Stuff I’ve Been Reading
A monthly column
by Nick Hornby
- Charles Dickens: A Life—Claire Tomalin
If I were walking home down a dark alley, and I got jumped by a gang of literary hooligans who held me up against a wall and threatened me with a beating unless I told them who my favorite writer was… Well, I wouldn’t tell them. I’d take the beating, rather than crudify my long and sophisticated relationship with great books in that way. The older I get, the less sense it makes, that kind of definitive answer, to this or any other question. But let’s say the thugs then revealed that they knew where I lived, and made it clear that they were going to work over my children unless I gave them what they wanted. (This scenario probably sounds very unlikely to American readers, but you have to understand the violent passions that literature excites here in the U.K. After all, we more or less invented the stuff.) First, I would do a quick head count: My seven-year-old can look after himself in most situations, and I would certainly fancy his chances against people who express any kind of interest, even a violent one, in the arts. If, however, there were simply too many of them, I would eventually, and reluctantly, cough up the name of Charles Dickens.
And yet up until a couple of weeks ago, I had never read a Dickens biography. I have read a biography of Thomas Hardy, even though I haven’t looked at him since I was in my teens, when I was better able to withstand the relentless misery; I have read biographies of Dodie Smith and Richard Yates, even though much of their work is unfamiliar to me; I’ve read biographies of Laurie Lee and B. S. Johnson, even though I’ve never even opened one of their books, as far as I know. Every time, I was drawn to the biographer, rather than the subject. (The great Jonathan Coe wrote the B. S. Johnson book, for example.) Last year I devoured Sarah Bakewell’s brilliant book about Montaigne, How to Live, even though I can hardly make it through a sentence of Montaigne’s essays without falling into a deep sleep. Expecting a biography to be good simply because you have an interest in the life it describes is exactly like expecting a novel to be good simply because it’s set in Italy, or during World War II, or some other place and time you have an interest in. The only Dickens biography I have ever wanted to read until now was Peter Ackroyd’s, but it is over a thousand pages long and made me wonder whether I’d be better off digging in to Barnaby Rudge, or The Pickwick Papers, or one of the other two or three novels I haven’t yet got around to. In the end, inevitably, I read neither Ackroyd nor Rudge, a compromise I have managed to maintain effortlessly to this day.
Claire Tomalin is my favorite literary biographer; in the U.K., she’s everybody’s favorite literary biographer. (Everybody has one, here in lit-crazy Britain.) She’s a clever, thoughtful, sympathetic critic, a formidable researcher, and she has an unerring sense of the reader’s appetite and attention span. A publisher once explained to me that the First Law of Biography is that they always increase in length, because the writer has to justify the need for a new one, and demonstrate that something previously undiscovered is being brought to the Churchill/Picasso/Woolf party; and you can’t leave out the old stuff, the upbringing and the education and all that, because the old stuff is, you know, The Life. But Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life is 417 pages long, without notes and index—a pretty thrilling length, given the importance of the man, his enormous output, and his complicated personal life. Top biographer + favorite novelist + under 500 pages = dream package, or so I thought. I have never once made this complaint here, but I ended up wishing it had been longer.