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Review Living Biography and the Biography of the Living w.J. KEITH Judith Skelton Grant. Robertson Davies: Man ofMyth Toronto: Viking/Penguin 1994. xi, 587. illus. $35.00 EDITORIAL NOTE: This review was written prior to the unfortunate death of Robertson Davies. It was felt appropriate to keep it in its original form. When Robertson Davies: Man ofMyth was published in the fall of 1994, Davies's most recent novel, The Cunning Man, had been prominently displayed in the bookshops for some two weeks or so. This fact points up dramatically one of the perils of publishing a biography during the lifetime of its subject, and some of the early reviewers in what might be called the sensationalist press expressed doubts about the wisdom of the procedure. Such doubts are, at first sight, understandable. If a biographer is seeking out the pattern of a life, howcan it be recognized while the life still continues? Is there not something disturbing - even ghoulish - about a process which, towards the end of his own life, the poet F.R. Scott wittily christened 'pre-mortem'? Judith Skelton Grant was, of course, acutely aware of the difficulties involved while she was engaged in the writing of her book, and she sensibly faces the matter head-onin her prefatory remarks. 'Inevitably,' she writes, 'some things must remain unsaid about a person who is still productive, vigorous and engaged with life. Friends and enemies alike may consider it appropriate to be less than frank, while the law of libel provides a limit of its own on what may be said about the living. Some records may be off-limits - in this case, certain of Davies' diaries remained closed to me.' A few readers are likely to be uncomfortable with such constraints, and the more prurient will doubtless sniff suppressed scandals; personally, I was reassured by Grant's realism, forthrightness, and good judgment. Moreover, as she points out, there are advantages to offset the limitations, especially 'the number of individuals who may be interviewed, that make it possible to capture the tone and nuance of a life more intimately.' This is not, of course, a complete answer. James Boswell is only the best known of a number of biographers who have begun their researches well within the lifetime of their subjects, but they have generally waited until after the subject's UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 65, NUMBER 4, FALL 1996 ROBERTSON DAVIES 649 death to complete and publish their work. Still, the point is well taken. Grant has been working on this book for more than a decade, and some of her interviewees have since died. Much ofthe information she has been able to assemble, particularly about Davies's early life and drawn from the reminiscences of his contemporaries, would have been lost if she had postponed her investigations. In addition, her own interviews with Davies himself have naturally given an intimacy to her work that could not have been gained merely from the consultation of archives. But there is another, more cogent factor in operation in this particular instance. Grant makes no mention of this at the beginning ofher work, and it therefore comes with all the more force at the appropriate time. One of thecircumstances that gave the writing of What's Bred in the Bone a special piquancy was, she reveals, 'the peculiar experience of being himself the subject of a biography.... The intrusion of a biographer into his own life, and his more than half serious apprehension of an "anticipatory embalming," gave him the impetus for a new say on the subject [of artists' lives].' And she goes on to quote a letter from Davies in which he discusses witha correspondentthe understandable reservations he has about the wholeenterprise . This letter turns out to be of considerable significance. Davies finds the situation 'partly flattering, partly awesome.' He is impressed by Grant's competence in her field, yet he is also suspicious: 'she is an academic and sees me through academic . eyes, which means that nothing I have ever done is without significance in terms of what I have written.' Yet, even as he is protesting, the creative possibilities are working within his mind: 'But...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 648-653
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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