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The Cycles of Biography
May 2, 2009 - 11:00am


The more biographies I read, the more I sense the difficulties of the form. Many are patchy, uneven; the herky-jerk of a life doesn’t play to the modulated rhythm of story. Biography may be the most self-contradictory literary form: It portrays randomness even as it pretends to coherence.

Yet there’s almost always power in a biography, the experience of decades intensified into a few reading days, like watching a speeded-up film of a seedling that grows to die.

I recently finished Philip Norman’s John Lennon: The Life. It too is a strange book, 850 pages covering 40 years, not all of them proofread. When The Beatles are together, the story has shape and momentum; even when new (to me) details are provided, such as Lennon drunk and urinating on churchgoers from a German balcony, you think back to his childhood abandonment and forward to his anthems of peace and love, and place his gratuitous cruelty on the well-defined arc we all know, even if that doesn’t necessarily make sense.

But when the lads break up and Lennon has the freedom to be who or what he wants to be, his character in the book—not the man himself, but his portrayal—paradoxically becomes hazier, more distant, and less interesting. It seems almost symbolic for the bio itself that Lennon capsizes his sailboat in one section and is shown adrift in a storm in another. He hangs out in the Dakota; he drinks tea down the block; he cries at the death of a cat. Norman doesn’t seem to know what to make of domestic struggle, anxiety, and aging.

The ending of the book is first a bang then a whimper: The murder is handled in two short, calm paragraphs, then there’s a long, random-feeling postscript turned over to Lennon’s son Sean. But why not to his other son, Julian, too? (Or to Lennon’s wives, former band members, lovers, even his Aunt Mimi, who raised him and survived him?) Given that the book is very sympathetic to Julian’s childhood, it’s jarring to read no more about him, after Lennon’s death, than that he became “a John Lennon clone…in the mid-1980s.” Norman doesn’t even bother to explain his methodology, and I suspect that Julian declined to be interviewed at some critical point in Norman’s research, and the biographer’s irritation shows in the book’s form.

(Yoko did several interviews over three years but withdrew her support of the book the year before publication when, Norman says, she became “upset” with him because she said he was “mean to John.” Her words throughout are also jarring; the tone of them are more sober than Norman’s, and the way he plops them in without mediation makes her sound as if she were trying to privilege herself at the expense of Lennon’s memory—that she’s being mean to John, in fact—and that makes me suspicious of Norman.)

In any case, I got caught up in the book, enjoying every page yet dreading the ending so much that I had to put the bio down late one night even though I was very near finishing, so I’d have more energy to face it the next day. Even then, it was bad. I lost John Lennon again that day. Combined with watching this video of Paul McCartney trying not to cry after John’s death, and another, which I won’t link to, that seems to show an autopsy photo of John, I spent two days in a deep funk, feeling very fragile.

It’s the same experience I had reading Carlos Baker’s biography of Hemingway, Henri Troyat’s bio of Tolstoy, Hermione Lee’s of Virginia Woolf, Justin Kaplan’s of Twain, or Sandburg’s Lincoln books. The portrayal of the completed life, even when clumsily-written or straining toward coherence, strikes a blow. (It’s also hugely useful to knowing how the agglomeration of events in a life feel—a different thing than understanding the shape of a story.)

I also get that feeling in volumes of collected letters, such as Chekhov’s (his last comment on this world, from Badenweiler: “There’s not a single well-dressed German woman; their lack of taste is depressing”) or the Flaubert-George Sand correspondence, as well as in certain diaries, journals, or writer’s notebooks. Their writers are often less guarded than they would be if writing for direct public consumption, and the events more random.

Autobiographies and especially memoirs are shaped differently—sometimes more desperately—than that and don’t really end, as far as their writers are concerned. The self may write nostalgically or in elegy but rarely carries the weight of its death, if only because the text ends in an eternal present of remembrance.

Biographers, on the other hand, always get to have the last word. And in collected letters, diaries, journals, and notebooks, editors come along to deliver the hard blow of mortality after the writers have (mostly unknowingly) written their last entries, and the same emotional cycle is completed that we experience in biographies.

(My wife: “What’s the matter, is something wrong?”

Me: “Melville’s dead!” [sob]

She: Did you let the dogs out?”)

Still: In that postscript of the Lennon bio, called “Sean Remembers,” Sean Lennon tries to explain what he possesses of his father that the world does not. Given that Sean was only five when John was murdered, and the glut of media available on his father’s life, you might think we could all be as close to knowing John Lennon as he could, and that Philip Norman’s 850 pages serve as proof of that. But Sean speaks very well, even brilliantly, about his spotty impressions. Norman writes:

At times, John’s presence is so close, one feels almost an intruder for listening. [Sean says,] "He was a very thin man at that point, and I remember the look of his ankles and his legs, they were very sharply defined in my mind…I remember the feel of the stubble on his chin very clearly, and wondering about the scar I could see underneath it.”

It’s the power of the poetic image, which thrives on random intensity in a way that the cause-and-effect rationality of biography never can, and it overpowers much of what Norman accomplishes.

“Even Beatles die,” poet Valzhyna Mort writes. I’m still reconciling myself to that.


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