Biography As High Adventure: Life-Writers Speak on Their Art by Stephen B. Oates

By Stephen B. Oates

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A grimace drawn by Hokusai[Hokusaï] leads to still deeper contemplation. If we were practicing the art in which Boswell and Aubrey excelled, we would certainly not have to describe minutely the greatest man of our age or to record the characteristics of the most famous men of the past, but to recount with the same care the individual lives of men, whether god-like, commonplace, or criminal. A charming passage, but not wholly fair, I think. The characteristic feature of the life of an unknown man is that it leaves little trace; unless one has in mind a man of genius who has written admirable letters and has not had them published.

If we were David Copperfield and had Dora for a wife, it would be a pathetic situation, of which we should not savor the beauty. In the novel, we contemplate it as a shipwreck in a picture, without feeling the need of swimming and of clutching at the nearest piece of vegetation. Certain novelists kill this aesthetic pleasure by forcing the reader to take part when they themselves set out to solve the ethical problems which their books present. But the best of them realize that this is not the artist's business.

We have no longer to deal with a divine and inexhaustible multiplicity but with a measurable and human simplicity. Of course the character may be complex (the creations of modern novelists nearly always are), but even this complexity is an ordered complexity and we can grasp it. Consider Mr. Forster's A Passage to India: his characters are very finely shaded. He has aimed at, and succeeded in, showing us the delicate differences between the European and the Asiatic ways of thinking. Nevertheless his book is quite clearmuch more so than India itself, that mysterious country with its millions of souls in which we might travel for years without understanding it.

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