Portraits From Life –
Modernist Novelists & Autobiography
By Jerome Boyd Maunsell
Oxford University Press – £20.00
Every instance of autobiography is as unique as the life it relates.
Let it be said that biographies and autobiographies can be a profoundly risky phenomenon. Especially when one considers that they are the only books some people will ever read; which, given the degree to which those responsible for writing them can pick and choose what to leave in and what to invariably leave out, really is quite something.
After all: ”A character can be caught in a sentence or phrase, or it can be endlessly redrawn over hundreds of pages.”
What’s more, there is a subliminal tendency on behalf of most readers, to simply abide by what has been beguilingly bequeathed.
As if it were gospel.
As if written in stone.
As if forged upon the template of the ever increasingly curious mind.
There is of course a flip side, which is just one of the reasons I was lured into reading Portraits From Life – Modernist Novelists & Autobiography by Jerome Boyd Maunsell.
An overtly compelling read that endeavours to divulge the difficulties and possibilities of autobiography, by investigating seven canonical Modernist writers (Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James, Wyndham Lewis, Gertrude Stein, H. G. Wells and Edith Wharton); the book rightfully takes most, if not all of the above to task: ”[…] grasping only a part of life, or an aspect of character, cannot be helped. There is far too much of life to be contained in any narrative. For this reason, biographers cherish the elusive essences which define characters: the telling glances or moments that reveal a whole person […] Yet can any self be fixed on the page for more than a few moments – or is the truest sense of character caught only on the move?”
It is precisely the reflective regaling of said fluidity of most people’s lives – their true ”sense of character caught only on the move” if you will – which wholeheartedly accounts for any form of underlying plausibility within biographical writing.
That said, it is surely all in the telling?
Or perhaps more importantly, the light and shade thereof, which, as Maunsell well knows, is so (cunningly) capable of immense literary sparkle: ”[…] taking heart from Leon Edel’s memorable image of the biographer struggling with the multiplicity of ”intractable” facts, or the ”tons and tons” of material left behind by many lives, Portraits From Life aims to arrive – if only for a moment or two – at that ”tiny glowing particle” which contains the ”human personality.”
And arrive these 216 pages most undoubtedly do, even if one does feel the need, the temptation or the simple desire to actually cross decipher – especially where Conrad (in relation to Ford Madox Ford) and Stein (in relation to Pablo Picasso) are concerned.