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Once upon a life story…

By Denis Sampson


“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road.” It is one of the most celebrated of all fictional beginnings, evoking the essence and tradition of narrative itself, telling a first story to a child, and at the same time the beginning of a very sophisticated kind of biographical fiction, the childhood and youth of an artist. Joyce’s self-portrait in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man absorbed and reinforced a Romantic tradition that assumes the artist’s life is determined by childhood and inevitably grows out of those earliest experiences. It was Baudelaire who proclaimed that “genius is the power to recover childhood” so it is hardly surprising that the shape of the artist’s life is so often set down chronologically, as if it is uniquely and inescapably defined by its starting point and its familial contexts.

Literary biographers, and often the memoirs of artists, have usually reinforced this pattern. Richard Ellmann begins his justly acclaimed biography of Joyce with a chapter entitled “The Family Before Joyce” and comments: “Stephen Dedalus said the family was a net which he would fly past, but James Joyce chose rather to entangle himself and his works in it.” Ellmann takes his cue, then, from Joyce, but it is not only Romantic paradigms and the artists themselves that influenced the shape of literary biography in the twentieth century; perhaps even more important were psychological paradigms, and the idea that biography is a branch of history played a part.

At any rate, common sense seems to endorse this way of beginning and contributes to the expectation that a biography should begin at birth and also sketch the genetic or historical inheritance. We observe people around us growing into adulthood and away from or towards the patterns of behaviour they have known in their childhood.  Recollection is always affecting, especially childhood memories, in conversation or in reading. Yet it is selective recollection, and we do not really remember chronologically.In the second half of a lifespan, especially, as we move further away from childhood and may no longer have parents alive, we become aware of many other ways of finding order in a life. We realize, for instance, that there are many beginnings and endings, or phases that seem to break away from, or repeat, earlier patterns.

If we ask when a writing life begins, it may make more sense to focus less on chronology or childhood and more on the moment that allows us to map the beginning of significant accomplishment. For instance, both Proust and Beckett spent fifteen years dithering before they really began the work on which their fame rests; the work that came before would be forgotten without that new beginning. It was in 1909, when Proust composed the essays in Contre Sainte Beuve, that he really discovered the focus and energy that allowed him to begin A la recherche du temps perdu. The five years that followed the end of World War II gave Beckett The Trilogy, Waiting for Godot, and other work of a new stylistic beginning. It might even be said that he began again about the age of forty and that this was the true beginning of his work. Conrad’s decision to write in English may be the decisive moment in his career.

In the end, and in the beginning, it is how people gather together their psychic resources at a critical moment that should engage biographers and shape their narrative. That magical fusion of talents that enables high accomplishment, or any accomplishment, may happen early in life and in the shadow of childhood experience, but it may happen much later, in very different circumstances, and may not last long or for a lifetime. That is why biographical novels or certain biographical investigations of a limited period in a life may illuminate the essence of the subject more satisfactorily than the childhood to grave approach.

This is the guiding principle of the prize-winning All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas, by Matthew Hollis, and it was my guiding principle when I too investigated a literary life: that of John McGahern. At age 20, John McGahern discovered modern literature and made a decision to become an artist. The book I produced focuses on the ten years it then took for the young man to discover what he wanted to do and how to do it. My investigation of his reading, most of all, in the fifties in Dublin and London examines his discovery of certain authors who would inspire him. More than anything else, these authors formed his definition of the artistic life and the ways in which his will allowed him to focus on his primary material, his own difficult childhood circumstances.

The central fact of McGahern’s career is not that he suffered trauma – well-documented in his Memoir – but that he discovered the means to make his earlier suffering into classic fiction. ‘The god of life is accident,’ he said at the end of his life, and that is primarily true of childhood, but the business of biography is to show how high accomplishment has been won out of, and in spite of, the accidents.

Denis Sampson is the author of Young John McGahern: Becoming a Novelist which publishes this month, February 2012. He has also written Brian Moore: The Chameleon Novelist, and Outstaring Nature’s Eye: The Fiction of John McGahern.

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