On Biography: Masculin, or Public Image Limited
This relay-race of an essay was published in Dot Dot Dot 10, where its male focus was supposed to be counteracted by a parallel “On Biography: Féminin,” to be written by Frances Stark. In the end, her contribution was compressed into a triple caption for the incredible image she provided for the cover of the issue, which is reproduced here at the end.
Lead image: Photograph by Anu Vahtra, originally captioned “The 3Rs: Repetition, Repetition, Repetition.”
Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
I always think of this classic Samuel Beckett aphorism as a single-bullet autobiography; the essence of his life/work distilled to 34 letters, 7 gaps and 4 dots conveying all the usual morbidity, lucidity, brutality, brevity, humour, humanity, focus and death more efficiently than any of those words alone or together ever could. Its form is wholly appropriate for both subject matter and subject, but it also describes the condition of biography itself: fundamentally flawed. The grotesque processes of condensation and distortion involved in the selection and combination of facts and details of a life means any attempt is automatically condemned to fall way short, and all we can do is fall again, fall longer. Despite this less than optimistic premise, biography as a genre seems to perpetually increase in popularity and—by implication—relevance, as if taking on a life of its own. This text has something of the attitude of a low rent private eye chasing a biography of that life. It stalks a number of maverick writers and their maverick subjects, taking notes, transcribing dialogue, and character building.
The British writer, poet and film-maker B.S. Johnson christened the protagonist of his first novel Travelling People (1963) Henry Henry to emphasize those obtuse abstract qualities a name suggests prior to any further description: to emphasize his Henryness. Johnson was also exercising his tendency to expose the mechanics of fiction according to his lifelong dictum 'telling stories is telling lies', which involved regularly tripping the reader up to avoid any comfortable slip into passivity. In short, the cartoon improbabilty of the double-barreled name was designed to maintain a non-suspension of disbelief. Johnson also intended to name the anti-hero of his subsequent novel Henry to suggest the continuity of both Henrys representing the same character: himself. Later he changed Henry to Samuel in direct homage to Beckett, one of a trilogy of mentors after Sterne and Joyce, but in a last-minute loss of nerve decided the reference was too direct, particularly as he was also opening the novel with a Beckett quote and his technique was noticeably derivative anyway. Instead, both character and novel became Albert Angelo (1964), surnamed after The Angel, the area of north London which provides the backdrop.
The logical conclusion of Johnson's quest against what he saw as the dormant, irrelevant fiction of the traditional English novel was to base his own writing on real-life events rather than imagination, whilst avoiding straight autobiography. His early work was based on, for example, experiences during summer holiday work in Ireland; as a supply teacher in north London; or channeled through a memoir of a friend who had recently died from cancer. Johnson’s critics were quick to point out, however, that by insisting on autobiography as source material the author was essentially writing himself into a corner: he would soon run out of stimulating experiences, and then what? Johnson's responses were imaginative and varied: a trip as a supernumerary aboard a north sea fishing boat to 'trawl' his memory in forced isolation; a projected interior monologue account of eight people in an old people's home; and an excavation beyond his own life resulting in a biography of his mother, The Matrix Trilogy, of which he managed to complete only the first of an intended three volumes, called See the old lady decently. The two subsequent books were to be titled Buried although and Amongst those left are you. Running horizontally across thick spines, the three individual titles would form a single composite sentence.
Johnson's biographer Jonathan Coe hints that the task of this novel was ultimately too painful for Johnson to follow through. He took his own life in 1973 aged 40, and the first volume was published posthumously in 1975. Two weeks before the suicide, however, he had also completed work on what turned out to be a swansong documentary for the BBC, candidly titled Fat Man on a Beach. This 40-minute detour through a very English brand of surrealism involved Johnson recounting various autobiographical anecdotes, telling bad jokes and reading his own poetry in a windswept North Wales. It effectively abbreviates most of Johnson's philosophical and professional beliefs, including the exposition of the filming process - visible crew, nonsensical editing, emphasized mistakes - years before it became a staple of postmodern TV, in the same manner that his novels reflexively exposed the mechanics of rhetoric and embraced chaos. This was most effectively demonstrated in the last book published during his lifetime, Xtie Malry's Own Double-Entry (1973), though his editor forced him to rechristen the protagonist “Christie,” considering this a typographic conceit too far. A certain schizophrenia is played out through this body of work: on one hand Johnson sets out to expose the lies of his form, on the other he insists on the truth of his content, and somewhere in the blind spot of this paradox lies the essence of his character.
