I’ve been reading a lot of biographies in recent weeks (I’m judging a literary award), and I’m struck by the fact that so many of them, including several of the best ones, start out more or less like this:
“In an old barn fixed up to serve as a studio, Arshile Gorky backed away from the canvas on his easel.”
“Alexander Hamilton realized instantly that he would die.”
“Guilty. He heard the verdict and flinched.”
“‘I am going to Washington Saturday night to make a speech at the Gridiron Club dinner,’ H. L. Mencken wrote to a friend on December 7, 1934. ‘This is a dreadful ordeal for me, and I bespeak the prayers of all Christian people.'”
In case you didn’t guess, the last of these books is my own The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken, so I think I can poke fun at this particular stylistic quirk with a fairly clear conscience. Yes, jumping in at the deep end can be a fine way to lure the reader into the tent, but it’s also becoming a trifle overfamiliar, and I wonder if perhaps the time has finally come to put it out to pasture, once and for all.
I don’t mean that starting a book in medias res can’t still be effective, even brilliantly so. Virtually all of Kingsley Amis’ novels begin that way (“‘They made a silly mistake, though,’ the Professor of History said, and his smile, as Dixon watched, gradually sank beneath the surface of his features at the memory”), propelling the reader into the midst of the action in much the same way you might shove a nervous paratrooper out the hatch. But biographies aren’t novels, much less magazine articles, and there’s something to be said for launching them in a no-nonsense manner. Sam Tanenhaus’s Whittaker Chambers (out of print, believe it or not) has the best of both worlds, leading off with a conventional fanfare, then slipping in a blue note: “Jay Vivian Chambers was born on April 1, 1901–April Fool’s Day, as he liked to point out.” Very neat.
As for the best of all possible biographies, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, it gets underway with a preamble worthy of a Haydn symphony:
To write the Life of him who excelled all mankind in writing the lives of others, and who, whether we consider his extraordinary endowments, or his various works, has been equalled by few in any age, is an arduous, and may be reckoned in me a presumptuous task.
To paraphrase what John Coltrane once said about Stan Getz, we’d all write like that if we could. Failing that, we do the best we can, and I will confess that as of this moment, my brief life of George Balanchine will probably begin with the premiere of one of his greatest ballets, Serenade. I could always change my mind, though, and I’m inclined to start my Louis Armstrong biography on the day he was born (which wasn’t July 4, 1900, alas, though Armstrong liked to pass off that superlatively resonant date as his bonafide birthday).