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A biography reader's lament

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Too_Close_to_the_Sun2.jpgI don't write biographies - reading them is enough of a strain on my leisure time - but even I know that, in the absence of new information, writing a biography of someone whose life has already been so documented is not advised.

So I am now doubly dumbfounded at Sara Wheeler's choice to write Too Close to the Sun.  As I noted in a previous post, Finch Hatton didn't leave enough of a record of his life - in writing or in accomplishments - to enable a biographer much scope . . . never mind leaving enough room for two biographers to maneuver.

In my prior post, I had incorrectly assumed that, prior to Too Close to the Sun, Denys Finch Hatton hadn't been subjected to the biography treatment.  I'd been wrong.  Not only was a previous biography in existence (if not in print), but Silence Will Speak, by Errol Trzebinski, covered exactly the same ground as Too Close to the Sun.
   
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Despite the paucity of the historical record, however, Wheeler had an opening to apply a critical perspective to Finch Hatton's life - an opportunity which she squandered.  Both she and Trzebinski, decades after the man's charred remains were laid to rest, appear to be enthralled to Finch Hatton's supposed charms.  Although both women duly note that Finch Hatton had a solitary streak and was subject to depression; that he left Karen Blixen notes apologizing for his foul moods; that he had earned among the Africans the nickname "Makanyaga" (which means "to tread upon" - was he, perhaps, rude to the help?); that he was dismissive of his brother Toby; and that the word "immature" seemed appropriate - both biographers pass lightly over these facts, refusing in-depth analysis and anchoring their works in the realm of hagiography. 

That they should have done so is disappointing because a reassessment of Finch Hatton casts Karen Blixen in a fresh, more sympathetic light.  Rather than being a possessive woman who ruined her relationship by smothering Finch Hatton - as Trzebinski portrays her - or as being a selfish monster living in a fantasy world of self-deceiving lies - in Wheeler's version - Blixen could, in fact, have simly been a woman passionately in love with a man who was never able deeply to commit.

While one worshipful (of Finch Hatton), bitchy (to Blixen) biography seems justifiable, two is a bit rich, even accounting for Finch Hatton's aristocratic lineage.  As much as Wheeler no doubt needed some occupation for her time, rewriting Trzebinski's biography has led to a waste of mine.

(Pictures courtesy of Shopping.com Australia and Amazon)

Denys Finch-Hatton, the not-great aristocrat

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Denys Finch-Hatton.jpgIn an earlier post, Greatness and Aristocracy, I wrote about the idea of greatness as relating, not to absolute achievement, but to achievement within a particular context, specifically, among the aristocratic.  The life of Denys Finch-Hatton (left), as depicted in Sara Wheeler's Too Close to the Sun, bears out my observation.

Everyone instantly recognized Deny's greatness, insists Wheeler, even though he achieved nothing.  "Denys was a great figure," according to  his obituary in Eton's magazine, "not only to Masters and boys, but to the Eton population at large, human and animal."  (p. 34 (emphasis added).) 

Eton's magazine is not alone in promoting the absurd notion that the animal kingdom hailed Denys' greatness.  In Out of Africa, Karen Blixen reported that "'[a] lion and lioness have come [to Finch-Hatton's grave], and stood, or lain, on the grave for a long time.' . . . It was fit and decorous that the lions should come to Denys's grave and make him an African monument." (p. 308.)

But, by the end of his life (short, but still 44 years), Denys had accomplished nothing.  "In terms of a career -- positions held, books published, the shibboleths of success one lists in Who's Who -- there was nothing," admits Wheeler.  He left behind no written record, no diary, no significant letters.  Perhaps his most enduring legacy is of the abortions and miscarriages that Beryl Markham and Karen Blixen had respectively, carrying children for whom he showed no inclination to take responsibility.  "It's not clear what he ever did to merit a biography of his own," adds Nicholas Best, reviewing Too Close to the Sun for The Observer.

Plainly, when people characterized Denys as "great," they were responding not to his accomplishments, but to his place in the (waning) aristocracy.  "He was the Last Edwardian Male," wrote Florence Williams, in a New York Times book review. 

This use of "greatness" to invoke the aristocratic is both imprecise and not, in my view, without harm.  Great people are worth our time; alive or dead, kind or mean, great people have something to teach us.  Whatever their personal natures, great people have contributed something to society and human existence.  Greatness, despite the costs, ought to be encouraged.

Aristocrats, on the other hand, are people who have convinced themselves and the rest of the population that they have an entitlement to wealth, based on their cultural superiority and proximity to a divine monarch.  Though this class of individuals, like any strata of social organization, has something to teach us about human nature, individual aristocrats (potentially Denys among them) are often privileged wastrels, fungible in their educational value.  They have not invariably contributed something to society and, as a group, they are not necessarily normatively valuable.  (While, anecdotally, culture typically flourishes in aristocratic societies, the cost-benefit equation doesn't compare favorably to non-totalitarian societies in which the government substitutes as patron.)

But regardless of the larger issues at stake in conflating a romanticized notion of aristocracy with genuinely great achievement, Denys Finch-Hatton is an easy case: he was unquestionably artistocratic; he was also, unquestionably, not great.  Sara Wheeler does him no favors by wrapping him in a mantle that's too broad for his shoulders: doing so only makes the man look small.

(Photo courtesy of The New York Times.)

When the pen is the sword

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In Black Swan Green, David Mitchell writes, "If you show someone something you've written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin and say, 'When you're ready.'" (p. 183.)  Funny that creative writing should make the author so vulnerable, but my own experience confirms his observation.  The act of writing a novel, for example, seems to arm everyone around the author, while transforming the surroundings into a battleground where the pen is not mightier than the sword.

I recalled the Black Swan Green quote when reading Too Close to the Sun, Sara Wheeler's biography of Denys Finch-Hatton.  Wheeler is open about her dislike of Karen Blixen, who -- by memorializing her love affair with Finch-Hatton in Out of Africa -- is the only reason anyone recalls Denys Finch-Hatton today.

Wheeler's distaste for Karen Blixen spills over into gratuitous pot shots about her writing: "[Karen Blixen] liked sweep and grandeur, and later imbued her tales with it (often with little substance beneath the glittering surface)."  (p. 125.)  This remark is typical of Wheeler's regard for Karen Blixen, and every time I stumble on another Wheeler's tossed-off, untutored literary judgments, I feel more empathy for Karen Blixen, lying in her coffin, with Wheeler gleefully wielding the stake overhead.

On the other hand, I also feel sympathy for Wheeler.  Her subject, Mr. Finch-Hatton, died without leaving any substantive written record of his existence.  While this silence might be one reason why no one previously published a biography of him (despite the lapse of more than 70 years since his death and Wheeler's biography), Wheeler isn't dissuaded.  She grunts through three years of research, until she comes "to see the lack of material not as a biographical handicap but as a cipher for the unknowability of anyone else's inner life."  (p. 3.) 

In other words, she begins a process of rationalization to stave off the certainty that she's been wasting her time, chasing a phantom.  Thankless task, biography writing.  As thankless, no doubt, as literary criticism.

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Too Close to the Sun category.

Silence Will Speak is the previous category.

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