In 1970 B.S. Johnson also made a short biographical TV documentary about his eighteenth-century namesake Samuel Johnson, and this year, 35 years on, Jonathan Coe's biography of B.S. Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant won the Samuel Johnson prize for biography. A similar sense of elliptical destiny begins Coe's account of Johnson's life, as he recalls sitting down with his parents one evening at the age of thirteen in 1974 to watch a documentary about their family seaside holiday town, Fat Man on a Beach. Thirty years on he writes:
Like B.S. Johnson, I have a strong puritanical streak, and it remains one of my core beliefs that a work of literature should speak for itself, without the need for glossing, interpreting or contextualizing by reference to its writer's life. But how naive that sounds, even as I write it down! we live in a culture of radio and television interviews, newspaper profiles, public readings with question-and-answer sessions, which has ensured that novels themselves—far from being self-contained statements, as having anything remotely final about them—have merely become one (early) stage in a larger process: a process devoted, essentially, to the scrutiny and interrogation of writers' lives in the name of that insatiable curiosity which feeds on anyone reckless enough to set themselves up as a public figure … which means, in effect, that we no longer read literature: we cross-examine it, forensically, in the light of its writers' lives, assuming that it's in the gaps, the interstices, the shortfalls between theory and practice that the real truths about human nature will emerge.
Coe's preface is titled “The industrious biographer (an introduction without which you might have felt unhappy),” in which he discusses the whole problem of literary biography with a kind of simultaneous love/hate I encountered repeatedly during the research for this piece. Love for the potential of biography to enlighten the nature of a life/work relationship. Hate for the particular monster combination of stereotype, cliché and speculation that literary biography in particular has evolved into. Crucially, Coe begins by defining the importance of Johnson's novels—for himself as much as anyone else—as being “literary heresies” (”at odds with convention or received wisdom”), then adopts this as a guiding principle for his own book, consistently challenging his own conceptions of what a biography should and shouldn't be. Coe is admirably rigorous but never pedantic with this self-questioning, tapping into Johnson's working spirit—doggedly committed to some notion of The Truth, however flawed—and ending up with what feels like a plausibly intimate and accurate portrait. This is a highly designed biography. The main section is built on the premise that as Johnson's novels were already more or less autobiography, by his own admission, they should form the bedrock. So Coe selects 160 fragments of Johnson's writing from the whole spectrum of his output, including letters, notes, diary entries, and a transcribed conversation as well as sports journalism, poetry, film treatments and excerpts from the novels, then arranges them chronologically in terms of biographical content, then acts as a guide, leading the reader from fragment to fragment, fleshing out information and carefully speculating on events and meanings.
... the result will be fragmentary, unpolished. There will be gaps, where through misfortune or obstruction or sometimes sheer inertia I will not have been able to find out as much as I would have liked. And where I lapse into speculation, I shall try to be upfront about it. I shall try to be honest. That much at least Johnson himself would have appreciated.
