Every biography is shaped by the vantage point of the biographer. But where should that be—safe in the shadows or out on stage with our subjects? David Marr addresses the key challenge of modern biographers: what they do with themselves in their writing?
Supported by Dr John and Dr Heather Seymour AO
Transcript of 2016 Seymour Biography Lecture ‘Here I Stand’
Speakers: Anne-Marie Schwirtlich (AMS), David Marr (DM)
Location: National Library of Australia
AMS: Distinguished guests and dear friends, good evening. On behalf of the Council of the National Library and all of my colleagues welcome to the National Library and to the Seymour Biography Lecture for 2016. I’m Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, the Director General of the Library. As we begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land. I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land that we are now privileged to call home.
The Seymour Biography Lecture is a celebration of the tradition of telling true stories, in adverted commas is the true, about people’s lives. It is also an opportunity to explore the craft of life writing in all its forms and how it can play an important role in helping us to understand a person and his or her work. It is a pleasure to have your company for the lecture which is named in honour of John and Heather Seymour who are both with us this evening and without whose support the lecture would not be possible. John and Heather are devoted and discerning readers of the literary forms of biography, autobiography and memoir and many of us share their passion but John and Heather have chosen to express their interest in biography through their support for the lecture and also for an annual scholarship. They support a summer scholarship in biography as part of the Library’s program for young scholars and in so doing they are helping to develop the life writers of the future. Heather and John, you are wonderful and loved friends of the National Library and we thank you for your generosity and your support.
AMS: They say that’s the worst part of the lecture. It is a privilege and a treat to have David Marr deliver the 2016 Seymour Biography Lecture. As one of Australia’s leading public intellectuals David Marr challenges us to rethink our beliefs, attitudes and actions about politics, censorship, immigration, the arts and what it is that makes us human. David has written for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, been editor of the National Times, a reporter for Four Corners, presenter of ABC’s TV Media Watch and now writes for The Guardian and you will see him in The Monthly. In 1991 he completed the brilliant and universally critically acclaimed biography, Patrick White, A Life. This biography of the Nobel Prize winning novelist won seven major Australian awards and was published internationally.
David’s books include Barwick, Panic, The High Price of Heaven, and Dark Victory, the last written with Marian Wilkinson. His five quarterly essays, His Master’s Voice, Power Trip, Political Animal, The Prince, and Faction Man have created a new form of biography. He has been a journalist since 1973 and is the recipient of four Walkley Awards for journalism. He is also a great friend to the Library and is represented in our collection in many, many ways. He has titled his lecture Here I Stand. Please welcome David Marr to present the 2016 Seymour Biography Lecture.
DM: Anne-Marie, thank you, you make me sound so old. And my thanks to the National Library and to the Seymour’s and how wonderful it is to be giving a lecture with somebody’s name on it, not in their memory but in their presence. I’d also like to thank Claire Tomlin who as I understand it first inspired their passion for biography. We’re here ultimately because of Claire Tomlin. Nods from them, they acknowledge this.
One afternoon in 1988 I had a call from Martin Road. Patrick White seemed to have had a stroke and they needed my help and would I come around? The drive from my place to White’s, from one world to another, only ever took a few minutes and I found the whole household mustered in Patrick’s attic bedroom. His agent was there and so was the actress, Kerry Walker, a great friend of Patrick’s. And for the umpteenth time in his life Manoly Lascaris had packed Patrick’s hospital bag. The whole cast and crew was waiting for the ambulance to arrive.
Patrick lay silent, Kerry was reading to him and he ignored her, he wasn’t there. In the few days since I had last seen him he’d shrunk. His hands gripping the blanket were knots of bones and veins and his teeth were out. And once or twice in a soft, clear voice he said oh dear. Outside the birds were making a racket, the gardens smelt of jasmine, it was a perfect spring afternoon. In the four years I’d been working on his life I’d come very close to this man, I was learning things, he was lifting me up. Despite his impatience ... when are you ever going to finish that fucking book? He would demand on the phone ... he was I knew backing me entirely and now as far as I could see he was dying.
