|The University of South Australia|
Of biography in all its complexity, Michael Holroyd opines:
I can see that I am engaged in the production of a bit of frogspawn and that I am thus involved in perhaps one of the ten thousand - or one of the million or more - biographies that make up not a small history but a large history in the twentieth century. I am also very aware that there are many volumes of edited war diaries and letters already published. I wonder, then, do I have something else to say which has not yet been said by others as they have recounted the experience of being on the cliff-face at Gallipoli, or in the trenches on the Western Front, or in Singapore just before the Fall in 1942, or in a POW camp somewhere in Asia. Not only this, I wonder how I can present this story, construct the narrative so that it represents faithfully the personal history of individuals caught in circumstances not of their making, and make their experience mean something to others.
This exercise is not like writing a regular biography, whatever 'regular biography' might be. It is not an exercise in 'great men or women' exposed, not an exercise in 'life and letters', nor a critical and biographical commentary on a life in politics or on the world stage. This exercise is not like that undertaken by Richard Holmes tracking Robert Louis Stevenson - following his steps in a sort of autoethnographic biographical study of Travels with a Donkey (Holmes 1995). Or Peter Ackroyd, writing on Dickens in fictocritical biographical mode, whereby he can fictionalise a conversation to illuminate an unrecorded event (Ackroyd 1991). Or Drusilla Modjeska in Poppy, teasing out her Mother's life, as part-biography, part-autobiography and part-fiction (Modjeska 1990). Or Claire Tomalin who can rely on Pepys' diary and build from that with details drawn from other historical documents and thus, with the wealth of data available, not only tell a chronological tale but also build the story in terms of themes and topics - jealousy, death and plague - as she delves into the minutiae of his daily life (Tomalin 2003).
On this direction in biography, Holroyd notes that the publication of Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets signalled a change in the biographer's craft, for Johnson the biographer had achieved a license to focus on the 'domestic privacies' and the 'minute details of everyday life' (Holroyd 2002: 22). Again, with Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians, biography took on a new freedom to explore the way in which biographical information was presented. And Holmes, Tomalin, Ackroyd and others have followed suit. Thus today as Holroyd points out,
Holroyd also notes that 'Biography will continue to change, will become more personal, more idiosyncratic, imaginative, experimental, more hybrid, and will move away from the comprehensive "Life and Letters" structure' (30).
The biographer today assumes a different stance as writer and researcher. 'Biographers now claim to be creative writers, without apparently undermining the authenticity of their work,' notes Kevin Brophy, citing Deidre Bair (Brophy 1998: 30). Bair has claimed in an interview about her biographies of Simone de Beauvoir and Anaïs Nin that
Bair, Holroyd and others are particularly concerned with the literary biography - the biographer working as detective to represent the life of the well-known, or perhaps less well-known but still published and acknowledged, writer (novelist, poet) or perhaps public figure (particularly someone with a substantial publication/written record). In such biographical endeavour, there is an assumption that there is already a public acknowledgment of the subject that makes the enterprise worthwhile. And even if there is not, there is every possibility that a biography might enhance a reputation, or make it or resurrect it.
Such is not the case with my subjects. Their claim to fame is nothing more than having been ordinary people bound up in the two cataclysmic events of the twentieth century - WWI and WWII. It is the magnitude of the events themselves, and thence the individual experience, that becomes the justification perhaps for pursuing this story; a story of my parents - Australians caught up in world events and circumstance in which they were powerless to intervene. Yet, these were circumstances which they, like many others, had to endure and that thereafter shaped them and their lives and those around them, including most particularly their children. Understanding this, I am struck by an important element in the making and justification for biography - and I turn to Strachey who wrote:
This sentiment moves me. As does the comment from Richard Holmes that, 'The dead call us out of the past they ask to be heard, remembered, understood' (cited in Holroyd 2002: 19). And here is an extract from an obituary for the man I am writing about:
'Would that later generations could know and follow in the (his) footsteps': here is a call from his peers asking that he be remembered, that his life might be known.
But this on its own would not normally be sufficient for one to start writing the story of one's father or mother, unless they were particularly famous. Perhaps, then, I can justify this narrative because it has something to do with the significance to Australians of the Anzac legend, the Anzac experience and the way in which it shapes our history and thus our sense of national identity. One has only to be at a Dawn Service in Australia or at Gallipoli alongside 11,000 young backpackers, or to stand mute in sorrow at a cemetery on the Western Front or visit the Australian War Memorial as one of the quarter of a million visitors each year, to sense the interest in the experiences, the tragedies and the individual stories of very ordinary Australians in time of trial. Thus one might want to present a story, which has elements of drama, innocence, passion, commitment, fortitude, faith, and courage - human elements reflected in diaries, letters, notebooks and artefacts worthy of a place in the archives or the Australian War Memorial. More than this however, the story to be told might also reveal something of situations that should never be forgotten. Finally as one of my friends said to me, 'One of the reasons you must write this is that it is emblematic of so many more personal histories and stories'.
