Making Humans

I don’t read Science Fiction, but I think it’s true to say that a lot of it is about making humans. Or creating beings as near as possible to humans – whether robots, or anthropomorphised objects and animals, and so forth. Even games companies are intent on making dolls as much like humans as possible. Don’t they realise that literature is several steps ahead?

I’ve just finished reading Claire Tomalin’s Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life, which has been languishing on my shelves for a few years. Having blogged about short stories the other day, I thought I’d go back and read about the woman behind some of my favourites – and while doing it, I started pondering the whole sphere of biographies. They’re a strange commodity, aren’t they? A writer is given three hundred pages to package up an entire life… what a feat. And what a liberty. Tomalin can be on safe ground when listing the dates of publications, names of relatives etc. etc., but then you get something like this:
“Although Katherine and Murry often presented their relationship as the most important element in both their lives – and it did absorb a huge amount of their energy – there is a sense in which neither sought true understanding of the other. For each of them, the other became a symbolic figure very early on: she the good, suffering, spontaneous genius, he the ideally beautiful scholar-lover without whom neither life nor death could be properly contemplated.”
Sorry, a bit of a long quotation there, potentially breaking all sorts of copyright laws. It was reading this section that made me think “hold up, what?” Tomalin is a very good, sensible writer, on the whole, but strident sentences like this one seem so difficult to justify. How do we know? Even with letters and diaries and the memories of friends, this sort of confessional psychoanalysis could only ring remotely true if it were in the mouth of Mansfield or Murray. And yet it is routine for biographies to depict relationships and mindsets in detail which must be subjective and conjectural.

I don’t have a problem with this sort of biography-writing – there doesn’t seem to be any other sort – but it did make me think, and I thought I’d share my ponderings, and see what people think. With scientists trying to make life, are biographers doing it better, or simply wishing they were?

And onto Tomalin’s Katherine Mansfield, more specifically. As I said, Tomalin is a very competent writer – but I felt the book was quite hollow, in the end. Not in the sense of vacuous, but that Mansfield continually avoided the spotlight. I finished the book without really getting to grips with Mansfield’s personality, though the opinions of all around her were quite vivid, and the biography is perfectly readable. She didn’t seem particularly pleasant, which was sad, but… even so, the big gap in the biography was often the subject herself. Mansfield remained elusive. Which kind of negates everything I wrote above… but surely not Tomalin’s aim?

One final note. You might remember my wish to get the ‘right’ postcard bookmark for each book – for this one, I chose Edward Hopper’s ‘Hotel Room’ (1931)

3 thoughts on “Making Humans

  • July 2, 2007 at 1:19 am

    I haven’t read the Mansfield bio, but I have read Tomalin’s bios of Samuel Pepys and Thomas Hardy, and both were remarkably good. Her Pepys comes so fully alive that when his death arrives, it’s like a blow. And while Hardy remains a bit elusive, she gives a very convincing sense that he was simply like that, utltimately unavailable (or unfathomable) even to friends.

    So I have enough faith in Tomalin’s abilities and insight to wonder if the missing Mansfield is actually appropriate? Is that just the way she was?

  • July 2, 2007 at 1:17 pm

    Biographies are really curious, aren’t they. How can anyone really know someone else, and then know someone you’ve never even met. I wonder how much is fact and how much is conjecture. I suppose if you read enough of the author’s writings you must get a sense. I need to finish Mansfield’s Journal and then I do plan on reading the Tomalin bio this summer as well. Somehow from the very little that I know so far, I am not all that surprised that you say that she didn’t seem really that pleasant. I haven’t read a lot of biographical material on V. Woolf, but she sort of didn’t seem really pleasant either (correct me if I’m wrong as this is just the feeling I get!). Maybe there is something about having genius–you can’t afford to be nice. I guess you don’t have to necessarily like an author to appreciate their work, but it is still interesting reading about them.

  • July 3, 2007 at 2:48 am

    I’ve read a bio.of Mansfield – some time ago, so probably not the same book. I liked the diary better. I’m trying to remember what else I read that was edited by Murry – but comparing two of the books, it seemed he edited her life to his likes (omitting certain aspects of her life). I did wonder if he was controlling of her life (after she became ill).

    Your Edward Hopper postcard! We went to see an enormous exhibit of his work that is currently at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. You might even be able to read/see something about it online (sorry I don’t have the url at hand).

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