Fates Worse Than Death

A new biography of Kurt Vonnegut has invoked a ill-tempered man consumed by bitterness and loneliness, a shadow of the avuncular persona well known to his adoring fans. The biography alleges that Vonnegut was convinced his work was undervalued by the American literary establishment despite the massive impact of such novels as Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions. The biography raises an age-old question: should we judge a creative work by its creator?

In a recent Wheeler Centre event, literary critic Simon Leys argued that we mustn’t judge a writer by their work, nor a literary work by its creator. “The greatest creators in world literature,” said Leys, “literally do not necessarily know what they are doing. They may intend to do one thing, but what they actually achieve may be quite different.” Citing Cervantes, Gogol and Tolstoy, Leys noted that time and again writers have misunderstood their achievement.

But Leys identifies an even more perplexing conundrum, which he calls the problem of biography, citing several authors to testify to the dimensions of a great paradox. “Biography does not explain one damn thing,” wrote poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky. “Every life viewed from the inside would be a series of defeats, too humiliating to contemplate,” said George Orwell. The ever-controversial VS Naipaul said, “Everything of value about me is in my books only.” French poet Paul Valery wrote, “Every individual is inferior to his most beautiful work.” Hilaire Belloc wrote, “I never knew a man who was consonant with his work, when the work is of genius. When the work is of genius, he is far below it … it is not the mere man who does the thing, it is the man inspired. No man is himself a genius. His genius is lent to him from outside.”

Citing two great French writers with Fascist leanings, Leys goes on to ask, “How can one ever explain this contradiction between a work and its author? Greatness of the work, mediocrity of the man; beauty of the work, vulgarity or downright ugliness of the man.” Leys cites Proust’s theory of two selves to explain the conundrum: “A book is the product of a different self from the self manifest is our habits, in our social life, in our vices. If we would try to understand that particular self, it is by searching our own bosoms, and trying to reconstruct it there that we may arrive at it.”

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