Enid Starkie, Petrus Borel, New Directions, 1954
The pioneer French avant-gardeist Petrus Borel (fl. 1830-1840) was noted for his extravagant attitudes and behavior and his violently republican political beliefs. His bitter, cynical fiction sold poorly, and before he abandoned writing he lived for a considerable time in real poverty. By and large his writings have been forgotten, and he is generally regarded as having been important as a personage, and perhaps as an influence, but not as a writer. (On this more later; I have some books on order and wonder whether Borel might not be due for a revival.)
Enid Starkie, by contrast, is an Anglo-Irishwoman* of good family who spent her life going from success to success and who played a major role in introducing such authors as Rimbaud to English-language readers. Her biography of Borel is good for what it is, and it also can serve as a literary history of the time. She does not have the carefulness of contemporary biographers and occasionally takes stories too much at face value, but that’s more than made up for by the good anecdotes she passes along as a consequence of that.
The problem with Starkie is this: like every other biographer of a starving artist I’ve ever read, from time to time Starkie feels compelled to kibitz , or to wonder why Borel did the things he did, or to suggest maybe he was partly at fault for his difficulties, or to suggest other ways he could have gone at things. Borel is not the best case to make my point, since the value of his work is uncertain, but I have also seen similar attitudes taken toward artists like Musorgsky, Satie, and Nerval whose merit is unquestioned.
Subject to correction, I would like to generalize this into a law. There are no starving or avant-garde biographers. The biographers of starving artists will always have more common sense and be much more comfortably situated than their biographees, and in every case some degree of condescension must slip into their work. Readers are invited to suggest counterexamples.
As a corrective principle I’d like to propose that if the person you’re writing the biography of has been dead for a century or more, they should (except for idiot kings, mass murderers, etc.) be assumed to deserve a considerable degree of respect; whereas the same is not necessarily true of biographers.
* Along with Joanna Richardson’s The Bohemians and Pamela Pilbeam’s The 1830 Revolution in France, Starkie’s book has also led me to suspect that well-born Englishwomen, however hyphenated, are not the best choices for writing about Frenchpersons of any description.