In Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, the second-person protagonist (you) meets a love interest who discusses the desire to read authors who make “books the way a pumpkin vine makes pumpkins.” It’s the most articulate description I’ve come across of wanting to see a writer’s work as a natural product of their personality — the biography in the bibliography.
Calvino is near the top of my wish-list for The Fertile Fact, the website I run which features biographers supposing their subject’s views on present-day issues. The name is a phrase from Virginia Woolf on the nature of biographical writing:
Almost any biographer, if he respects facts, can give us much more than another fact to add to our collection. He can give us the creative fact; the fertile fact; the fact that suggests and engenders.
The Fertile Fact embraces the speculative flaws inherent in biographical writing. Since launching, we’ve run near 40 pieces resurrecting dead writers as fictional characters unleashed on the modern world, with full creative licence given to their biographers. These are five of the more inventive instances:
Zora Neale Hurston on Crowdfunding:
Although she was the most published black woman writer of the first half of the 20th century, Hurston never made much money from her work. Her largest publisher’s advance was $500 (about $8,000 in today’s money), and the largest royalty check she ever received was $973. In a 1950 article called “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” Hurston complained that many publishers only gave ink to “exceptional” or “quaint” aspects of black life. Crowdfunding, on the other hand, would have given Hurston the power to reach her readers directly and ask for their support. Who knows how many of her now-lost, unpublished manuscripts — The Golden Bench of God, The Lives of Barney Turk — might have been published in this way.
— Valerie Boyd, Author of Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston
William Burroughs on the War on Drugs
Drugs changed Burroughs’s life. He became addicted to heroin in New York in the ‘40s and addiction — to words, to images, to authority — became a major theme in his work. In old age he was back on methadone, which he’d already been in thrall to as dolophine in ‘50s Tangier (where he’d accidentally got Brideshead Revisited Anthony Blanche prototype Brian Howard addicted). Drugs produced some of Burroughs’s greatest writing, but he was ambivalent about them: On the one hand, they were addictive and junk was the “anti-dream drug,” but on the other, he believed in people’s freedom to take them, without drug-users being demonized.
Burroughs saw anti-drug laws as driven by vested interests and people addicted to control, so he’d be pleased that the America-driven “War on Drugs” is increasingly recognised to have failed around the planet. Portugal, for example, has recently decriminalised heroin.
— Phil Baker, Author of William S. Burroughs
Patricia Highsmith on Memoir-Writing
From the pearl of a girl in mid-century Manhattan to the embittered old oyster in her Fortress of Solitude in Switzerland, Patricia Highsmith’s passage through life always concealed far more than it revealed — and in plain sight, too. Her secrets were the motives for her metaphors, and she mined her private diaries for her creative work. (Pat’s lover once read one of those secret diaries — and promptly tried to commit suicide.)
In the late 1970s, Pat had a French journalist in her house for three days, gathering material for a major magazine feature about Pat’s life. She drove the journalist mad with her refusal to say anything personal and/or printable for the feature, and — the ultimate anti-personnel device — she starved and froze the woman as well. Patricia Highsmith would rather throw her typewriter at an editor than write a memoir.
— Joan Schenkar, Author of The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith
Stefan Zweig on Big-Brand Fashion
Stefan Zweig would have viewed people’s increasing reliance on a handful of copycat giant clothing retailers for their fashion needs as nothing less than the end of human individuality. Indeed, he was already lamenting this fatal conformism in 1925. In “The Monotonization of the World,” an essay he wrote that year, Zweig declared,
It is not with impunity that everyone can dress the same. ... Monotony necessarily penetrates beneath the surfaces. Faces become increasingly similar through the influence of the same passions, bodies more similar to each other … minds more similar for sharing the same interests.
Ultimately, Zweig declared, the consequence of buying into mass-produced fashion was nothing less than the creation of a slavish “mass soul.”
— George Prochnik, Author of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World
August Strindberg on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope
Strindberg speculated endlessly about the nature of the universe. He liked the old idea that Earth was flat and the stars were holes in the ceiling, and while he didn’t want to relinquish such a naïve and beautiful image, he was fond of real scientific enquiry as well. He kept a telescope in his study in the Blue Tower and proposed to Fanny Falkner while she was looking through it.
In 1892, he decided to investigate whether Earth really was round by measuring its curvature. He set up an experiment in a Berlin street with the poet Erich Hartleben and the neurosurgeon Carl Ludwig Schleich. Their activity aroused the suspicion of a passing policeman who first threatened to arrest them and then got excited by the idea and prepared to join in. However, Hartleben had by then lost interest, declaring it was altogether too tedious a business and went home.
The following year, without the help of his unreliable friends, Strindberg made what he called “celestographs”: photographs made without lens or camera. He placed sensitised photographic plates directly facing the night sky and left them to expose over a long time. The results are pictures of great beauty, resembling star-strewn heavens seen through swirling, gaseous clouds. Whether they are actually pictures of the billowing galaxies, dust particles swirling in the air above the paper or merely photochemical stains, we do not know. To an amateur, they resemble the photographs of galaxies and nebulae seen through Hubble’s eye. Strindberg would undoubtedly have enjoyed claiming credit for being the first to see deep into space.
— Sue Prideaux, Author of Strindberg: A Life
Taking liberties with people’s favourite authors naturally elicits strong responses. My favourite was one reader’s conviction that the aspect of modern life Agatha Christie’d most deplore would be that she “could no longer use racial slurs.”
The Fertile Fact typically runs two new posts a month; keep up-to-date on Facebook. And, returning to that wish-list mentioned earlier, any keen biographers, experts or fans of Robert Walser or Thomas Mann should definitely get in touch.