Hermione Lee's upcoming biography of Penelope Fitzgerald has been talked about for some time, but now as the publication date draws nearer (November in the UK and December here in the states), I find myself getting somewhat obsessive about its possible contents and Lee's approach to the writer's life. It just won't do in some quarters to be a fan girl for a biographer, but there I am. Lee is an extraordinary writer and crafts biographies that blend biographical detail with literary criticism in a way that is both revealing and relevant. As she offers in this Paris Review interview:
"I’m very interested in that idea of secrets. Edith Wharton says, in a story, that a woman’s life is like a great house full of rooms, and you never get to the secret room. I’m fascinated by these no-go areas, these secret places of reserve. At the same time, I’m extremely inquisitive and curious. Perhaps that’s temperamentally why I’ve been attracted to biography. I want to penetrate those secret places, find out everything, and be completely ruthless. It’s paradoxical—I wouldn’t want it done to me, yet I’m very keen to do it to other people. And the thing that attracts me to these people is their secret self."
This ruthlessness yields works through which you can literally hear the voice of the subject.
"Life-writing, a term used by Woolf in “Sketch of the Past,” is made up of different kinds of “true” narratives—biography, autobiography, memoir, diaries, letters, travel writing. These narratives can be thought of as distinct genres, but they can also overlap. Biography is bound to involve other kinds of life-writing. Biography makes use of letters, memoirs, diaries, and so on, and that can be a challenge for the biographer. Writing about Woolf, you are overwhelmed by the voice of that diary, those letters. If you want, as I did, to quote a lot, because you want the sound of her voice to be on every page—in a way, I just wanted to be a ghostwriter for her voice—then the trouble is that you can be overcome by the power of that voice."
So now Lee has added Fitzgerald to her list of subjects alongside Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and Elizabeth Bowen amongst others. I'm curious to see what impact this might have for the occasionaly forgotten Fitzgerald in terms of academic regard. I'm curious to see if Lee can expound upon a writer's life in her typically comprehensive fashion when the writer's career began so late and her own works of fiction have nowhere near the heft of a Lee biography. I'm also looking forward to a read that helps unify my thoughts about the work of an author I enjoy greatly.