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  • The Biographer and the Subject: A Study on Biographical Distance
  • Julian North (bio)
Rana Tekcan. The Biographer and the Subject: A Study on Biographical Distance. Stuttgart: Ibidem-Verlag, 2010. 165 pp. ISBN 978-3898219952, 29.90 euros.

Rana Tekcan’s book aims to explore the ways in which biography recreates “the vivid sense of a lived life” (8) through the relationship between biographer and subject. She argues that the key factor here is the distance, temporal and spatial, between the biographer and his/her subject. She divides the genre into three main categories: the first, where the distance is minimal, since the [End Page 837] biographer is a personal acquaintance of the subject and writes while he or she is still living; the second, where the biographer did not know the subject, but is a near enough contemporary to have contact with those who did; and the third, where the biographer is far removed in time and space from the subject or any of his or her generation. To illustrate the different ways in which these various degrees of distance operate in biography, she takes two examples from each category. Johnson’s Life of Savage and Boswell’s Life of Johnson serve to illustrate the first; Strachey’s Eminent Victorians and Holroyd’s Strachey, the second; and Honan’s Jane Austen and Motion’s Keats, the third. In each case she reads the text closely in order to distinguish the distinctive quality of the author/subject relationship. She finds the work of Johnson and Boswell vivid but lacking in objectivity. Strachey and Holroyd are more critical and objective, but still invigoratingly engaged with the living histories of their subjects. The most “distanced” biographers, Honan and Motion, compensate by, respectively, dramatizing the historical data available, and by self-consciously negotiating the afterlife of the subject. Tekcan seems more drawn to the earlier texts, and concludes that the more distant the subject, the more likely it is that the personality of the biographer will recede into the background. This is perceived as a loss. Thus Motion’s Life of Keats “has everything but ‘the Motion touch’” (149), and consequently fails to bring Keats alive. She finishes her book by speculating that the future of biography may lie in metabiography—adding yet another layer of distance.

Tekcan’s initial question—asking what it is that brings life writing to life—is an interesting one, and her case studies yield some glancing insights, particularly in the discussion of the more recent biographies. For example, she draws some parallels between cinematic and biographical techniques that I thought were worthy of more development. However, there is a certain naivete about both the argument and the approach of this book. Is it necessarily the case that the importance of the relationship between biographer and subject recedes commensurately with their distance in space and time? Does the ability to bring subjects to life depend on their historical and geographical proximity to you? Biographies such as Ann Wroe’s Shelley, or Ackroyd’s Dickens have found experimental ways to overcome “distance,” and there are many other examples of more traditional Lives which, although written by biographers historically removed from their subjects, nevertheless manage to bring them vividly to life. Conversely, it is possible to think of a number of nineteenth-century Lives by close relatives where the very lack of distance produced deadening constraints on the narrative.

Tekcan’s argument needs to be more alive to the varieties of biographical narrative and to the recent critical literature on the subject. Her book is written seemingly without awareness of some important studies of biography [End Page 838] that would have allowed her to start her analysis from a more sophisticated historical and theoretical basis. Her discussion of Austen biography, for instance, makes no reference to Kathryn Sutherland’s Jane Austen’s Textual Lives or John Wiltshire’s Remembering Jane Austen —essential reading for anyone writing on Austen’s afterlives. The analysis of Johnson’s Life of Savage is heavily reliant on one source: Richard Holmes’ introduction to his edition. The readings of Boswell and Strachey are also under-informed by secondary material, and unfortunately, tell us nothing new...