I was poleaxed. But even as I stood there in the attic I was asking myself how will I write this? And I knew then that I would not be putting myself in the scene. It belonged not to me but to a dying man, his household and the sweet angels of the New South Wales Ambulance Service who now came up the stairs. Wendy, a New Zealander, walked in asking the perfect question, what’s the story? Manoly began to explain. She ignored him. Behind her came a big bloke called Troy who held Patrick’s wrist very gently as he took his pulse. They didn’t hurry, everything was calm and orderly. The stairs were too narrow for a stretcher so they lifted Patrick between them in a boatswain’s chair. I wrote he was breathing very heavily and his arms kept dropping.
Wendy said no, Patrick, mate, hold me ‘round the shoulders. They gave him a spell at the head of the stairs and then began to manoeuvre him down, pausing to rest every few steps. It took five minutes, perhaps more, for them to reach the hall. The back door was unbolted and in the light that streamed into the house White looked like a sack of bones, his face was blank but his eyes were full of fear. They carried him through the garden and down to the ambulance waiting in the lane.
I was invisible there; I was invisible in the two or three pages I wrote about Patrick’s near death experience and his recovery after spending 36 hours on what he called the brink. Readers would be in no doubt if it crossed their minds to wonder that I was present at these events. There are not footnotes for pedants to track through my sources, I’d interviewed no one. I was an eye witness. An oxygen mask, I wrote, was kept strapped to his face and he was fed through a green tube in his nose. Pads on his chest connected him to a monitor in the corridor. His heart was on television. Forgive me; even 25 years later, I’m really proud of that joke. Patrick ... Patrick so loathed television.
He gave me his medical records with a survivor’s pride. He knew the biographer needed them, they showed pneumonia, glaucoma, pulmonary fibrosis ... his lifelong curse ... a collapsed spine, chronic wheezing and rheumy eyes but no sign of a stroke. As it turned out he had two more years to live. In that time I would witness one or two more heart-stopping crises at Martin Road. They are like the first all in the book but I am not, I’d made a decision, I’d a promise to myself, I would remain invisible. Of course I’m also everywhere in the bio, everywhere as a biographer must be. My judgement is at play in every corner of the text, I wrote the words, it’s my book but David Marr, awkward, stumbling, occasionally charming David Marr is nowhere in its pages, pulling focus from Patrick White.
Five years ago Frances Spalding speaking in this room in this series wisely remarked it would be foolish to try to establish a set of rules for biography as it’s a hybrid and fluid genre, always spilling out of neat packages and persistently reshaping its enquiry as the questions that interest each generation change. This is one reason why there can be no such thing as a definitive biography. I agree with her even as I stand here about to lay down the law.
After 30 or 40 years of reading and once or twice writing biographies, lately sharp little biographies of political players, men like cardinals and prime ministers and leaders of the opposition, I believe there are rules biographers should follow. I know these rules are personal, I know writers will come along, great writers, and break them with impunity and even distinction but these rules make sense to me.
My partner dreads me bringing a biography to bed. Novels he can live with, history causes no interpersonal problems but when I have a biography in my hands I’m soon muttering you can’t do that, no, you can’t do that, that’s not the way to do it, no, you can’t, oh no, no, that’s completely impossible. I say this tonight, Sebastian, by way of apology.
My key rules are one, the voice of the subject must always be clear in the text but two; the biographer must command the life. Three, we must not muck around with time, we must always be moving as in life into an unknown future. Spare readers your homework and five or six, biographers should remain as much as possible out of sight. Each of these rules is worth a Seymour lecture but I’m here tonight to commend only the last, to make a case against current fashion for the invisible biographer, to argue that great biographies work by establishing an intimate relationship between reader and subject, a relationship that does not need and may be doomed if chaperoned by the biographer. Biographers write and we should leave readers to get on with it.
I’d been a journalist for 10 or 12 years when I sent Patrick what I know now to be the most tortured letter I have ever written in my life, warning him that I was planning to write his biography. I didn’t think for a minute the news would please him, I did not expect cooperation, all I was asking from the laureate of Centennial Park was a truce, I wanted to get on with the project without being sabotaged.
There’s a reassuring cliché that biographers spout that we need no-one’s permission to write their lives, none of us owns our own life, every life is available for a biographer. That’s true but mighty obstacles can be put in our path. I’d already been run ragged by the Chief Justice, Sir Garfield Barwick, as I worked on his life in the aftermath of the Sacking. Barwick received me cordially in his old chambers at Taylor Square but didn’t on reflection much like what he saw and made certain over the next three years that none of his friends spoke to me. I worked around the problem.