By the end, the faint figure of Coe has emerged alongside Johnson the elephant, along with a delicate but clear subplot concerning the nature of the changing relationship between the biographer and his subject over seven years of work. The magic of this feat is how it alters as incrementally, subtly and devastatingly as most human relationships. The final fragment is, naturally, Johnson's own suicide note, by which point Coe has appropriated his subject's brutal economy effectively enough to describe it as “a kind of concrete poem”:
This is my last
Coe describes Johnson's taste as being markedly homogenic and British, so it is unlikely he was aware that the Russian exile Vladimir Nabokov had already double-named the main character of his 1955 novel Lolita, Humbert Humbert. In a Playboy interview Nabokov explained: “The double rumble is, I think, very nasty, very suggestive. It is a hateful name for a hateful person.” As with Johnson's characters, the implausibility of Humbert's double name is merely the most immediate and visible tip of the book's constant reference to its own artifice and involution. Nabokov had already written an autobiographical memoir, Conclusive Evidence, in 1951, later updated into a “definitive version” called Speak, Memory in 1966. Nabokov's “other masterpiece,” Pale Fire, written seven years after Lolita in 1962 is something else altogether, a Russian doll of fictional biography. In a foreword by one Charles Kinbote we are introduced to the structure of the book, consisting of an epic poem by his recently deceased neighbour, friend and colleague John Shade, followed by Kinbote's own line-by-line annotations of each stanza, from which a tragic narrative of misunderstanding unravels for the remainder and main body of the book, concluding with Shade's death in the final line of the poem, a full-circle repetition of the first: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain.”
The degree to which Nabokov exalts in his virtuosity for embedded references, allusions and in-jokes is matched only by The Annotated Lolita, compiled in 1970 and updated in 1991 by Nabokov scholar Alfred Appel, Jr. with the author's coy authorisation and assistance. Appel rigorously applies the construct of Pale Fire to Lolita, compiling some 900 notes (almost half as long as the novel itself) resulting in a kind of “reality” version of Pale Fire, or, rather, a more shadowy and convoluted blurring of the borders between fact, fiction, biography and autobiography. Nabakov himself observed that “reality” is one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes. Appel refers to correspondences with Pale Fire throughout his introduction and notes, stating “This edition … is analogous to what Pale Fire might have been like if poor John Shade had been given the opportunity to comment on Charles Kinbote’s Commentary.” Appel also feels it necessary to state his own “reality” credentials in the third person: “he is a veteran and a grandfather, a teacher and taxpayer, and has not been invented by Vladimir Nabokov.” Finally, consummately summing up the doppelganger effect of Pale Fire and The Annotated Lolita, “In Place of a Note on the text,” Appel reuses Kinbote's (fictional) preface to Pale Fire to introduce his own new (factual) annotations to Lolita, as if playing out Borges’ story Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, where an identical text is “infinitely richer” in a later context.
Among the myriad other examples of biographical play that pepper Appel's notes are Nabokov's various anagrams and near-anagrams of his own name—Vivian Darkbloom in Lolita, some close relation to his previous novels’ Vivians: Bloodmark, Badlook, and Calmbrood (the k replaced by c in Nabokov's native Cyrillic). And in one of the most extraordinary sections towards the end of Lolita, Humbert describes how his rival character Clare Quilty (famously portrayed by Peter Sellers in Stanley Kubrick's adaptation) left traces of his stalking drive across the USA by signing himself under a variety of cryptic names and locations in the guestbooks of the motels in which they stayed. After Quilty has abducted Lolita, Humbert traces his route backwards, desperately collecting these flashes of identity which depict the sinister intelligence of his counterpart and alter-ego. In the original novel, the reader is left to work these out, like an embedded crossword puzzle. Some are relatively easy to decode—'Donald Quix, Sierra, Nev.', for instance—but most require Appel's annotations:
Dr. Kitzler, Eryx, Miss. For Kitzler—H.H.'s tag for Eryx, the cult of Aphrodite, where “religious prostitution” was indeed practiced. The abbreviated form of Mississippi adds to the pun cluster an incongruous note of formality; “translated” it reads “Dr Clitoris, Venus, Miss”—and “miss venus” is the archetypal if not the ultimate beauty contest winner.
Ultimately, The Annotated Lolita is a biographical vignette of Nabokov, another angle on the particular vertiginous mechanics of his mind. Or as B.S. Johnson's authorial voice, entering at the close of the novel Mother House Normal puts it: “a diagram of certain aspects on the inside of my skull.”