I have set out on this task with all the inherent dilemmas for the writer of the biographical narrative. I feel the burdens of the researcher-writer and the obligations to the subjects very keenly and personally. Holroyd again:
I feel then that I am 'on oath' to use their letters, the diaries, and
the miscellany of cards and artefacts, with sensitivity and with a real
awareness of how they might feel as their lives and feelings are exposed
to public scrutiny.
There is no doubt in my mind that writing a biographical narrative is emotionally demanding in ways that might be anticipated. However, the extent to which this exercise stretches me personally is a constant surprise. I read a letter from Stan as a then just-'liberated POW', written in extreme conditions, and I struggle to walk within it to feel the strained joy or the eager relief from ugliness. I read, as part of the background research, a set of letters from another POW or a wife to a soldier in the Great War, and read these as if they might have been letters written by Stan or Belinda. I feel them in others' writing. I read a passage from an Army report while sitting in the research section of the Australian War Memorial; a passage of lyrical writing, unexpected in an Army report, which because it is a first-hand account and written within hours of the events described, gives those of us who read it 60 years later, eyes with which to see. Others less involved and personally committed might read, acknowledge the moment and retain a readerly distance. My writerly self is intimately committed to emotion and engagement with the words describing Prisoners of War after three and a half years of brutal internment and liberated just two days earlier arriving to board the hospital ship, HMAS Wanganella, in then North Borneo (see Appendix). And I cannot stop the tears.
A practical difficulty in dealing with this project is not a preparedness to dwell in emotion, but rather finding the time in a working and teaching life that will allow such necessary indulgence. I use the word reluctantly because while writing I am aware that this is a project which needs to be fitted into whatever limited time I can allocate to it. At the same time I know that this is a project of emotions and personal exploration as much as it is a story of others' lives. Thus, it demands much of me as writer (not as academic) and that tears should not be seen as indulgent but necessary to the felt endeavour. This is of course a problem for anyone who wants to write and must teach or work in order to sustain the writing life. Anyone in the academy today teaching in a writing program - anyone who tries to write the next chapter of a novel, keep a reflective head and heart available for a poem to evolve, or find the time to revise a short story - understands this tension. Writing such as this cannot be done in snatched hours.
There is something even more testing in this project, which borders on the ethical. How much can I expose of the subjects', Stan and Belinda's, private world, and the world of their letters, for others to see? It is also a world that impinges on the rest of their family, including my siblings. Do they have a different view of some aspects of the telling? Certainly, they had different relationships with our parents. How 'true' or perhaps 'acceptable' is my version of some events and stories recalled from my and their past? Any writer who researches aspects of personal or family history might ask such questions. Thus Terri-ann White in a moving exploration of her process of unpacking the secrets and mysteries of her ancestors, comments, 'What does it mean to write personally? By telling the story of my family, am I short-selling any of its individual members? Revealing any secrets? Who do they belong to?' (White 1997)
These questions inevitably lead to the issue of the location of the writer within the text; that is, how far do you write yourself into the story? How far is the biographer an autobiographer? How are the boundaries between biography / autobiography / lifewriting / memoir to be negotiated? Donna Brien's distinction between biography and memoir is helpful:
Perhaps then, my project might more accurately be described as a memoir. Yet, it is not, since it is a construction using the subjects' letters and documents. This is not my story but I am intimately involved. It is at one level a personal account, as I collate and organise my parents' documents and respond to these. How far do I locate my experience in the text as I explore, investigate and experience their letters, or visiting the Western Front or talking with one of Stan's POW mates? Do I write as recent biographers have, reflecting on my exploration, on my writing, on my emotions? The self-reflexive creative biographer / editor at work is exposed, as a biographical narrative, written about others and their texts - letters, cards, diaries - is researched and constructed. But to what extent is such self-reflection important or necessary?
Richard Holmes claims that the biographer's role is to 'produce the living effect, while remaining true to the dead fact'. Picking up on this Tasker muses:
The point is that the contemporary biographer writes without the authority imputed to early biographers by their readers, and the relationship between the contemporary biographer and the reader is defined by inherent tensions and scepticism. Thus, ' the biographer must always be doubted, cross-questioned, read between the lines' (Malcolm cited in Brophy 1998: 31). Malcolm further comments:
Trust established between writer and reader is essential, as Tasker notes (referring to Holmes' biographical 'walking tour' study of Robert Louis Stevenson) in the writing and reading of fiction and nonfiction: 'Fiction and non-fiction alike require an understanding, or relationship of trust, between the voice of the writer and the inner voice of the reader, which exists for the time of reading' (Tasker 2001: 4).
When the writer edits letters and diaries and uses these as the centre of a biographical narrative, as with my project, then several possibilities come into play. The issue of reader / writer trust is somewhat ameliorated by the presence of the letters and diaries. The reader has access to primary documents but must trust the editor and biographer's choice and arrangement of documents. However, the role of the intimately-involved editor and biographer challenges that trust in just the way Tasker and Malcolm suggest. Thus, with the choices to be made, personal and ethical issues flow into each other.
