The Economist reads | Biographies

Our obituaries editor picks the five best biographies ever written

Reflections on one’s own life and the lives of others, from Suetonius to Dylan Thomas

BKMA71 Inside of shed where Dylan Thomas wrote many of his poems Laugharne Wales UK
 

ALTHOUGH I WRITE biographies, as well as mini-biographies week by week in the form of The Economist’s obituaries, I’m not a great reader of them. Too often they leave me dissatisfied, feeling that despite heroic accumulations of detail I still have no real sense of the spirit, which is the life, of the subject. Autobiography, on the other hand, is my chief resource. It may be highly selective, too rose-tinted, or out-and-out distorted, but those failings in themselves are part of the life. Both sorts of biographies are on my list.

The Twelve Caesars (composed c. 120AD). By Suetonius. Translated by Robert Graves. Penguin Classics; 464 pages; $16 and £10.99

An extraordinary series of portraits of the men who, in their time, were the most powerful in the world. Suetonius, far from being fawning, describes his subjects unsparingly. Among the palace coups and military campaigns come sudden, arresting, personal details, all the more vivid for his deadpan style. It’s impossible to forget Tiberius rubbing a man’s face with a crab, and getting small boys to nibble at him as he swam off Capri; or Tiberius, inquiring of literary visitors what song the Sirens sang; or Augustus’s regular demands that things should be done “quicker than boiled asparagus”.

Brief Lives (c 1670-1697). By John Aubrey. Boydell Press; 336 pages; $29.95 and £16.99

Aubrey’s work includes many of the most prominent figures of a fascinating age: Francis Bacon, Robert Hooke, Edmund Halley, John Milton. It feels like the work of an antiquarian in a dressing gown, fishing up from memory snippets of past conversations, sightings, chats and gossip, betraying its origins in letters between him and his collaborator Anthony Wood. Some observations are first-hand; most are not. His mini-biographies are a chaotic mixture of achievements, very often in the sciences, with vivid glimpses of oddness: Thomas Hobbes in bed, writing out mathematical calculations on his knees and on the sheets; Bacon riding in his carriage in the rain, to enjoy “the Nitre in the Aire”. The whole world of the 17th century springs delightfully to life in them.

The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals (1797-1798 and 1800-1803). By Dorothy Wordsworth. Oxford University Press; 368 pages; $12.95 £8.99

These wonderful diaries drive any feminist mad: a fine, talented female mind totally devoted to baking pies, ironing, sock-mending and generally waiting on her brother, the great poet. She does this without a murmur, and despite her headaches, because she is clearly in love with him; for her, it is simply a privilege. In one entry she lies a little way from him, out on the fells, rejoicing in her very nearness to his silent thinking. But it is she who notices the daffodils first, on Thursday April 15th 1802.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). By James Joyce. Penguin Classics; 384 pages; $11 and £8.99

This is autobiography as great literature, delivered in a voice that is at first a child’s, then a boy’s, then that of the young poet determined to live by “silence, exile and cunning”. Though Joyce wears the alias of Stephen Dedalus, the work developed from his attempts to write an autobiographical novel, and there is never much doubt that this is his own tortured youth in Dublin, especially at the Jesuit-run Belvedere College. There has never been a better description of the alternating beauties and horrors of orthodox Catholicism to a teenage mind.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940). By Dylan Thomas. New Directions; 123 pages; $13.95. W&N; £8.00

A conscious riposte to Joyce as far as the title goes, and again biography as literature, this time the full rollicking rampaging voice that sounds through Thomas’s poems and in “Under Milk Wood”. It tracks in ten short stories the life and adventures of an unruly boy and cub reporter roaming the Swansea streets, learning how to drink, smoke and womanise. As in the poem “Fern Hill” (“I was young and easy under the apple boughs”), life is remembered through the transcending eye of the poet, which may be the truest lens of all.
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Our obituaries editor is the author of several biographies, including these two:

Orpheus: The Song of Life. By Ann Wroe. Overlook; 272 pages; $26. Jonathan Cape; £17.99

An evocation of the first poet’s lasting power to inspire.

Pontius Pilate. By Ann Wroe. 432 pages; Modern Library; $18. Published in Britain as “Pilate: The biography of an invented man”; Vintage; £14.99

The life of the Roman governor who crucified Jesus, told through Roman sources and reimaginings in later ages.
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Do you have your own recommendations? Send them to [email protected] with the subject line “Biographies” and your name, city and country. We will publish a selection of readers’ suggestions.

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The picture above shows Dylan Thomas’s shed, where he wrote many of his poems.

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