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  • Metabiography: Reflecting on Biography by Caitríona Ní Dhúill
  • Pamela Graham (bio)
Metabiography: Reflecting on Biography
Caitríona Ní Dhúill
Palgrave Studies in Life Writing, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, xi + 235 pp. ISBN 9783030346621, $59.99 paperback.

Metabiography: Reflecting on Biography is a new addition to Palgrave’s “Studies in Life Writing” series, edited by Clare Brant and Max Saunders. With its “emphasis on new and emergent approaches” in life writing, the series is a logical home for Caitríona Ní Dhúill’s book, which takes an enduring genre—biography—and approaches it in a new way. As the subtitle suggests, the book is both a reflection on debates about biography, as well as an attempt to offer some welcome theorizing via the term “metabiography.”

To construct her theoretical framework, Ní Dhúill brings together Patricia Waugh’s work on metafiction with Hayden White’s influential and provocative Metahistory. She argues that taking the insights of these theories and applying them to biography—in the form of metabiographical reading and practice—can help us to “unsettle what we think we know about biography,” including its political and philosophical underpinnings (10). Adapting Waugh’s statements about metafiction, Ní Dhúill defines metabiography as “biographical writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between biography and life itself” (2). A key aspect of Ní Dhúill’s methodology is to turn biography on itself to generate theoretical insights: “to find the tools we need” for unsettling biography “in biographies themselves . . . ” (11).

Across the eight chapters of the book, Ní Dhúill uses a wide range of examples to illustrate her theory. As a professor of German Studies at University College Cork, Ní Dhúill offers readings of both English- and German-language texts and scholarship, as well as touching on Swedish and French examples, and she takes a long view historically. Considering texts from the eighteenth century to the present day, Ní Dhúill reads print biographies, biographical novels, philosophical works, and “antibiographies.” Taking such a wide scope of an already-diverse genre is a conscious methodological choice. It’s what Ní Dhúill refers to as “willed eclecticism”—designed to meet the book’s aims of exploring biography’s potential to theorize itself. It is also a choice designed to extend her study beyond a purely [End Page 801] Anglophone one (2). While this wide scope may initially seem risky, and at times the text selection may seem a little idiosyncratic, ultimately this choice generates some original readings and fresh insights.

For instance, in chapter three, Ní Dhúill offers a comparative reading of Ernst Bertram’s 1918 German biographical text, Nietzsche: Attempt at a Mythology, with the “new biography” of the English Modernists. In doing so, she offers an original transnational analysis of biographers in different national contexts whose works share a reactive stance to nineteenth-century biography. Ní Dhúill’s expertise across English- and German-language texts and scholarship is a real strength, offering nuanced interpretations of texts that would normally be inaccessible to an English-language readership. For a genre that is often put to work and read within national frameworks, this translingual and transnational analysis is stimulating and timely.

After the introductory discussion in chapter one, in chapter two Ní Dhúill fleshes out her concept of metabiography. She does this by tracing the emergence of the term, and as discussed earlier, bringing together work on metafiction and metahistory. Chapter three—titled “Reading the Hero”—focuses on exemplar texts, including Bertram’s Nietzsche and Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, to explore the heroic tradition of biography. She suggests that reading Bertram’s text in parallel with the biographical experiments of the English Modernists, or reading On Heroes for its contradictions and tensions, helps to unsettle the dominant elements of heroic discourse: masculinist, “great man” individualism.

While continuing and extending the focus on historical “heroes,” chapter four turns to questions about the relationship of fiction to biography. Ní Dhúill offers a reading of Trojanow’s biofiction novel, The Collector of Worlds...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1456
Print ISSN
0162-4962
Pages
pp. 801-804
Launched on MUSE
2021-08-05
Open Access
No
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