The second method, not available to Barwick, was to forbid access to papers. A forceful Russian who became by marriage Lady Maria St Just invented for herself after Tennessee Williams’ death the role of protectress of his reputation. She blocked access to his papers for a generation, killed off at least two biographies, brought scholarship on Williams’ work to a standstill and made life hell for producers of plays. John Lahrs’ much acclaimed but I think unsatisfying biography of the playwright was only made possible by St Just’s death.
She was also a ruthless exponent of strategy number three for sabotaging biographers, the withholding of copyright consent. I’m torn about this. As an author I welcome the fact that my copyrights will remain in force, funnelling a fortune to my nephews and nieces for 70 years after my death. But in solidarity with frustrated biographers, particularly biographers of writers, I would wish they expired on death. When families inherit copyright reputation becomes a family matter. Widows are terrible, sisters are worse. They operate on the principle that what was hidden in life must remain hidden in death. When we read a biography that tiptoes ‘round the truth, particularly difficult truths of the heart, pause before condemning the biographer and ask who owns the copyrights?
Cavafy kept biographers at bay for nearly 70 years with a unique fourth strategy, essentially laying a curse on biographers as a class. In 1908 living alone above a brothel in Alexandria, his work unknown except by a few Greek connoisseurs in that city, Cavafy knew with absolute certainty that fame would come one day, fame and biographers and he wrote these staggering lines. From all the things I did and all the things I said, let no one try to find out who I was. Aren’t they fabulous? From all the things I did and all the things I said, let no one try to find out who I was. He was not declaring himself off-limits forever but he demanded that the times be right before biographers wrote. In this poem, Hidden Things, a kind of sonnet that might usefully be pinned over every biographer’s desk, the poet explained. An obstacle was there transforming the actions and the manner of my life. An obstacle was often there to silence me when I began to speak. From my most unnoticed actions and my most veiled writing, from these alone will I be understood.
Clearly in 1908 Cavafy had no idea how candid his poetry would become over the next couple of decades. He was not in the end I believe remotely silenced. Still, that curse, or perhaps magisterial direction, that Cavafy delivered at this early point in his career sets a standard for all biographers, that there may be times when we have to wait until we can see and the times allow us to write what lies in most veiled writings and unnoticed actions.
The first biography of Cavafy didn’t appear until 1974 ... it’s not very good, it was written by a man called Robert Liddell. Manoly Lascaris knew Liddell in Alexandria during the war and gave him a copy of Patrick White’s Happy Valley to check whether this man he’d fallen so deeply in love with was indeed the writer he seemed. Liddell reported that the novel was terribly good but warned Manoly he might end up strangled like one of the residents of Happy Valley, Mrs Moriarty. Lascaris decided to take the chance. This might be the end of me, he thought, but it has to be.
When I knocked on Patrick’s door I feared every kind of obstruction would be put in my way, the whole lot of them, silenced friends, closed archives, forbidden copyrights, bans and curses, particularly curses. But instead he asked me in. By sheer luck I’d come along at precisely the right moment. Having no longer the energy to tackle big novels ... he’d just abandoned a novel which is up there in typescript ... or is it down there, Anne-Marie? I’m not sure but it’s in this building in ... sorry, in handwritten form. And he abandoned it at the one-third point and we ... meaning me and a couple of other Patrick White scholars with of course the cooperation of his literary executor, Barbara Mobbs, published that fragment a couple of years ago. It’s one of the happiest things I’ve ever done.
So he could no longer tackle big novels, he just didn’t have the energy. And he’d said already what he wanted to say about his own life in his memoir, Flaws in the Glass, and he felt he could face a biography. Indeed he felt a biography was due to him by about this stage. And he had a secret purpose which took me years to discover. My ambitions of course were absolutely conventional; I was after all born in Pymble. I’d been intrigued by White’s writing, the little I knew of his life since I was a child. I wanted to find out who he was, where his writing came from, how his country had shaped him and how he had more than a little shaped is country. But Patrick saw the biography as a last reckoning, a chance to tie up the loose ends of his life, to find what was left of the people and causes he’d discarded in his long existence. I would be his spy, bringing him back to Martin Road news of his scattered world. He hoped for a last few cluster bombs thrown at the establishment and he looked forward eagerly to being around to enjoy mayhem at the book’s publication.
