be prepared to sleep with Livia to get his story. Between Livia, who wants only a whitewashed biography, and Mamoon who’d rather not have to participate at all, Harry seems to be severely outclassed by craft and personality. The writing here is occasionally brilliant, evidenced here by Rob’s enthusiastic descriptions of two of the women in Mamoon’s life:

Marion, his ex-mistress, a Baconian torso on a plank, is bitter as cancer and spitting gobbets of hate to this day. She lives in America and not only will she see you, she’ll fly at you like a radioactive bat. I’ve organized your visit–some people accuse me of being a perfectionist. There is also the fact he drove his first wife, Peggy, over the edge. I’m sure he wrapped oranges in a towel and beat her blacker and bluer than a decayed Stilton.

And then there’s Rob (my favorite train-wreck of a character):

If Harry thought of himself as a cautious if not conservative person, Rob appeared to encourage his authors towards pugnacity, dissipation, and “authenticity” for fear, some thought, that the act and the art of writing, or even editing, might appear “artistic,” feminine, nancy, or possibly, “gay.” Never mind Mamoon, Harry had heard numerous tales of Rob’s “sociopathic” tendencies. He didn’t go into the office until five in the afternoon, though he would stay there all night, editing, phoning, and working, perhaps popping into Soho. He had married, not long ago, but appeared to have forgotten that wedlock was a continuous state rather than a one-off event. He slept in different places, often in discomfort and with a book over his face, while appearing to inhabit a time zone that collapsed and expanded according to need rather than the clock, which he considered to be fascist. If he became bored by someone, he would turn away or even slap them. He would cut his writers’ work arbitrarily, or change the titles, without informing them.

The novel is about the difficulties of biography and how we align the image of a great writer with a not-so-great human being. According to Rob, Mamoon “has been a dirty bastard, an adulterer, liar, thug, and, possibly, a murderer.” Of course it’s Harry’s job to get to the central truth at the core of Mamoon’s life, so the novel should also, in theory, be about Harry’s journey of discovery. Unfortunately, from its very promising premise and phenomenal beginning, the novel takes a turn with the character of Harry. He’s introduced with hints of naiveté–the way , for example, we’re told that it ‘occurs’ to him that he’ll need to be well off–a phrase that implies a certain unworldliness. Mamoon seems to do everything he can to derail Harry’s desire to gain access, and Livia clearly wants Harry to write a “gentle” hagiography. Both Mamoon and Livia appear to select Harry for the job because he’s one of “the few decent and bright Englishman left on this island,” yet Harry not naïve or decent. As the plot develops, Harry is revealed to be quite the opposite of how he first appeared. And herein lies the central problem, at least for this reader. While the novel is at its best with Kureishi’s caustic bitter wit (seen through Mamoon and Rob), Harry’s personal life quickly overwhelms the central plot and the philosophical questions on which the story rests. Harry is a difficult, unconvincing character and his sexual relationship with a minor character feels particularly contrived. After setting up the initial central dilemma of extracting the sordid truth from Mamoon whether he likes it or not, the plot stagnates, teeters, stumbles and veers towards farce and some scenes and dialogue seem patently false. I’ve come to expect unpleasant characters in Kureishi’s novels, and that’s not a problem as nasty people can be great fun to read about. The major problem in The Last Word is plot momentum and hijacking. So what does Kureishi have to say on the question of how we align the great writers with their often less-than-great characters? The central issue seems to be not so much what a writer does or doesn’t do in his personal life as much as a matter of hypocrisy, and here’s Mamoon on the subject of E. M. Forster:

View? I have no views on a man who claimed he wanted to write about homosexual sex, a subject we certainly needed to know about. Since he lacked the balls to do it, he spent thirty years staring out of the window, when he wasn’t mooning over bus conductors and other Pakis. An almost-man who claimed to hate colonialism using the Third World as his brothel because he wouldn’t get arrested there, as he would showing off his penis in a Chiswick toilet.

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