Literary biographies are fascinating, in that they explore not just the life of the writer, but the life behind the writing. Whether an author writes explicitly autobiographically or not, their life is still bound up within the words they have written. What they write cannot help but express their fears, their hopes, their dreams; what they like and appreciate, what they abhor and avoid. Descriptions in literature can reveal how much an author notices details in his or her daily life; whether they stop to smell the heady scent of roses growing along the path or whether they crush the unheeded roses under their feet in their hurry to get to where they are going. So much about a person can be gleaned from what they write; and also what they don’t. Reading really is the most wonderful sort of detective work.
At university, when of course, one has time to debate such matters, we often used to discuss the importance of having a knowledge of a writer’s life history, and whether their life should be borne in mind when reading their books or not. Some were staunchly against it, and considered it akin to holding an author to ransom based on facts that may never have influenced their characterisation or plots at all. Was it fair, for example, to read Virginia Woolf’s novels and analyse them through the lense of her brief spouts of mental illness? If we didn’t know about the precarious state of her mental health, or that she drowned herself, would we read her novels in the same way? Would we come to the same conclusions about her characters? Would we be able to tell that she suffered from depression through reading her writing if we didn’t know already? Important questions. I was always in the other camp; I don’t think the writer’s life can ever be separated from their work, and I wouldn’t want it to be. Writing is an expression of life, as lived, by the individual writing the words on the page, and knowing more about an author’s life experiences cannot help but add a richness to the reader’s understanding of their work.
Undoubtedly, there are some authors whose lives eclipse their work, and their writing becomes dwarfed by the legend of their private lives, making it difficult for their words to stand alone. Virginia Woolf, for example, is known more for her life than her novels these days, and who can read anything she wrote without the shadow of her last lonely walk along the riverbank hovering ominously overhead, darkening everything they read with its inevitable sadness? Is this projection of an author’s future over a body of work written without the author’s knowledge of those things to come useful? Is it right? Does it blind us from seeing other aspects of their writing, because we are so focused on a biographical interpretation that doesn’t leave room for an alternative view?
I think all of these questions have highly subjective answers, and there are no rights or wrongs. Personally, I find having a knowledge of an author’s life helps me to better appreciate and understand their writing. I am always wary of making direct biographical parallels unless the author has stated such and such a character represents their mother and should be read in such a way, but I do think that, often subconsciously, writers can saturate their work with their life experiences, and understanding more about them as people cannot help but unlock a new appreciation of their writing.
This is so with Richard Yates. I am a third of the way through the wonderful, illuminating, and highly readable biography of Yates by Blake Bailey, and I am already buzzing with excitement and a desire to reread all of the books I’ve already read in the light of what I’ve learned. Yates was a far more biographical writer than most; he used the people he knew, the experiences he had, his thoughts and feelings and failures, to create the worlds in his novels and short stories. Many characters’ names are only letters apart from their real life correspondents, and Yates made many a friend or old acquaintance livid by his blatantly obvious depictions of them in his work.
A lot of what I’ve read so far is about stories I haven’t read yet, but I have learned that Revolutionary Road was dedicated to Yates’ long suffering first wife Sheila, as an apology for the way he treated her. His apology came in the form of depicting her in the character of April Wheeler. Yates never was a tactful man, apparently. Unsurprisingly Sheila wrote to Yates after its publication to tell him she was so upset by her similarity to April that she couldn’t finish the novel, and she claims to this day she has never read it all the way through. Bailey notes that Sheila told him that she never even realised Yates had dedicated the book to her until her daughter Monica, her and Yates’ youngest daughter, showed it to her in the reissued Vintage paperback in 2000.
Sheila’s parents were, like April’s, largely absent during her childhood; her father was a handsome and moderately famous English actor; her mother a striking beauty more interested in men and her career than her children. After an unsettled childhood, Sheila met the handsome Yates when she was 19 and he was barely older; entranced by his good looks and intelligence, she married him a year later, but their plans of living a bohemian life in the city were soon scuppered by the arrival of their first daughter, Sharon. Interestingly, the young Yates’ did move to Europe; first to France, then on to London, but it wasn’t the Utopia they dreamed of and Sheila left without Yates for New York, and so began the first of their many separations. Their marriage was volatile, punctuated by brief periods of bliss (sound familiar?) and as a family they were constantly on the move, in search of the perfect life Yates believed could be achieved if they just lived somewhere different, or just made this new friend, or if he just got this story published. There are definitely shades of Yates and Sheila in Michael and Lucy Davenport, too, though Yates said himself that he was a heavier drinking version of Frank Wheeler.
It seems that Yates felt Sheila was incapable of love; Sheila said that she was never sure what love really was. They remained affectionate about one another for the rest of Yates’ life; they did have two daughters, and Yates was an excellent father, but they were never quite able to form a functioning relationship. They were very much two individuals, married to one another, and their different ways of coping with life were incomprehensible to the other. I thought it was actually very brave of Yates to be so open about his failures on paper, though I can understand Sheila’s hurt at his depiction of her. However, Yates does not treat April cruelly; she is capable of love and affection; her last act before she aborts her child proves that she cared for Frank enough to not want to hurt him unnecessarily, and I think that was Yates’ way of trying to compliment Sheila, to show that he understood, at least in part, the complexities of her personality. She couldn’t love him in the way he wanted to be loved, but neither could he love her in the way she needed to be loved; the breakdown of their marriage was, in the end, no more one’s fault than the other’s.
So far, I’m enthralled, and I can’t wait to find out more about this remarkable man. Stubborn to the last, he died of emphysema, still smoking while living on oxygen from a tank. His daughter’s worried insistence that he couldn’t smoke with oxygen tanks because of their flammability got nowhere with him – “Media hype” he simply replied. Saying he was a ‘character’ would be quite the understatement!