Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Biographies and Biographers

I was reading the obituaries in the Times the other day, and the name Eleanor Perenyi popped up. She was apparently a "writer and deliciously opinionated amateur gardener" who wrote the gardening cult classic (who knew there were such things) Green Thoughts. The name sounded familiar, and sure enough, it was mentioned in passing that she wrote a biography of Liszt that was a finalist for the National Book Award.
[This book is so out of print I couldn't find an image of the cover online; I had to scan in my own copy. Funny, her obituary doesn't have the accent aigu.]

Biographies are a strange scholarly beast. For most civilians, the only musicology they are ever going to read are biographies of composers. If you go into your average Barnes & Noble, the music section will be full of biographies. Biographies get reviewed in the NYRB and The New Yorker. And yet, very few of them are written by professional, college-teachin', Ph.D.-holdin', embittered actual musicologists. Many biographies are written by journalists. Some are written by super-fans, others seemingly by random people on the street. Perenyi is an excellent example. She was the child of a WASP-y military family, who ended up marrying a Hungarian baron and then fleeing the Nazis before retiring to a life of genteel gardening in Manhattan and Connecticut.

Perenyi did have the advantage of living in Hungary, where a lot of Liszt archives still are, and knowing the language. Her great flaw, however, was that she took a somewhat crazed view of the women in Liszt's life, especially the Countess Marie d'Agoult. One of my first papers in graduate school was centered on reading d'Agout's fictionalized account of her relationship with Liszt, published under the pen name Daniel Stern. (Funny story: I signed up to write this paper not realizing the book wasn't translated into English. I theoretically read French, but that was a rude shock the night before I was due to give a presentation.) So I can tell you that Nélida is a fascinating and sensitive portrayal of Liszt and his world, and that d'Agoult was one of his greatest champions. Perenyi, however, had this to say about it:
Nélida’s hero-villain dies but in the meantime he has already suffered a symbolic castration in the loss of his artistic gift when his mistress leaves him...It had always been obvious that [Marie d'Agoult] hated Liszt’s music partly because she made the primitive association with his sexual potency. The loss of one would entail the loss of the other. Nélida shows that she willed this to happen.

Creepy, right? But I'm not pointing this out to make a point about non-musicologists invading our turf; after all, some of our best biographies are written by those who aren't professional musicologists in the traditional teaching-for-a-living sense (c.f. Maynard Solomon), and some of our worst are written by the tenured crowd. (c.f. no names named.) In fact actually every Liszt biographer has this weird problem with Liszt's women, something Allan Keiler, my professor in that way-back-when seminar, pointed out in a review essay of Alan Walker's authoritative three-volume biography of Liszt. Walker is absolutely psychotic about Liszt's women, devoting an entire chapter to ripping apart Nélida, and many more to Marie d'Agoult's various imagined shortcomings. He has to dig deep, of course. At one point he sniffily complains that d'Agoult's published writings never mention Liszt's "highly ethical achievements in behalf of the Beethoven Memorial Fund." (oh, well then!)

I imagine that the problem with so many biographies is that that the author spends so much time doing research that they don't actually think about their overall arguments. After all, just because the subject's life is providing the basic shape for your work, it nevertheless is still your story to tell.

But, there is hope: I think that one of the most salutary trends in our discipline at the moment is a renewed attention to biography. After all, it's a matter of agency--there are real people sitting out there in history, and to think we understand them merely through the musical texts they produced is disrespectful if nothing else. The intentional-fallacy fallacy, if you will. For me, that's been the influence of Performance Studies, which since the 1960s has been trying to re-insert the presence of actual living-and-breathing people into our logocentric world. I think for others the impulse has come from the close (or at least, closer) attention ethnomusicologists pay to ethical issues--it's silly how many people write about music written by living people without ever taking the trouble to try and get in touch with them. And heck, I seem to recall somewhere in Taruskin's monster an argument that was something along the lines of, "musical forms don't 'do' things, it's the people that write them that 'do' stuff." (He says it better.)

Perhaps this all won't result in a flurry of musicological biographies of single individuals, but with any luck, more of us will at least leave open the possibility of thinking biographically.

Postscript: Nélida is now available in an English translation!


Ralph Locke said...

Glad to hear mention of Perényi's biography. This book was my first extended introduction to the life of Liszt, especially the Paris years. It is indeed written very effectively, and makes use of lots of foreign-language sources that had not been tapped by Liszt scholars at the time that Perényi was writing.
I think there was supposed to be a follow-up volume, but it never came. Too bad, as lay biographers such as Perényi often have fresh ideas and connections to offer that might not occur to the specialist.
Of course, they sometimes also offer distortions, blind spots, errors, disproportionate emphases, and so on. There are plusses and minuses both to coming at a topic from "the outside."
Thanks for drawing attention to the important area of biography, and how to write it!

ECG said...

Yeah but Phil who writes a biography with an 'argument' in mind in the first place? (referencing your antepenultimate paragraph) I mean yeah, hagiographers, but do they count? Keiler himself -- who, don't forget, is a fully trained and licensed psychoanalyst on top of everything else -- is the first to assert that before even beginning to write a biography you'd do well to figure out why exactly it is you need to write it in the first place.