The next half dozen years turned out to be much more complicated than that. At first very wary, Patrick came to trust me. I was never blind to how appalling he might be but I think it’s true to say that I came to love him, he was the wisest man I have ever known well but I never saw myself as a player in his story. As Auden says of poets, I made nothing happen.
My determination to stay out of sight in the biography was in part I know simply good manners. There’s Pymble again, I suppose. It seemed to me then and now discourteous to elbow my way into someone else’s life but it was also truthful. I was determined not to claim a relationship with? White that I did not have. Our relationship was essentially professional, I was not one of his class or circle, I was not there as a friend, a colleague or a member of the family, I had work to do, I was an observer, privileged but an observer.
I know if I was writing that book today my editors would be urging me vigorously to get in there, to get into its pages. They would be telling me I should be seen in there hunting down the real Patrick White, I should be writing tales of adventures in my researches, I should be writing about the way in which I tracked White’s life all ‘round the world. I should write about the night in the streets of Alexandria when I stumbled on a Nubian wedding. I should talk about the goldmine of letters that turned up by chance in Texas.
Those editors would have in mind something like Thornton McCamish’s recent and in many ways splendid biography of Alan Moorehead, Our Man Elsewhere. After a brief synopsis of the popular historian’s life and works McCamish bears his soul on page 6. Every book lover knows the thrilling experience of discovering a writer whose work changes the way they see the world. It had already happened to me several times before I picked up a late education in my late 20s so I know what was happening ... I knew what was happening as I read. I’d found a writer who would forever be indispensable to my imaginative sense of past. A few pages later McCamish and his wife are admiring the faded splendour of Moorehead’s favourite hotel in Cairo when it seems to the author that the man himself appears. I could almost see him drawing back the accordion grill of the elevator car, releasing a gust of big band mood music and stepping out neat and alert, tie knotted, folded cap tucked under the epaulette, I could see him dropping into a club chair right there, ready to set out on his brilliant career right there.
This is horrible stuff on a number of fronts, not least because McCamish is such an assured biographer and shows such supple judgement of his subject, that none of this personal scene-setting or the very many pages he devotes to his search for Moorehead are in the least bit necessary. I’m being harsh, I know, but I don’t care what the biog ... that the biographer is standing in a bar or on a street corner or on a hill where Moorehead once stood, I want everything McCamish learnt by going to these places which we must do. By doing his homework I want everything he learnt along the way absorbed in the text and in his understanding of his subject. I don’t care that McCamish is excited by this or that, his task is to excite me and frankly I don’t care about McCamish, particularly as he makes me with such skill when he’s truly concentrating on his task, care so deeply about Moorehead.
There are two fundamental difficulties with quest biographies. First, they inflict homework on readers. Biographers find research thrilling; we couldn’t possibly be in the game unless we did. I have had some of the most exciting days of my life in the Petherick Room which has without my permission been moved in the Library. But the thrills of research are almost impossible to say because the thrills come after long periods of boredom. It’s the thrill of triumph, a moment of triumph after days of defeat. You have to be there, you have to be there. You cannot inflict the boredom on the writer ... on the reader to give them the thrill; it is a very personal business, research.
The second problem with the quest biography is that they bugger around with time. All biography is time travel. Taking readers to another time is very hard and it makes it harder if for instance you want them to be in 1940s Cairo if you keep shuffling between then and now, between what Moorehead and what McCamish saw, between the go-getting war correspondent then and the fan driven 70 years later by the thrill of the chase.
Now even as I lay down the law tonight I must acknowledge great exceptions to my distaste for quest biography and the greatest of these is surely The Quest for Corvo, A J A Symons’ life of the writer, pimp and religious nut, Frederick Rolfe. Fr ... Rolfe wrote the novel, Hadrian the Seventh. It’s a novel I think of ever time a pope dies because it’s about a character whose knock on the door and it is the call to Rome because the rule is of course that the cardinals can call on anybody to be a pope, doesn’t have to be a cardinal theoretically, doesn’t even have to be a Christian. God can direct them to call on anyone in the world to be a pope. This is the underlying thesis of Rolfe’s hilarious novel, when any pope dies I wait for the knock on the door.