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
So drawls the audacious opening of J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye which, perhaps more than any other modern novel, has been adopted by generations of disaffected youth as a surrogate autobiography. This was demonstrated most infamously when found in the pocket of Mark Chapman as he shot and killed John Lennon on the steps of the Dakota building in 1980, and claimed by Chapman to be his testimony. In the front of the book he had inscribed “This is my statement,” supposedly referring to Lennon's embodiment of the societal phonyism that Holden famously abhors. That opening sentence also doubles as a pretty faithful summary of Salinger's own opinion of biography (and particularly literary biography). A notorious recluse, Salinger withdrew from the public domain in the mid-1950s, having maintained an impressive wall of silence around both his life and work which endures today, well into his eighties.
The biographical details of a recluse are, of course, hunted and collected more avidly than anyone else, and this paradox of being famous for not wanting to be famous was one of a number of thoughts which informed Ian Hamilton's curious 1988 book In Search of J.D. Salinger. Hamilton intended to use Salinger as a trigger to write about the elusive nature of biography, or more particularly, the relationship between the biographer and biographee, not really expecting to get anywhere by pursuing the writer himself.
According to my outline, the rebuffs I experienced would be as much part of the action as the triumphs—indeed it would not matter much if there were no triumphs. The idea—or one of the ideas—was to see what would happen if orthodox biographical procedures were to be applied to a subject who actively set himself to resist, and even to forestall, them … It would be a biography, yes, but it would also be a semispoof in which the biographer would play a leading, sometimes comic, role.
Hamilton proceeds by splitting himself into two – the rational, responsible biographer, and the emotional, excitable detective - whose alter-ego monologues trace the story to its ultimate dead-end, when Salinger and his team of lawyers succeed in paraphrasing the book to a shadow of its former self.
Salinger's book jacket biographical notes were always minimal, and most recently completely removed, along with any publicity photograph. In the jacket blurb for Franny and Zooey he wrote of himself, “I live in Westport with my dog.”—both of which were untrue. Another author with outspoken views on the subject, Milan Kundera, has consistently whittled his own blurb down to the current “Milan Kundera was born in 1929 in Czechoslovakia and since 1975 has been living in France.” Kundera strictly refuses to publish any interviews, photographs, or “explanations” of his books, with typically deadpan logic—“All I am trying to say is in the novel, and if I did not say something, then I probably did not mean say it”—and has consistently promoted the autonomy of the novel:
The novelist destroys the house of his life and uses its stones to build the house of his novel. A novelist's biographers thus undo what a novelist has done, and redo what he undid. All their labour cannot illuminate either the value or the meaning of the novel, can scarcely even identify a few of the bricks. The moment Kafka attracts more attention that josef k., Kafka's posthumous death begins.
George Perec built his own autobiography W, or The Memory of Childhood (1975) from two discrete parts. He explains the structure in his introduction:
In this book there are two texts which simply alternate; you might almost believe they had nothing in common, but they are in fact inextricably bound up with each other, as though neither could exist on its own, as though it was only their coming together, the distant light they cast on each other, that could make apparent what is never quite said in one, never quite said in the other, but only in their fragile overlapping.
One of these texts is entirely imaginary: it's an adventure story, an arbitrary but careful reconstruction of a childhood fantasy about a land in thrall to the Olympic ideal. The other text is an autobiography: a fragmentary tale of a wartime childhood, a tale lacking in exploits and memories made up of scattered oddments, gaps, lapses, doubts, guesses and meager anecdotes. Next to it, the adventure story is rather grandiose, or maybe dubious. For it begins to tell one tale, and then, all of a sudden, launches into another. In this break, in this split suspending the story on an unidentifiable expectation can be found the point of departure for the whole book: the points of suspension on which the broken threads of childhood and the web of writing are caught.
The letter “W,” “double-U” (double-Vé in French), already embodies this idea and is the name of the island “in thrall to the Olympic ideal” which takes up one half of the book. The other is “The memory of childhood,” even though the opening sentence of this half reads: “I have no childhood memories.” It is also interesting to note that the main character of the “W” story is named Gaspard Winckler. This is not his original name; he has in fact been given a passport that used to belong to a child, a sickly boy named Gaspard Winckler, who has now disappeared off the coast of W. So the actual autobiography is represented by the “or” point of the book's whole title, or more concisely, the intersection in the letter W where the two Us meet.
