Updike, Kerouac, Waugh and Orwell – do great lives lead to good writing?

John Updike

John Updike was no Ernest Hemingway.  He fought no tigers, shot no elephants and never shook hands with Fidel Castro. Any biographer of this great writer, therefore, faces a tough problem – how do you write about the life of a man who spent most of his days at a desk, transforming his suburban life into beautiful fiction?

Adam Begley’s attempt is winging its way to me via Amazon and early reviews have been mostly positive. But I am apprehensive that any biography risks shining too much light on the magic of creative writing.

Here is a piece I wrote on subject for  the Guardian.



When it comes to literary lives, existence is prized over essence, as a browse through the biography section of your local bookstore will demonstrate.

The idea that a writer’s personality should be given greater weight than the work is an idea likely to rile fastidious readers, and those who regard biography as immaterial to an understanding of the writer have found an ally in John Updike. In a piece on literary biography published in Due Considerations, his sixth commodious compilation of reviews, essays, speeches and miscellaneous items, Updike writes: “When an author has devoted his life to expressing himself, and if a poet or a writer of fiction has used the sensational and critical events of his life as his basic material, what of significance can a biographer add to the record?”

Updike is not entirely dismissive of the genre – his new collection finds room for generous reviews of biographies of Byron, Kierkegaard, Proust and Iris Murdoch, among others – but he exhibits a particular disdain for those biographies which seek to sensationalise the life and cheapen the literary achievement.

Even the most diligent of biographers risks devaluing the subject. My youthful ardour for the writing of the Beats in general, and Jack Kerouac in particular, never survived an encounter Anne Charters’ clear-eyed and honest biography of Kerouac. Evidently a sane and sympathetic writer, Charters nevertheless portrayed her subject not as an anti-hero in search of “the moment when you know all and everything is decided forever” but as something of a mummy’s boy, a user of friends and acquaintances. It would be another 20 years before I could pick up my copy of On the Road again. I took it with me on a tortuous trip across Switzerland, crisscrossing that tiny country by rail. The novel was not as overwhelming as I remembered, but far stronger than I’d feared. It should be read by those young enough to have their minds set on fire by fiction and those old enough to have learned that a novel is not some kind of manual for living.

My admiration for another man of action, George Orwell, was deepened by reading Bernard Crick’s biography. Crick approvingly quotes Wyndham Lewis’s remark that good biographies are like novels, but there is no postmodern tricksiness in his approach. With tact and intelligence, Crick examines how Eric Blair created George Orwell, from the hated prep school St Cyprian’s (Crick presents evidence to suggest that much of Orwell’s antipathy to the institution was retrospectively acquired) through formative experiences in the slums of London and Paris (“when you have shared a bed with a tramp and drunk tea out of the same snuff-tin,” Orwell wrote, “you feel that you have seen the worst and the worst has no terrors for you”) to late-found fame as the author of the much-lauded and much-misunderstood Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Crick states: “Sympathy must be present in a biographer – otherwise one would grow sour living for so long with someone one disliked…” and the reader can only wonder, initially, how Lady Selina Hastings managed to spend so much time in the dyspeptic company of Evelyn Waugh in order to produce her sensitive 736-page account of “what it was like to know Evelyn Waugh”.

The experience, it seems, had its challenging aspects but Hastings is a patient and perceptive biographer and one emerges from the book with a greater understanding of how a man with such a monstrous reputation could produce his exquisite prose. After reading Hastings’ account of Waugh’s life, I returned to his novels to find that the face beneath the book (to borrow Orwell’s metaphor in an essay on Dickens) had altered from that of an exasperating curmudgeon to a vulnerable soul.

When a biography of a literary figure manages to alter one’s perceptions in favour of the subject both writer and reader have gained a rare benefit.



This article was first published in The Guardian in November 2007