Biography used to investigate the nature of talent; now it explores the social networks and collaborations through which reputations are madeby Philip Oltermann / April 23, 2006 / Leave a comment
A Night at the Majestic by Richard Davenport-Hines
The Yellow House by Martin Gayford
(Fig Tree, £18.99)
Rousseau’s Dog by David Edmonds & John Eidinow
In 1855, as she got ready to write the biography of her friend Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell jotted down a note to herself: “Get as many anecdotes as possible. If you love your reader and want to be read, get anecdotes.”
In 1922, in the run-up to the much anticipated premiere of Stravinsky’s ballet Le Renard, the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet gave an interview to an American journalist. Did he have any quotable anecdotes about his career? asked the journalist. “Write in your article: this artist doesn’t have any anecdotes, and it’s that which typifies him,” Ansermet replied with self-satisfaction.
Anecdotes are the narrative fuel that turns lifeless biographical facts into a magically animated story-machine. While the Brontë machine is still chugging along today, Ernest Ansermet never got his biography. He survives in the history books only as the thing which he despised most—an anecdote. But the cruellest irony is that his bon mot remains a footnote to an anecdote of far more monumental proportions. The performance of Le Renard at the Hotel Majestic in Paris was attended by four of the most influential artists of the 20th century. The guests of honour were James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Stravinsky himself and Marcel Proust, as described at length by Richard Davenport-Hines in his new book A Night at the Majestic.
The last few years have seen a wave of biographies in which anecdotes have become more than mere padding. Anecdotal meetings of minds sit right at their centre. They don’t deal with individual lives in a chronological order, but with legendary dinner parties, famous flatshares and historical tête-a-têtes. Penelope Hughes-Hallett’s The Immortal Dinner (2000) told the story of a soirée which gathered painter BR Haydon, William Wordsworth, John Keats and Charles Lamb around one table. James R Gaines’s Evening in the Palace of Reason (2005) focused on the uneasy relationship between Johann Sebastian Bach and Frederick the Great. In February House (2005) Sherill Tippoins told the story of the infamous Brooklyn-based cohabitation experiment which found Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Gypsy Rose Lee, WH Auden and Benjamin Britten under the same roof. Most ambitious of all, because of its sheer scale, is A Chance…