The name Gaspard Winckler reappears in Perec’s Life: A User's Manual, written over nine years and published in 1978, three years after W, which comprises 99 chapters about the inhabitants of a ten-story building in Paris. The structure of this book is dictated by a famous chess problem: how to visit every square on the board using only the knight’s move. The system alludes to the jigsaw puzzle or patchwork of the building and accords a structure whereby the everyday and arbitrary can find their place within the series of L-shaped steps from room to room. It is essentially a biographical study of the life of a house, told through the fictional stories of several generations over a hundred years. Perec was a member of Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), the French collective that explored the crossover of writing and mathematics. Puzzles were always a key inspiration for Perec, and a second recurring motif in the book is the jigsaw puzzle, played out through the relationship between the jigsaw maker and the jigsaw doer. As the reader repeatedly re-enters rooms and lives, he traces one underlying story of the life of the building's multimillionaire owner, Bartlebooth. Born into unspeakable wealth and indifferent to the temptations of women, power, art or money itself, at the age of twenty he decides to devise an arbitrary project to keep him occupied for the rest of his life. For the first ten years he will learn to paint watercolours; for the following twenty he will travel the world painting seaports at the rate of one a fortnight, then ship each one back to Paris where a hired craftsman will turn them into jigsaw puzzles; and for the final twenty years he will return to Paris and reassemble the 500 paintings, recreating the images of his life memories, after which they will be turned back into solid pictures, returned to the location they depict, and dipped into detergent to remove the image, leaving a blank sheet of paper. In short, a half-century recursive exercise of moral, logical and aesthetic substance, beginning and ending with zero. Gaspard Winckler is the craftsman who creates puzzles from Bartlebooth's watercolours and who ultimately exacts an obscure revenge on the rich Englishman. Towards the end of the book Bartlebooth's eyesight diminishes to the point of blindness, and as the pace winds down agonizingly to his fitting pieces by touch alone, then with the aid of description from an assistant, it becomes clear that he will never succeed in reaching his goal and the predetermined autobiographical project will remain incomplete, or: the jigsaw-maker will have won. The entire novel in fact takes place the second before Bartlebooth dies, in front of an incomplete puzzle, as Winckler's masterstroke is revealed:
On the tablecloth, somewhere in the crepuscular sky of the four hundred and thirty-ninth puzzle, the black hole of the sole piece not yet filled has the almost perfect shape of an X. but the ironical thing, which could have been foretold long ago, is that the piece the dead man holds between his fingers is shaped like a W.
When Perec died, his friend and fellow writer Harry Mathews wrote “The orchard, a remembrance of Georges Perec,” a collection of memories each beginning with the words “I remember.” He did this daily, adopting a mode of writing used by Perec in his “Je me souviens” (“I remember,” 1978), until he, quite simply, forgot to. The first one reads: 'I remember sometimes arranging to meet Georges Perec on the bus or the metro. He always sat by a window, and I recognized him from far away - his afro hair and his goatee gave his face the projective power of a primitive mask.'
Peter Sellers always attributed his prodigious character acting as being the fortunate consequence of lacking any personality of his own. He was a self-proclaimed vessel to contain others' fiction, and Stanley Kubrick would later describe his acting as a kind of instinctive hysteria. In TV interviews, Sellers generally responds to all questions in character, or in a variety of characters, bending accents, dialects and even posture to suit his answer. Sellers’ enigma is the subject of three very different films, which together reveal more about the nature of biography than their spectre of a subject. In reverse order, the recent Hollywood biopic The Life and Death of Peter Sellers offers a distinctly unsubtle portrait, founded on base Freudian cause-and-effect: a suggestive closeness with his mother, the behaviour of a spoilt-child, an inability to maintain relationships with women, and an increasing solitude, melancholy and appetite for self-destruction. A few years earlier the BBC had also produced a film of Sellers' life, Peter Sellers As He Filmed It, which tells much the same story through a remarkable trove of home movie footage which Sellers obsessively compiled throughout his life. The film is montaged almost entirely from this footage, with archive clips from various TV and film appearances, all judiciously annotated by formal voiceover. Where the Hollywood version drives home the clichés, the BBC version is rich in charm and subtlety, with the very real sense of feeling of the intricacies of character bleeding through the clips, whether happily forcing his son to pose for his own backyard comic vignettes, or miserable and detached on an Indian spiritual trail. The stories are the same in both films, but in this version they are plausible, and this is less to do with the fact that the material is visually authentic, and more to do with the inclusion of irrational mood swings, chance happenings and overall chaos. Where Hollywood filters out humanity, the BBC distills it.