The very task of composing and of structuring the narrative, integrating
the artefacts available to the writer in this particular task, means that
the writer and editor has to touch on writing so personal that to publish
it might be to expose what the dead would never have revealed. We did
not read my parents' letters while they were alive. Yes, we had them in
safekeeping but my siblings and I felt it would be a violation of their
privacy while either one or both were living. And now as I write, I cannot
consult them, I can only attempt to honour them, and make a commitment
to telling a story which is about them and about others so that it might
not be forgotten.
There are edited war diaries or letters that simply offer a brief introduction and then present the letters chronologically, varying degrees of annotation or historical context. Others present more extensive narrative commentary - offering historical and contextual information as well as representing a narrative recreation of events interleaved with texts from newspapers and official records, e.g. Voices from the Trenches by Noel Carthew (Carthew 2002). There are those which offer the letters and diaries with different voices of commentary (the editor / compiler, family members, friends) or other texts (official records, photographs, etc) used to provide background or specific contextual or personal information, e.g. Love Letters from a War - the letters of Corporal John Leslie Johnson and this family June 1940-May 1944, edited by Len Johnson (Johnson 2002). These are works created and constructed as layered multi-voiced texts where the primary documents, letters and diary perhaps, have been woven into a complex historical and artistic representation.
Handling documents, diaries, letters, related artefacts and personal records charges the task of writing and presentation of a biographical narrative with constant tension. It is more than helpful to me - as a writer and as a supervisor of PhD and Honours students who are engage in a similar project - to share the problems with them. The intersections between their work and mine are often obvious, sometimes surprising and frequently illuminating.
All the above noted issues are matters for discussion and consideration. In addition, we share empathy and in-built curiosity in these different but ultimately shared endeavours. There is a great delight in revelations, in explorations and in discoveries as the works evolve. And yet, there are also questions we might ask ourselves: How much do you share between supervisor and research student? How much do you allow for public gaze as the project evolves and you, the supervisor, and the student present at conferences or seminars? For the supervisor this becomes a matter of protecting the student's private life and those of others who might feel the impact of the publication being created. This is a particular responsibility, which the supervisor cannot shirk. The making involves a careful teasing out of the personal, private and the allowable public information. When a student is engaged in a work of memoir / lifewriting / family history then the dilemmas such as those White (1997) poses are a daily accompaniment to the writing.
When the student has also made a decision to evoke in fiction some of the hidden events, within the context of the memoir or biography, then one holds onto the guide rail on the slippery slope of veracity and the edgy territory of subjectivity. Brien, in an engaging discussion of three published examples of biography / life writing / personal memoir, explores the tension inherent in the enterprise, particularly when elements of fiction - whether it be a fictionalised narrator, fictionalised events or dialogue and such like - expose the text as less than verifiable. She addresses the ethical issues central to the task:
Veracity seems to me a worthy mantra for supervisor and student to share. I like to think that what Brien calls 'a sincere desire to tell the truth' (as opposed to 'a wilful and conscious propensity to tell what is not true') can be the guide to how the story is told. Significantly, it is the sincere intention that counts - although this does not necessarily mean that there is a 'truth' presented:
Supervisor and student have a responsibility to acknowledge this 'pact'. Thus, the project I am embarked upon enables me to reflect on the writing and research of my students and the ways this is represented to their potential readers, with greater clarity and (I hope) sensitivity. Their projects help to illuminate aspects of my project and together we can explore how we write, why we are immersed in this work and why and how we want someone to read what we have to say in presenting these biographical 'frogspawn' to others.
For my own part, justification for my biographical narrative, one of thousands of frogspawn lives, comes from Alan Bennett recalling his journey to find the grave of Uncle Clarence on the Western Front (Bennett 1994). Bennett, while sensing the nobility and despair of the soldier's senseless death, speaks of his anger because 'Nobody could say now why these men died'. He then refers to an immediately contemporary event, President Reagan sending troops into Libya circa 1986. The point being, Bennett implies, that such military intervention seems to serve no purpose and can only waste young lives needlessly. Thus, his gentle elegy for an uncle and his personal pilgrimage to a War Commission grave serve to make a firm personal and political point.
So it seems to me important that some of the stories which might be used to create and maintain the ANZAC legend, are told not to falsify the legend, as it is when being used by our contemporary leaders for political purposes, but rather to tell the story of the impact of war on individual lives and to assert the reality of such traumatic events on people like you and me - ordinary folk living what should be ordinary lives in peace.
Claire Woods is Professor, Communication and Writing, A/Head of School and Director of International Programs, School of Communication, Information and New Media at the University of South Australia. She is a member of the teaching team in Professional Writing and Creative Communication, the team which won the Prime Minister's Award as University Teachers of the Year, 2000.
|Return to Contents Page
Return to Home Page
Vol 8 No 2 October 2004
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady