WRITING WRONGS

EMILY BOBROW | MOREOVER | November 13th 2007

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A new book about Charles Schulz, creator of "Peanuts", has been slammed by Schulz's son. But few good biographies please those closest to the subject, writes Emily Bobrow. The truth gets in the way ... [UPDATE: Monte Schulz comments on this piece, and the biography, below ... ]

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

I've been intrigued by the controversy over "Schulz and Peanuts", David Michaelis's fine new authorised biography of Charles Schulz, creator of the "Peanuts" comic strip. Critics have praised it as a meaty and well-rendered portrait (indeed, it is very good). But the Schulz family has complained: the Schulz of "Schulz and Peanuts" is ambitious, competitive, religious, funny and unhappy, full of old grudges and and fresh anxieties. "That biography is so absurdly false in so many ways", said Monte Schulz, a son of Charles. "It's not true."

Does any biography ever feel "true" to those close to the subject? (And does any adoring son fully know the vices of the father? ) It is for good reason that biographers are often sued.

Although it is rare for an authorised profile to be so flatly rejected by the family, the very nature of a biography should make any sensible person squeamish. It is the most popular form of non-fiction, because we, the readers, are nosy. We are voyeurs. We admire the lives of "great men", but also we relish their shortcomings (which help us to understand our own). When we walk the rails of a famous life, we want to see blood on the tracks. And it is the biographer's job to satisfy the reader, not the subject's family (or even the subject).

"If nothing but the bright side of characters should be shewn," Samuel Johnson told Boswell, his biographer, "we should sit down in despondency, and think it utterly impossible to imitate them in any thing."

Families often vainly hope that a biographer will truly "see" their dearly departed husband, or father, or wife, or mother, for who he or she was. (A conceit as forlorn, perhaps, as our own desire to be "seen" for ourselves.) They offer free access to private letters and personal documents in eager expectation. "Finally", they must think, "the record will be set straight".

But this is silly. Sonia Orwell, George Orwell's widow, had just such a guileless notion when she handed over everything she could to Bernard Crick, Orwell's authorised biographer. She presumed, evidently, that Crick would understand her man the same way she did. Alas, no: "the works are greater than the man", he wrote in his introduction. She was not pleased.

If biography is, as José Ortega Y Gasset said, "a system in which the contradictions of a human life are unified", how is that not a messy, arrogant process? By necessity, the author must favour the stories and anecdotes that enable cohesion, over those that don't. We are large enough to contain multitudes, until we are important enough to have our lives chronicled. The fact that we rarely add up is the biographer's problem. The awkward art is in solving it.

"The biographer at work," wrote Janet Malcolm in "The Silent Woman", her book about Sylvia Plath, "is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewellery and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away."

Malcolm, a reliably bracing writer and a biographer in her own right, is known for turning the delicious phrase. She often speaks the harshest truths, run through a sieve of barbed wire. When it comes to a subject's relatives, she writes, "they are like the hostile tribes an explorer encounters and must ruthlessly subdue to claim his territory." (Malcolm practises what she preaches. A few of her subjects have the misfortune of still being alive.)

Of course, biographers begin with a guiding hunch. That isn't to say they can't be surprised or set straight by new sources and discoveries. It's just that a biography is the work of a storyteller. The desire to tell a good story--and shouldn't there be one?--must make the author an analytical creator, not a benign collaborator. The family may never be happy. "The novelist is free", wrote Virginia Woolf, "the biographer is tied."

Ultimately, of course, the "real" person is elusive. We're always left with the stories, and our unreliable interpretations of them. Malcolm muses on this humbling conundrum in her latest book, "Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice": "Biography and autobiography are the aggregate of what, in the former, the author happens to learn, and, in the latter, he chooses to tell." And neither will ever be "true".

(Hear Emily Bobrow talking to David Michaelis about his book, "Schulz and Peanuts".)