In 1971, Jerzy Kosinski published his second novel Being There. Soon afterwards he received a telegram from its lead character, Chance the Gardener: “Available in my garden or outside of it.” A telephone number followed, and when Kosinski dialed it Peter Sellers answered. For years afterwards, Sellers attempted to interest Hollywood in an adaptation, and finally, in 1979, with the clout he had gained from the Pink Panther series, the film was made together with director Hal Ashby. Sellers as Chance is shut away from the world, working in the enclosed garden of an elderly couple, his only knowledge of the world from TV, and lacking any social character of his own. When the couple die, the gardener is suddenly released into a world where the innocence of his non-personality and regurgitated TV-speak is consistently misinterpreted. The result is a double-edged satire on politics, television and social mores. In the wake of the biographical detail supplied by two later straight biographical films, Being There has earned a reputation as the true unofficial Sellers biography; the unauthorised authorised version. And next to Hollywood “fiction, ”and self-directed “fact,” this hybrid of the two feels closest of the three.
The screenplay was adapted from the novel by Kosinski himself, a Polish Jew exiled to the USA, whose first novel, The Painted Bird, quickly became a bestseller, and whose central metaphor—if a captured crow is beautifully painted and released to go back to its flock, the other crows will attack and kill it because it is different—was a blueprint for his own life. Born Jerzy Nitodem Lewintopf, under Nazi threat his family was rechristened Kosinski, the Polish equivalent of Smith, and though Jerzy could tolerate this disguise he could not maintain his anonymity. Instead, he cultivated a certain infamy as a socialite and minor actor as well as a writer, along with a reputation as a plagiarist, liar and conman. A damning Village Voice article in 1982 revealed his books were largely ghostwritten by various editors, or more or less directly translated from Polish sources unknown to English speakers, explaining the striking stylistic differences from one supposedly autobiographical novel to the next.
In 1999, German academic Klaus Stadtmüller delivered a biographical lecture on Kurt Schwitters. He compiled fragments written by Schwitters drawn from poems, letters and notes throughout his life and read them chronologically—an aural equivalent of the Sellers home movie footage. Following the lecture, British writer David Lillington approached Stadtmüller to thank him and ask for a printed copy of the lecture. He was presented with a collection of sheets where Stadtmüller had pasted together scraps of quotations from photocopied books, apparently unaware that he was collaging his found material in precisely the same manner and spirit as Schwitters made his graphic works. Noting the ad-hoc formal beauty in Stadtmüller's functional notes, Lillington argues that Stadtmüller's collage functions as the best short biography of Schwitters to date.
But a few other contenders were produced by the Polish film-maker, writer and designer Stefan Themerson, who knew Schwitters for the last five years of his life. The first was a particularly tactile monograph, Kurt Schwitters in England, published in 1958 by his own Gaberbocchus press, the second was a lecture three years later delivered to a group of Cambridge students, and the third a graphic translation of this lecture called “Kurt Schwitters on a Time Chart,” compiled around the time of the lecture but not published (in Typographica) until the end of the 1960s, by which time Themerson had written this unpublished “postface” to editor Herbert Spencer:
Here it is. And I am horrified. I have read it again, and I hate every word of it. This book is a monstrosity. What I would really have liked —well, I would have liked to be able to enjoy K.S.'s work lightly, for the ‘pleasure it gives to the eye.’ And yet I couldn't write it in that key. It's wrong, possibly, nevertheless it irritates me when I see people handling a collage by K.S. as if it were a bunch of lovely flowers. Perhaps because I know that they grew not in a glasshouse but in that bloody stinking bit of European history nobody wants to remember.
