The third installment of the Faculty Lecture Series was given by Soledad Fox, chair and professor of romance languages, last Thursday in Wege Auditorium. In her talk, “Biography and Its Discontents,” Fox sought to describe her conception of the genre of “life-writing.” In doing so, she drew not only on her extensive interest in the form, but also on her own experience in writing a yet-unfinished biography of the Spanish writer and politician, Jorge Semprún.
Fox began her talk by describing how, for most of history, the biography and autobiography have been the domain of the elite. Life-writing was, she said, a “highbrow genre,” full of accounts of “wonderful people and how they got to be so wonderful.” One of the first instances of an account of a life that challenged this heroic convention, Fox said, was a “slim … satirical and subversive” work of autobiographical fiction called Lazarillo de Tormes. Published in Spain in 1554 by an anonymous author, this work presented a stark contrast to the biographies that had preceded it. Lazarillo de Tormes, Fox told her audience, is “prosaic and pedestrian.” Its main character is not extraordinary, but rather, “deceitful and amoral” (just like the “society that produced him”). He is a “street urchin” on a never-ending quest to “fill his stomach with bread.”
This work illustrates, Fox said, that “one doesn’t have to be exemplary or elite” to have a biography. It is the “perspective and style” of a biographical work that determines its value, not necessarily the “content.” It is true, she would state later, that the biographer often has a compulsion to “include as much as possible” – even if it verges on the boring – for biography often begins to feel like a “form of preservation,” as the only way these facts can survive. Nonetheless, the genre is far more than historical record, taken down by rote. According to Hermione Lee, professor of English literature and director of the Centre for Life-Writing at the Wolfson College of Oxford, Fox said, the biography can be compared to a “forensic autopsy” as well as a “portrait painting.” Both metaphors, Fox went on, are indicative of life-writing’s capacity to be revealing and insightful, as well as precise and detailed.
As Lee’s quote suggests, it is not necessarily only books that can be rendered biographical. Fox showed her audience several paintings on the slide projector in order to demonstrate how each allowed for a glimpse into a past life. One painting she found particularly captivating was a 1659 portrait of the then-heir to the Spanish throne, Felipe Próspero, by Diego Velázquez. First, entranced simply by the figure and clothing of the toddler, Fox discovered that he had suffered from epilepsy and died hardly a year after the portrait was completed. His tragic history was emblematic of the fall of the ruling Hapsburg family, whose dynasty would end with the rule of the younger brother who succeeded him, the utterly insane Charles II. Although Fox had learned the basic contours of this history long before she ever saw the painting, the image of Felipe Próspero allowed the “really degenerate and corrupt history” of this period to “really come alive” for her.
The vividness of biography originally sparked Fox’s interests in the genre as a young adult. Though Fox grew up in both the United States and Spain, she was more familiar with the political leaders of the former country. The dictator Francisco Franco, on the other hand, had “no such personal associations with her.” Thus, when she read a biography of Franco, it had a “huge influence” on her, sparking her interest in reading any biographies she could get her hands on. If Franco wasn’t off limits, it seemed to her, then “no one [was] untouchable.”
A longtime reader of biographies, Fox has only recently embarked on becoming a writer of them. Her chosen subject, Semprún, lived a highly complex life, one which, Fox said, has “kept me busy … kept me engaged” throughout the arduous process.
Her task is made no easier by the fact that Semprún himself wrote more than a dozen autobiographies in the course of his life. Despite the existence of this detailed record, Fox said, “I’d like to think I have something to add.” Indeed, she concluded, in crafting the biography, the author cannot “be slavish to the subject.” Fox said that finding and employing the “subject’s own words” does not indicate that the writer has hit some “jackpot of truth.” The biographer must delve deeper; he or she must possess a great skepticism and love of mystery, Fox said. It is only in this way that the biographer can hope to succeed in the difficult task that life-writing presents: to delve into another life, another consciousness.