Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Biographies and Memoirs

The artist and writer Mervyn Peake,
the subject of  both memoir and biography
in this post.
This little compare-contrast is purely for my own amusement, dear reader. I expect there are very few people in this world who share my love of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books (although those that exist tend to be remarkably passionate about it.)

I read Gormenghast in high school for no reason that I can now recall. In A. Langley's proposed division between
those who wallow in the murky shadows of Gormenghast like hippos in the mud, and those who listlessly let Titus Groan fall from their fingers in the middle of the first sentence

... I was one of the former. I read that entire gargantuan puzzlebox of a book, then I tried to make my friends love it like I did. I watched the terrible BBC miniseries. I wrote Peake-themed essays for my college applications. I sought out every scrap of his writing I could find and plunged into his biography, as if I could trace this man's imagination and somehow find another story.

More recently, just for kicks, I picked up A World Away, the memoir written by his wife, the artist Maeve Gilmore, about her life with Peake. I had read the memoir before, but forgotten--or perhaps, never fully respected--what a remarkable storyteller Gilmore is in her own right. (It may also be possible that I was not an unbiased reader.) I reveled in the details Gilmore shares and mourned with her as her brilliant lover fades into early senility and untimely death. I made my roommate sit still while I read her the last few pages, in which Gilmore abandons the detached tone which she has been using and instead writes an direct and heartbreaking narration of a visit to him in the nursing home.

Immediately afterward, I picked up Peake's official biography, Malcolm Yorke's My Eyes Mint Gold, with the intention of using the two back-to-back to further my understanding of Peake and on his novels, which I planned to read again afterward.

Mervyn Peake and his wife Maeve Gilmore.
The experience of reading these two books--about the same subject--could not be more different.

While at first, I appreciated Yorke's more expanded view of Peake's life (as Gilmore begins her story with their first meeting, and only summarizes Peake's early life later), I soon became disappointed in Yorke's execution. My Eyes Mint Gold is exhaustively researched, and the exhaustion carries over to the reader. At far too many points, the narrative of Peake's life devolves into Yorke listing off the other quasi-famous figures with whom he may have had the briefest of contact. It is as if by this tedious name-dropping, Yorke attempts to persuade the reader of Peake's significance. A better portrayal might have let him stand alone on his own two unusual feet, rather than tying him to a laundry list of other nearly important people. It makes for very dull reading, and fails to convey any meaningful depiction of the subject.

Moreover, Yorke takes a bizarre bent against Maeve Gilmore. When he cannot elide her presence from the record of her husband's life, he castigates her as a "spoiled little rich girl" and blames her for Peake's abysmal money management, at one point demanding to know why it did not "occur" to her to get a job to support her struggling husband. In Yorke's telling, Gilmore's own artistic career is overlooked as a babyish imitation of her superior partner. He also suggests repeatedly that Peake was unfaithful to his wife, although he eventually admits that no one he interviewed in the course of researching his biography could substantiate such rumors. It is as if Yorke deliberately wished to besmirch his subject's legacy.

The experience of reading the two books one after the other made Yorke's bias shockingly apparent. With A World Away still fresh in my mind, I could see how [name] quoted selectively from Gilmore's own memoir, leaving out key contexts or even changing the meaning of entire sequences. It's a cruel treatment and one which has me far more alert to the less-obvious prejudices held by other biographers--the information they deliberately withhold, misrepresent, or present in damning fashion.

Mervyn Peake surrounded by his paintings. His wife
was the muse and model for most of his work.
My Eyes Mint Gold claims to be the most "factual" telling of Peake's life, shading certain of Gilmore's personal memories as being unreliable or impossible. It is nevertheless a bone-dry and soulless account of a man's colorful and brimming life. Its most tantalizing contents are the excepts from Peake's less popular works, both poetry and fiction, and the descriptions of his art, most of which is not actually reproduced within the pages. As an attempt to convey the life of Mervyn Peake, however, I would have to say that it fails. 

Perhaps one could take these two divergent tellings of the same man's life as the difference between autobiographical writing and memoir.

Or, perhaps, the difference between a book that was written out of love and one that was commissioned for a paycheck.

No comments:

Post a Comment