Literary Hub

On the Limits of Biofiction: Bethany Layne Talks to David Lodge

This interview was conducted as the final plenary event of the Postmodernist Biofictions conference at the University of Reading on March 25th, 2017.

Bethany Layne: […] What opportunities does the biographical novel offer, in contrast to traditional history or biography?

David Lodge: […] Biographical fiction is different from biography. Respectable biographers regard modern biography as an evidence-based discourse. Everything has to be verifiable, and consciousness, thought, is one thing that is not available, except for the few traces that are left in people’s letters, documents, and so on. What people are thinking in time, moment to moment, is not known. I don’t know what you’re thinking now. Perhaps you know what I’m thinking because I’m speaking it, but that’s a special dedicated kind of discourse. So the point of writing a biographical novel is to use the techniques of fiction, particularly those developed in the novel of the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly the device of free indirect style. This is where the narrator’s grammar reports what happened to the central character in the third person, but the language imitates the consciousness of that character. Take the case of Henry James: a biographer cannot speculate about what Henry James thought in any particular situation unless James wrote a report of it in a letter or somewhere like that, and this places severe limitations on the biographer. While biographers are often extremely good writers—Michael Holroyd, for instance, is extremely readable, extremely witty and amusing—it’s the biographer’s voice you’re hearing all the time, unless he’s quoting from some dialogue that happened to be recorded, or from a letter.

And of course the further you go back in time, the less record there is of what people actually said, particularly before the days of tape recorders and similar devices. So the novel is, as I think Susan Sellers said, the supreme form of art for representing consciousness because it can go into the heads of characters. What it offers is interiority. If a novel is about a real person, it can use the clues that are available, the information that is available, to try and recreate what that person’s consciousness was perceiving in any given situation. So that’s the point of doing it; that’s, I would say, the main justification for writing biofiction. It hasn’t got the same function as biography, which is informational, basically, and you trust that information. If a text is called “a novel” on the title page, you know an element of imagination has been imported by the novelist who is speculating, guessing, using data that’s available to imagine what the person was thinking at any given time.

BL: As we know, people have written novels based on actual people for centuries, but biofiction offers greater explicitness. So what do you think made novelists feel they had the right to use their subjects’ actual names?

DL: I think Sellers touched on this, the greater freedom with people’s private lives in our culture of exposure. There is also a very noticeable trend toward writing fiction that has a factual basis, not only in the biographical novel, but also in historical novels or novels about current events. There is a book written about this called Reality Hunger by David Shields, a kind of manifesto for fact-based writing in which he actually downgrades the novel. It’s quite worth reading, but very provocative and overstated, I think. I certainly don’t reject the fictional novel, but I think Shields has identified an appetite for fiction that has the imaginative and emotional power of the traditional novel, but also has a guaranteed factual basis, which gives it an extra appeal. I think that this is partly to do with the media, which bombard us with news from all directions 24 hours a day. We’ve to come to rely on fact for truth, rather than the ideal truth or virtual truth of fictional writing, which has to convince by its own integrity and power. It’s very noticeable in the last 20 or 30 years that the proportion of fact-based novels, plays, and films has hugely increased, and that must say something about this phase of our culture.

BL: Keeping with this idea of fact, you provide very extensive notes to your biofictions, Author, Author and A Man of Parts, where you delineate your diversions from fact quite explicitly. I just wondered if you could say something about where you see the limits of biofiction: does it have the freedom to make things up, essentially?

DL: Well, the war historian Anthony Beevor is very opposed to the biographical novel, and has written and given a lecture about it, against it. As a historian, he regards it as muddying the record, by importing speculation that belongs to the novelist into what purports to be a report of a life and thus confusing people. And there is some possibility of that happening, one has to admit, but I don’t think you can just resist this by appealing to empirical factuality as the only criterion of legitimate narrative.

BL: So where would you draw the line?

DL: Well, I’ll give you an example. I wrote a novel about H. G. Wells, which was a sort of bookend to Author, Author. The two books are, in some sense, twins: both are about novelists, about friends, in a way, men with something in common despite the great differences between them. In the case of H. G. Wells, this is a man who had a huge number of sexual affairs, whereas Henry James I don’t think had any in a physical sense, though that’s a subject of controversy. There’s a sequence in H. G. Wells’s life when he fell out with a mistress after a long affair. This was Elizabeth von Arnim, who wrote a once-famous book called Elizabeth and her German Garden, and had been married to a German aristocrat. She built a house in Switzerland where Wells used to visit her, and toward the end of their relationship, he was being pursued by Rebecca West, a highly intelligent, gifted young journalist. He had kept Rebecca at arm’s length, but then he fell out with Elizabeth, partly because of her jealousy. So he left Elizabeth and came back to London, and we know that not long after that he began a relationship with Rebecca West, which was of enormous importance and consequence in his life. We don’t know how that actually came about, but we know that it happened.

