How does fiction mix with biography? Is all biography fiction, or all fiction merely finessed biography? These questions were considered last night, at the
"http://www.wolfson.ox.ac.uk/clusters/life-writing/home">Oxford Centre for Life Writing, by two literary grandees from opposing sides of the issue: Hermione Lee, biographer of
"http://www.amazon.co.uk/Virginia-Woolf-Hermione-Lee/dp/0099732513/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1328694409&sr=1-1">Virginia Woolf and
"http://www.amazon.co.uk/Edith-Wharton-Hermione-Lee/dp/0701166657/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1328694437&sr=1-1">Edith Wharton, and Alan Hollinghurst, whose recent novel,
The Stranger’s Child, engages with
biography in a fictional context.
Hollinghurst confessed to nurturing foiled biographical ambitions of his own, eager early in his career to write a life of Ronald Firbank. He attributed it to a lack of patience, unable to submit
to scholarly grind. But is biography mere fact-checking chronology? The nature of biography, both agreed, has changed dramatically in the last century or so. Lee offered Lytton Strachey’s
Eminent Victorians as a
breakthrough. Hagiography gave way to nosier psychology. The great and the good started having their private moments aired for general viewing. Modern day readers, Hollinghurst admitted, would feel
positively cheated if denied a saucy scoop or two.
The notion of privacy recurred when Lee asked Hollinghurst about his literary style, that renowned elegance that routinely weakens reviewers at the knees. Was it, she asked, a ‘canopy of
style’, a way to deflect probing into his personal life? He demurred, happy to admit to decanting his own interests into his characters — Henry James, for instance — but insisted
that he never merely transplanted himself. Anyway, he said, it was hard for authors to analyse their own style; it was the reader’s job to assess. Although he confessed that an early draft of
The Stranger’s Child had sounded like a pastiche of E.M. Forster; he had to let his own voice become more assertive.
Style is impossible to ignore with Hollinghurst, not least because he embodies it in speech. His conversation is unerringly shapely, and he reads in a blanket-soft baritone. He read for about ten
minutes at the beginning and fielded questions at the end. As the event closed, Lee mentioned the league of future biographers destined to write Hollinghurst’s life story. He managed a
diplomatic poker-face, but the idea didn’t seem so outlandish.