- Outsider Biographies: Savage, de Sade, Wainewright, Ned Kelly, Billy the Kid, Rimbaud and Genet. Base Crime and High Art in Biography and Bio-Fiction, 1744–2000 by Ian H. Magedera
Corralling biographical subjects from as wide a range as 1744–2000 into a coherent framework is hard enough: choosing ones who fit the themes of both “base crime” and “high art” makes this harder still. Yet Ian Magedera’s engaging study accepts the risks head on. By using the very obliqueness of some of the connections as a means of interrogating biographical theories “at the edge,” he obtains results which are ultimately original and productive.
Magedera is exploring how biographers account for the tension between the acknowledged criminality of their chosen writers and the literary quality of their writing. He goes on to ask how this plays out in the form and argument of these biographies. His methodology is clear: he applies close reading techniques to a range of biographical writing in both English and French (the length of the book is in part due to full translations of French quotations), looking in particular at rhetorical strategies employed by the biographers.
His first case study, that of Richard Savage, is a relatively straightforward one. Magedera uses Samuel Johnson’s short life of Savage to demonstrate the desirability of “rhetorical openness” on the part of biographers, pointing to Johnson’s dynamic treatment of the many sides of Savage. Magedera’s other literary figures, however—the Marquis de Sade, Rimbaud, and Genet—are exceptionally complex. Each is enveloped in ever-denser clouds of myth, thickened by their tendency to self-mythologize. The pairing in the final section of Rimbaud and Genet is particularly illuminating, even if Rimbaud barely succeeds as a criminal outlaw, his only documented criminal act being a failure to acquire a train ticket on a journey to Paris when he was fifteen. Both, however, are intriguing examples of literary outsiders who attract serious biographical attention—Sartre’s Saint Genet: Comédien et martyr appeared in 1952 and Enid Starkie (one of the few women biographers in this study, as Magedera acknowledges) published her life of Rimbaud in 1968.
The study’s detailed exploration of a wealth of biographical writing about these figures has much to say about the wider concerns of theories of literary biography. How helpful, for instance, is the positivist assumption, following Sainte-Beuve, that a biographical subject is fully knowable, and that familiarity with writers’ lives is essential to an understanding of their writing? Magedera draws attention to biographers who show awareness of the limits of the genre, which must accommodate a self that develops and yet is never fully knowable, even to itself. [End Page 711]
Another productive seam in Outsider Biographies considers the “doubly textual” nature of the biographical project: we must consider both the writings of the biographical subject under consideration and those of the biographer. Here Magedera makes fruitful use of paratexts—of prefaces, footnotes, and even authorial acknowledgments—to interrogate signs of biographers’ intersubjectivity—their personal investments in their chosen subject. Unnervingly on one occasion he even deconstructs Peter Carey’s acknowledgments, thus adding a further terror, if not to death, at least to the temptations of excessive expressions of scholarly gratitude (Magedera admits he is in danger of over-reading here). At another extreme of biographical self-reflexivity is René Étiemble, whose Le Mythe de Rimbaud is not a biography as such, but an exhaustive annotated critical bibliography. Étiemble uses his critiques of all available studies of Rimbaud’s life to undermine the notion that there could ever be a definitive master narrative. But Étiemble is entertainingly self-aware that by doing so, he has ruled himself out as a future biographer: “If I had to write a life of Rimbaud,” he wrote, “I believe that I would no longer dare to articulate a single phrase. Almost all the so-called facts seem to...