We know that, at some point, they had sex and we know—it’s extraordinary how we can know these things—that he couldn’t use a contraceptive because there was a housekeeper in the house so he couldn’t take her to his bedroom where he kept them. They were necking in his drawing room, and this developed into full sex, which impregnated her and that was how that affair started. If you’re writing a narrative, you have to provide a bridge between him leaving Elizabeth and his setting up with Rebecca West. So I had to invent a scene, which has no factual basis, and I did. I imagined a scene when Rebecca West comes out of the Royal Academy just as Wells comes out of Hatchards and he sees her across Piccadilly, through the gaps in the passing traffic. He dashes across the road, greets her enthusiastically, takes her to Fortnum’s for tea, chats her up, says, “I’ve just leased a new flat in Westminster, you must come and see it,” and off they go. And that’s how it starts—well, I invented that. But I think it’s legitimate. If you’re writing a novel: you can’t just suddenly say “and so, they were already together”; you’ve got to provide some kind of link. So there’s a conversation over tea, in which he can tell that she is interested and that something will come of this. So that’s one example, and I imagine that other biographical novelists have done the same kind of thing. But I invent whole scenes like that rather reluctantly, and not if it can be avoided. I like some kind of hook that’s in the documents, that I can legitimately connect to.

BL: Speaking of that integrity, how does your practice as a critic inform your writing of biofiction? Because in The Year of Henry James you say that you used to alternate between criticism and novels, and then, of course, in Author, Author, you found a way to fuse the two. How does your own history as an academic inform your writing of biofiction?

DL: Well, I think that it was extremely useful. I would probably never have thought about writing a novel about Henry James if I hadn’t been an academic and studied his work and written about it, and taught it and so on. When I first got the idea, I thought it was a book that I could do as I had some knowledge of 19th-century literature, and of Henry James in particular. As you say, I actually alternated these two modes right up until recently, so one feeds the other. I see them as symbiotic; they don’t conflict as far as I’m concerned. I think being a critic helps me to solve problems in writing novels. And having written novels makes me a better teacher and critic.

BL: Do you feel a particular responsibility? Do you think readers are perhaps more inclined to trust the authority of your fiction because of your own status?

DL: Perhaps my record as a critic and scholar gives the book a certain guarantee of reliability, but I am sure readers are also sometimes thinking “Where did he get that from? Is that true?” etc. That’s why I felt it was necessary to state in the Acknowledgements, etc. at the end of Author, Author what the limits of my research were, and I relied a lot on letters because letters are real documents and they are the voices of the people that wrote them. Fortunately, in the case of James, although he burned all the letters he received, a lot of his letters survived, and they’re wonderful, very eloquent, well worth including in the story. They give direct access to James’s consciousness in particular situations.

BL: In The Year of Henry James, you discuss the particular attention that writers have attracted as subjects of biofiction, and of course both of your subjects are writers…

DL: Very often you have a novelist who is in middle age, or getting toward late middle age, and beginning to wonder if he’s got it in him to write another novel, which was my case in a way. When you’re young, you’re full of the discovery of life and you’re having new experiences which go on to middle age: you may get married, have children, all those phases of life. But then there comes a point when you realize that life is beginning to be the same thing for you now, and you don’t have the same challenge and stimulus of a new phase of life, and so then you start to look around for somebody else’s life that you can write about, or some other subject. You start to research novels more, or I certainly did. And I think that’s one reason why you’ve got this tendency for quite well-known novelists who’ve never written anything but fiction turning to that form. Julian Barnes is a good example, I think. Not only in his latest novel, which is about the composer Shostakovich, but also the earlier one about Conan Doyle, Arthur and George.

BL: In the case of the two subjects that you’ve written about, James and Wells, what were the unique challenges? How did they differ?

DL: Well, I think the main challenge of writing any biographical novel is actually how you treat the subject’s sexual life, because that’s the most private part of a person’s life: how do you venture to describe that and render it in any kind of detail? The two people I’ve chosen are two who you could attempt to do that with. I think that Henry James never had a physical sex life, and that he was a celibate homosexually inclined man, which most of his biographers think, although some people, particularly in the queer theory area, contest that. But it’s a plausible interpretation, let’s put it that way. Wells, on the contrary, had huge numbers of sexual relationships, and he left a lot of traces behind, a lot of passionate letters to Rebecca West, for instance, which give you a very good idea of what his sex life was like. So I felt quite happy to do those two novels, and to touch on that side of the subjects’ lives. I don’t know that there’s any other novelist I would feel bold enough to try and do that with, because it gets rather prurient to invent sexual experiences for real people in a biographical novel. But those two writers I felt I could treat in that way.


From Conversations with Biographical Novelists: Truthful Fictions across the Globe, edited by Michael Lackey. Used with the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2018 by Michael Lackey and contributors.

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