Over the last couple months, in between enjoying some fiction and working on my third novel (the second is with the publisher) I’ve read three literary biographies: the first sufficiently workmanlike to allow me to fill in the blanks and the other two delightful: Joseph Conrad: A Biography by Jeffrey Meyers; John le Carré: The Biography by Adam Sisman; and Arthur and Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes by Michael Sims.
Each book, as all biographies of writers must be, is as much the story of the writer’s formation as a chronicle of their life. In each case the writer’s life is sufficiently interesting to compete with their literary creations: early career spy; doctor/Victorian adventurer (at a time when gentlemanly adventure was taken seriously); and merchant marine sailor in the dominant commercial and naval power of the time.
What I found fascinating was how each writer’s books couldn’t have been created without certain life experiences that were the result of some effort but probably more dependent on luck.
If Joseph Conrad’s father had not been involved in the Polish movement to seek independence from Russia, resulting in the family’s exile to Siberia, Conrad wouldn’t have felt the same compulsion to move to Western Europe to avoid the second-generation punishment for children of dissidents: long-term service in the Russian army.
If Conrad hadn’t entered the British Merchant Marine he would have never spent time at sea, particularly in the South Seas, the source of so much of his fiction’s themes and convincing layers of detail. No trading trip to Africa: no Heart of Darkness.
If le Carré hadn’t dabbled in secret service stuff at university and entered MI5 and then MI6 for a brief period until his net worth reached 20,000 pounds and his financial adviser notified him of this fact as instructed so le Carré could give up the day job and focus on fiction, we would have none of his character-driven, linguistically rich, hyper-literate spy thrillers.
No exploration of the world of spies to chronicle the decline of the British empire, the global battle between capitalism and communism, the bedrock of betrayal at the heart of many organizations and human relationships, especially with oneself.
While le Carré served his government all his novels had to be vetted before publication. The censors only let The Spy Who Came In From the Cold proceed because they thought the premise of such a cynical service willing to treat people like expendable pawns was so far-fetched no reader would believe it. That le Carré single-handedly defined how the public thinks spies operate is testament to his genius.
And then there’s Doyle. If Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had not had renowned surgeon Dr. Joseph Bell as a professor of surgery when he was studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh, there is likely no Sherlock Holmes. At least not as we know him.
For it was there, in the crowded classroom where young would-be medical men learned their profession as Dr. Bell examined patients in front of them, that Doyle was instructed in the revelatory powers of diligent study and close observation.
When a man wearing a hat came in to seek assistance for the early symptoms of elephantiasis, Dr Bell doctor immediately deduced that this patient was recently released from the military, had been an officer, and had served in Barbados.
As Dr. Bell explained to his delighted students, he knew all this about his patient by the way he didn’t remove his hat, had an air of command about him, and by the fact his disease had likely been contracted in the British tropics.
So much goes into making a writer.