I finished Richard Holmes’s book Footsteps a couple days ago and want to write one last post on it; it’s a book that has inspired a number of posts — you can read more here and here.
I wasn’t as taken by the last chapter as I was by the first three — the last chapter discusses Gerard Nerval, who is someone I didn’t know much about, and the chapter didn’t really inspire me to learn more, but it is interesting in the way Holmes uses it to discuss his failure to write Nerval’s biography — or rather, his failure to write a successful one. He wrote a 400-page book on Nerval, but couldn’t get it published (he says “wisely no publisher ever touched it”) and recognized later that it didn’t really work. By this point, Holmes had already written his hugely successful biography of Percy Shelley, so it wasn’t as though he didn’t know what he was doing; rather, he just couldn’t get a handle on the strangeness of Nerval’s life. It’s interesting that some people might not be good subjects for biography no matter how good the biographer. Here is what Holmes says on the subject:
I was thus, in a way, committed to psychoanalysing Nerval for myself; to achieving what even Dr. Blanche had been unable to do. And as my months went by in Paris, I became more and more convinced that was exactly what could not be done, and that I had reached the limits of the biographical form, as a method of investigation. Instead, I found myself slipping further and further into a peculiar and perilous identification with my lunatic subject, as if somehow I could diagnose Nerval by becoming him. As if self-identification — the first crime in biography — had become my last and only resort.
Holmes has very interesting things to say about the process of writing biographies; for example, he describes what he sees as the two main parts of the process: first, the gathering and assembling of facts about the subject and, second, creating
a fictional or imaginary relationship between the biographer and his subject; not merely a “point of view” or an “interpretation”, but a continuous living dialogue between the two as they move over the same historical ground, the same trail of events. There is between them a ceaseless discussion, a reviewing and questioning of motives and actions and consequences, a steady if subliminal exchange of attitudes, judgments and conclusions.
He says the first part of this second stage is “a degree of more or less conscious identification with the subject”; it is “pre-biographic” but essential — it is like falling in love with the subject and without that devotion the biographer won’t be as willing to follow in the subject’s footsteps. But there comes a moment when gaps occur between biographer and subject: “the true biographic process begins precisely at the moment, at the places, where this naive form of love and identification breaks down. The moment of personal disillusion is the moment of impersonal, objective re-creation.”
So the biographer must become the subject, walking in the subject’s footsteps, as Holmes did with Stevenson, and then establish that he or she is not the subject after all, in a process that can be painful, as Holmes recognizes. Holmes goes back and forth between closely identifying with his subjects and being intensely and painfully aware of the gaps between them. He his suspicious of his identification with his subject, as in the case of Nerval, but he revels in it too.
It is this emotional involvement in his research and writing that I find so appealing, I think. Here is Holmes on researching Percy Shelley:
The pursuit became so intense, so demanding of my own emotions that it continuously threatened to get out of hand. When I travelled alone I craved after intimacy with my subject, knowing all the time that I must maintain an objective and judicial stance. I came often to feel excluded, left behind, shut out from the magic circle of his family. I wanted to get in among them, to partake in their daily life, to understand what Shelley called the “deep truth” of their situation. I was often in a peculiar state , like a displaced person, which was obviously touched off by some imbalance, or lack of hardened identity, in my own character.
Thus far in my life I haven’t been terribly interested in Percy Shelley, but this makes me want to read Holmes’s biography of him anyway. Holmes is a writer you can come to feel you trust — someone this self-aware, this willing to discuss his weaknesses and how they affect his writing, has got to be a trustworthy writer. I don’t mean trustworthy in the sense of having his facts straight, although I’m sure he does that, but rather that I trust his interpretations and instincts and choices.