Let me quote a philosopher who ended his book with words that have become almost a cliché. He says: … he who understands me finally recognizes my propositions as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) Perhaps the reader must endure this book, (together with its time-chart and other nonsense), and then throw it away. Perhaps that is what he must do in order to enjoy K.S’s work rightly.
Themerson's friend and colleague Anthony Froshaug also found himself on the receiving end of similar concerns. Busy preparing a small monograph about Themerson's background and diverse activities, Froshaug sent his subject an incomplete draft for comment, and received this typically frank reply:
Mixture of biographic data & personal reminisces—I have my doubts about it. 1st you were not present at the birth of the subject. 2nd factual information (… born in … &c) creates an aura of objectivity and this overflows onto personal reminisces making them appear less personal than they really are or were [...] I do not like that kind of literary research which consists in finding bits of author's life and ad hoc connecting them with some bits of work. It seems to me essentially non-scientific, prejudicial, irrelevant, misleading, & altogether too easy …
Froshaug's interests were as diverse and maverick as Themerson’s—a complex compound of typography, writing, science, and mathematics—and he became similarly outspoken about the dangers of glossing over, of interpreting without scientific method, of romance. In an early book review of Herbert Spencer’s Pioneers of Modern Typography he wrote “why celebrate people in books if you cannot say what they did, and why, for what (and for how much)? I should not like to celebrate my death, laid out on a coffee-table.”
These two sentences hung over Robin Kinross—literally, on the wall over the laser printer—as he prepared a monograph on Froshaug during the 1990s. After much deliberation, Kinross chose to dissect the book into life (Documents of a lΩife) and work (Typography & Texts), as two separate volumes housed in a slipcase (2000), despite “his life and work being more intertwined than most.” The reasons are foremost practical, in terms of both sorting and arranging material clearly for the reader, as well as allowing it to be presented in a form light and small enough for the hand and as such faithful to Froshaug's practical, human-sized principles. But ultimately, what initially appears a brutal and even paradoxical division serves only to bring the life and work closer together; the books effectively mirror each other, and the clarity of organisation allows the reader to reconcile them himself. In many respects the result resembles Coe's account of Johnson. Both biographers were working under the implicit pressure of writing about writers who had strict ideas about how things should and shouldn't be done, both were tackling literary biography with serious reservations about the genre bordering on disgust, and both were dealing with marginal subjects rooted in the same era of postwar austerity, working out a kind of painfully human wing of high modernism in isolation. Both Kinross and Coe were working through the late 1990s and early 2000s, in an era of unsurpassed public interest in lowest-common-denominator celebrity. Significantly, they respond with humility, take what is already there and frame it appropriately.
Early on I decided that I would not attempt to write a biography of Anthony Froshaug. I do not believe this is an appropriate form for him. Indeed, perhaps the conventional biographical narrative that pretends intimate, even superior knowledge of another person is not an appropriate or reasonable form for the life of any human being. But in the case of so factual, so Brechtian a man, the appropriate form must be factual, critical, aware of its own purposes and methods, explicit about these and about its limits.
While the Typography and Texts volume is a fairly standard work survey of annotated graphic work and texts, the Documents of a Life half is less conventional. Like Coe's excerpts of Johnson's texts, Kinross compiles a similar chronological scrapbook, drawn from the disarray of Froshaug's posthumous papers, including photographs, excerpts from unfinished fiction, teaching projects, correspondence, postcards and notes. The book is not exhaustive, but edited on the basis of an intimate understanding of the subject's ideas, showing items only where appropriate. Finally, the books demonstrate Froshaug’s most important role as a as teacher through Kinross as his student (in the least official but widest reaching sense), richly manifest in the legacy of rigour and love.