Symons’ biography is an endless delight but the point is that there’s nothing much to Baron Corvo at all, the quest biography is perfectly suited to the life of a fraud. Moorehead was no fraud, McCamish would have served him better to have left his enthusiasms to a brief preface, newspaper interviews post publication, talks at writers’ festivals and one day when he’s suitably old, his Seymour Lecture. It is by the way a pretty good book but I'm not saying for a moment that I’ve at all times kept myself out of my writing, I’m not shy. I’m not afraid to put myself out there, I’m not reluctant to use what old subs at Fairfax call the vertical pronoun.
I came into the trade in the 1970s when something called new journalism was all the rage. It was enriching and renewing journalism by making journalists able to talk more directly about their personal response to the situations that they were reporting. In that it was truthful. The old absolutely blank style of journalism was giving way to something more personal. But the problem was that bright beginners like me, we all believed that our response was the most interesting thing about a story and that had to be beaten out of us.
Well perhaps it was beaten out of me a little too thoroughly by those old subs at Fairfax because I had to fight my way back to a style of writing that was personal, perhaps even deeply personal but it was not about me, I didn’t have to keep putting me onto the page. Mind you that has to happen from time to time and that has to happen I’ve discovered in writing those quarterly essays. They’re sprints; they’re not the long distance efforts of the big biography. They’re not seven year and 300,000 words as it was with Patrick White, they're four months and 30,000 words. They still have the same purpose, to make sense of this country through biography and so I’ve written about Rudd and Abbott and Pell and Shorten. And the power of the quarterly essay is that they involve face-to-face encounters. The most difficult of these I had with Bill Shorten because he was so veiled, so veiled. But the most personal was with Rudd and there was no way of me keeping myself out of the denouement of that quarterly essay.
We had at last met, it was for the interview. We’d met along the way but now was the time for the interview. Typically Rudd said that the interview ... I live and work in Sydney ... the interview will take place in Mackay. So I flew to Mackay. It was to take place in the afternoon and we walked along the beach at Mackay with only two security guards as our company. People called out to Kevin, you’re the best prime minister we’ve ever had. He warmed to such remarks.
As we walked along, in a spirit of great candour I warned him that the essay would begin with me quoting something he had been saying around the meeting rooms the year before in Copenhagen. Those Chinese fuckers are trying to rat-fuck us. And I will never forget the sound of our feet squeaking in the sand as we walked along in silence. But we patched that over and had a couple of very ... actually an hour or so of very intimate talk which I’m very grateful. Then we had dinner together and as the dinner was ending he sort of asked ... he asked me man to man what my essay on him was actually going to be about. And I thought well it’s an adult asking an adult a question, we’ve been talking frankly to one another for some hours and so I told him. Hmm. And this is what I wrote.
He lost his temper. He doesn’t scream and bang the table as he does behind closed doors, we’re in the open. His voice is low, he’s perfectly composed. From the distance of the next table it would be hard to tell how furious the Prime Minister is. Indeed some boys come over in the middle of it all to ask to have their pictures taken with him. Later, he says politely, and returns to his work. What he says in these angry 20 minutes informs every corner of my essay but more revealing than the information is the transformation of the man. In his anger Rudd becomes astonishingly eloquent. This is the most vivid version of himself I’ve ever encountered. At last he’s speaking from the heart, an angry heart. Now I had to be there, I had to be on the page to pull that off.
Standing here a couple of years ago Ray Monk talked about Boswell and rightly declared his Life of Johnson among the best biographies ever written. A new kind of biography, said Monk, a narrative that’s driven by personality, by what we would call ... but Johnson didn’t ... the inner life. And my guess is that for the last half hour many of you have been muttering to yourselves as I might mutter about biography in bed, what about Boswell? Doesn’t Boswell make nonsense of Marr’s plea for the invisible biographer? No. I'm not demanding an absolute ban, I’m arguing for us to stay out of the way unless there is a purpose for being there in the text. Boswell had a purpose when he wrote one of the great double acts of literature. Boswell earned the right to be Boswell.
