Penguin offers terse portraits of Crazy Horse, Proust

When it comes to reading books, I have great intentions – actual output is another story. Not only are there a lot of books I want to read, there are also all the ones I “should” have read already.

Many of the books (that I intend to read but will never actually get around to) are biographies. History is filled with so many significant individuals, many of whom I know pathetically little about. But because too many biographies cry out to be read, I could easily rack up a list of a hundred by merely choosing a handful each of American politicians, international leaders, international villains, reformers, radicals, writers, artists, intellectuals, journalists, entertainers, and, perhaps, a psychopath or two for good measure.

A major part of the problem is that most biographies, to be frank, are far too long. Obviously it is the biographer’s prerogative to be extremely thorough, documenting even the most mundane details of the subjects life, but such massive tomes are too much for the average reader, who is likely to give up if a few chapters pass before the subject is even conceived. Even Elvis Presley’s life fills two massive volumes! We could use a little economy here, please.

It would certainly be nice if a happy medium could be found between a thousand-plus-page doorstop and an entry from Encyclopedia Britannica. A new series of short biographies from Penguin Books seeks to fill this literary void. The Penguin Lives series is not simply a Cliff’s Notes version for biography. A wide array of accomplished contemporary writers will contribute to the series by examining a life of personal significance.

The first two books in the series are Marcel Proust by novelist and critic Edmund White and Crazy Horse by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Larry McMurtry. These attractive little books have classy cover designs and average about 150 pages each. Forthcoming books in the series will be devoted to a broad range of figures, including Mozart, Joan of Arc, Marlon Brando, Mao Zedong and Dante.

In case you are wondering, this review is not a covert advertisement for Penguin Lives. Clearly the series is a commercially driven endeavor. In no time, every book and espresso superstore is sure to have a rack of Penguin Lives displayed prominently somewhere between the shelves of Chicken Soup ad nauseam and the Oprah Winfrey wing. I can just picture the rainbow of homogenous biographies calling out to customers, “Buy me. I am a great gift. Collect the whole set.” Normally I would be disgusted by this sort of crass marketing scheme in which the commercial angle is antecedent to the published product. In all honesty, I am a little disgusted. Nonetheless, I still think Penguin Lives are a wonderful, albeit highly marketable, idea.

Without a doubt, the series’ greatest asset is the level of talent it has attracted. Many biographies fail simply because the most thorough and insightful researcher may not be equally proficient when pen and paper meet. By starting with excellent writers from the get-go, these biographies avoid that common pitfall.

In Marcel Proust, Edmund White writes about the great French novelist with both warmth and elegance. A chronological story of Proust’s life, from his early years growing up as a sickly child to his death in 1922, at age 52, is gracefully intertwined with a discourse explaining the impact of particular experiences on his development as author. White gives much attention to Proust’s Jewish ancestry, chronic ill health, maternal dependence and closet homosexuality – especially the way in which these characteristics influenced his masterpiece: the 4300 page, semi-autobiographical novel, Remembrance of Things Past.

Proust’s unease with his own sexuality is presented as a defining force in the writer’s development. While the French were more accepting of homosexuality than their neighbors across the channel (in 1895, Oscar Wilde was sent to prison for this “offense,”) Proust’s penchant for young males was by no means something he wished to make public. Ironically, most everyone in his social circle knew of his homosexuality. Regardless, Proust’s was determined to maintain the appearance of heterosexuality if for no one but himself.

An excellent bibliography complements the text. In this section, White comments on various translations of Proust’s own works in addition to suggesting an assortment of biographies and literature an interested reader might wish to pursue.

Larry McMurtry has quite a different task at hand in his biography of Crazy Horse. Factual information on the Native American icon is scarce; what does exist is haphazard and often of questionable authority. Crazy Horse, once a mortal man, has transcend to the status of legend. As McMurtry concedes, “fact whithers in the heat of myth.” His stated goal is to present what is known of the famous Sioux, while simultaneously presenting the historical context from which the legend of Crazy Horse emerged.

Living in the late nineteenth century, the most momentous – and most tragic – period of Native American history, Crazy Horse has become the archetypal figure of stoic resistance to the encroaching white usurpers. McMurtry describes the dying culture of the Plains Indians, the relentless demands of the white man and the radical transformation that occurred when US soldiers banished an entire civilization from its native homeland.

The rugged abandon of McMurtry’s prose could hardly be more suitable for depicting this sorrowful chapter of American history. Crazy Horse emerges as an enigmatic figure, whose modest heroism, though understated, is nonetheless overwhelming. Like White, McMurtry concludes his book with a bibliography and commentary, a useful feature, which presumably all Penguin Lives will have.

The presence of companion bibliographies tacitly acknowledges the short biography’s obvious weakness: its limited scope. Without doubt these books can not hope to rival the photographic exactness of a colossal tome. However, the first two Penguin Lives books demonstrate that skillful authors can, like the great Impressionists, utilize broad strokes, and still portray their subject authentically and exquisitely.