Johnson once described the ability to laugh at himself louder than others as the only thing that kept him going, and a similar grim humour is exercised in the following, slightly hysterical autobiographical note Froshaug wrote about himself for the notes at the back of Art Without Boundaries (1972), an early survey of modernist art and design from the British perspective:
Born in london, 1920. Trained in drawing and wood-engraving at Central School of Arts and Crafts, 1937–39 (five terms). Never allowed into typography room. Freelance designer and typographer from 1941, believing that mechanical composition could do as well as hand. Work regarded as “backwash of the continental movement of the 1920s,” therefore unacceptable or minimally paid. Fell in love with printing: from love and economic stress and difficulties in having accurate layouts carried out at second-hand, bought £25 worth of minimal equipment (type, l.c. only, spaces, strip leads, tweezers, galley, Adana H/S No. 2. Found old rusty stick and some survival type and cases in Cornwall; had screwdriver, cotton-wool, spanners, paper, ingenuity). Customers prepared to leave typographer alone, if end-product printed. Immense interest in emotional and structural meaning of text. Desire to find visual form matching verbal. Never thought could teach, but approached by Jesse Collins (1947) to do a day a week at Central, “because you have authority.” Flabbergasted, but the teaching seemed to work. Driven back to minimal living, moved to Cornwall (5s. per week rent), doing 130 jobs a year. Earned £4 per week. Returned to London on appointment as senior lecturer in typography at Central (1952–53). Appointment not confirmed, since place needed for trade appointee, in order to help extension of school being built to house apprentices (Apprentices not forthcoming.) First understood that teaching not a matter of educating potentially superb students, but rat-race. Disgusted, resolved never to teach again. Re-established press, Cornwall (6s. per week rent). Tempted by anarchist dream of Hochschule für Gestaltung, Ulm, to learn German and take up professorship in graphic design and visual communication (1957–61); also established typography workshop in the college. Appointed to royal college of art as first-year tutor in graphic design (1961–64), teaching “stars,” trying to help them to become human. Huge disagreement with organization, behaved most disagreeably. (As R. Sandford said, some years later, “here comes Anthony, pretending to be a human being.”) Senior lecturer and first director of visual communication course, Watford college of technology. Had one good student, helped a few others. Used-up by teaching left to study architecture at architectural association school (1967–69). Part-time tutor, Coventry college of art and design (1969-70), at present visiting lecturer, central school of art and design (1970–). With great encouragement from friends (=ex-students), printing workshop re-established, London, 1971.
What might be dismissed as throwaway or flippant here is actually sublime: Froshaug’s self-portrait not only itemises his work, it embodies it. All the melancholy, bitterness, isolation and practicality which informed the work are embedded in its rhetoric, which manages to laugh at itself as well as criticise others. It carries the modest, convincing weight of jocuseriousness, abbreviating life while resisting one-dimensional classification. Like Beckett's one-liner, the text is generous and expansive, and like all the examples followed here, plausible because it is human, pushing for uncharted territory guided by the subject matter’s particular idiosyncrasies. Propelled by this momentum—what Paul Elliman has referred to as “the breath of life”—these biographies have assumed distinct personalities of their own.
N.B. Any resemblance to persons fictional or living in this work is purely coincidental.
Féminin Image Public, or Biography Limited
The cover girl is Sue Lyon who played the title role in Kubrick’s adaptation of Nabokov’s Lolita. Someone has punched holes in the transparency, leaving three dots to censor the excessiveness of an inappropriately erotic mouth.
Biography Féminin, or Publicity Limited
Someone with an interest in Lolita stole this image of the actress who played her from a celebrity photo agency, thinking herself justified on account of its having been rendered useless by the hole punch which was clearly employed with the intention of saving her future embarrassment. Besides it wouldn't be of use to any of the stupid magazines like People and Hello that the agency was in the business of selling images to.
Féminin Biography, or Bio Not Yet Graphed
A woman writer, not to say a feminine one, promised Dot Dot Dot a text that would fit snugly under this heading. She didn't commit sufficiently to writing the piece, incidentally giving higher, if undeserved, priority to texts promised to periodicals of larger circulation. She did, though – in lieu of the essay intended to argue for a renewed interest in biographical aspects of strong women – supply Stuart Bailey with the image used on the cover because she thought it was “perfect for him.”