I first read the Life of Johnson when I was 24 years old working in the bar of a ski hotel in Austria. I’d brought it as my winter book. There was a lot going on around me. Over Christmas this rather Spartan hotel was an outpost of astonishing members of the aristocracy. One of the families that came was so grand that the governess they brought with them was a Habsburg. And the hotel belonged to the former Private Secretary of Ribbentrop whose sons had oddly Spanish names and who it turned out had only returned from the Argentine a few years earlier. There was a lot going on around me and what did I do? I read Boswell’s Life of Johnson. And the other day I picked the book up again and was reminded by how compelling it is. I took it to bed chortling.
Boswell tells us he’s writing for the curious, for the curious in literature. It’s a key word. Yes, it points to curiosity in people but it also brings in the notion that the curious, curious objects, curious incidents, veiled writings, unnoticed actions, can reveal big truths. In the late 19th century the word curious had a scientific flavour. Monk puts Boswell among the pioneer novelists like Dafoe but he was also one of the greats of the Scottish enlightenment, the pragmatic philosophers and economists and scientists who were trying in the late 18th century to work out with fresh eyes and sharp intelligence how the world really worked. Boswell’s world was Johnson. He gathered the evidence and he threw it all in that’d show him in a bad light, him, Boswell ... didn’t bother Boswell a bit, he was quite abject about it. He’s a kind of abject sponge, he sucks it all up and throws it in.
The account of his first meeting with Johnson is so wonderful. He’d been trying to engineer a meeting, trying and failing. All these people he’d hoped would introduce him to Johnson you know dropped the issue and then Bos ... then Johnson one day just wandered into a shop where Boswell was and it’s all recorded in the book. Boswell tries a light sally about Scotland and Johnson just slashes him down. He tries another sally and Boswell ... and Johnson once again just smashes him. It’s all there, it’s all recorded there. Anyway he felt that on the basis of these exchanges, both of which he’d lost so comprehensively, he might call on Johnson and he did. And there is this account of the first of his c ... kind of first proper meeting with Johnson. How can you not trust a man who humiliates himself in his own text and then turns his eye on this ... on the subject of his devotion, really, and writes this?
He received me very courteously but it must be confessed that his apartment, his furniture and mourning dress were sufficiently uncouth. His brown suit cloths looked very rusty, he had on a little old, shrivelled unpowdered wig. Isn’t that wonderful? Little old, shrivelled unpowdered wig which was too small for his head. His shirt neck and knees of his breeches were loose. His black worsted stockings ill drawn up and he had a pair of unbuckled shoes by way of slippers. But all these slovenly particularities were forgotten the moment he began to talk. And for the next 20 years Boswell sat there and wrote down all that talk. That’s what I mean by saying Boswell earned the right to be Boswell, he built a biography on scientific lines with every document he could find and a couple of decades’ conversation. He was an indispensable part of that to and from. They quarrel, they quip, they test one another, they fall out, they make up and from these exchanges emerges an often comic picture of Boswell and a portrait of Johnson that remains after 200 years an unequalled masterpiece.
So my advice to biographers determined to clamber onto the stage and play around with their subjects in the limelight is do the work, put in the years, entangle your lives and then you’ve earned the right to walk the stage together. Even then you will be marked down as a show-off ... my mother’s most cutting rebuke ... unless you deal with yourself as ruthlessly as Boswell did with himself.
I know there are no fixed rules, I know what I’m talking about is a question of taste, I know this isn’t a matter of life and death. I’m a grumpy old guy who hasn’t found in 20 years another big life worth writing. I read biographies with an impatient eye but I would wish an end to the rather tired idea that the biographer should be out there sharing our attention. Why in the end? Because frankly we are rather tedious people. Where should we stand? In the shadows, in the shadows manipulating everything, leaving readers with the illusion that they are alone in the company of Brett Whiteley or Wittgenstein or Lyndon Johnson and by the way Mr Caro, hurry up, please, with the next instalment of your life of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, I’m getting impatient, I want the fifth volume.
The potency of biography is compelling intimacy. That is why we read biography with such passion. Compelling intimacy though with people, far more interesting than biographers.
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