“All biography is ultimately fiction,” wrote Bernard Malamud, which is true but it’s far more insidious than that. Yes, there’s a considerable amount of fictionalizing involved in creating an unbroken narrative from fragmentary sources and in choosing which events to highlight and which to leave out, all the while hoping that the life becomes exemplary and sheds some light on larger patterns of history and culture. Yet, Malamud’s point omits the fact that the biographer has some skin of their own in the game and is drawn to subjects that best provide the opportunity to explore themes that touch them personally. Writing biography, in other words, is the perfect way to outsource your problems and let someone else bear the burden while you sit back and watch them work it out.
At least, that’s how it is with me. I’ve written two biographies and both of them have arisen out of my own personal issues.
My first biography was about the English comedian, Joseph Grimaldi, an icon of the Regency stage and the archetype of the depressed comedian who (in his own words) makes you laugh at night but is “grim-all-day.” In that book, I was interested in exploring the sadness and dysfunction that I had experienced myself while in the company of funny people.
Starting in the summer of 1997, I myself had tried my hand at stand-up comedy. Driven by an impulse nurtured since childhood, I spent the next four years performing three or four stand-up shows a week. I actually remember very little of this period. As anyone who’s stood petrified before a hostile audience knows, the experience partakes of a reality quite separate from the everyday — extruding and displacing time in a way that I can only liken to being sealed within a Plexiglas tube. It’s not a state of being that lends itself well to detail. Plus, it was always nighttime, and there was never a shortage of booze.
Fortunately, all is not lost, as I maintained a series of notebooks in which I wrote jokes while also keeping a list of every gig I’d done along with an assessment how it had gone (what had worked and what hadn’t) and a running tally of my showbiz earnings to date. The notebooks now reside in a box marked “juvenilia” and, looking back on them, the biographer’s urge to take threads and weave narrative is hard to resist.
The earliest of the notebooks is eager and organized and respectful of the challenge I’d set myself; the jokes are playful and optimistic, while the performance notes are cheerful exclamations of solidarity with self and promises to try harder. Three books in and the tone becomes much darker. Standard jokes have disappeared, replaced instead by doomed ideas like a screenplay about a dog who can read but not talk (so cinematic!), a story about a man who has such a wild night that he exhausts his life’s supply of enjoyment and can never be happy again, and pages of dialogue for “Making Great Strides,” a sitcom that appears to have been about people who make trousers. Other pages were devoted to the various New Year’s resolutions of a group of Belgians I met at a bar in Liege on one December 31, and one account of an ill-fated love affair with a woman named Michelle suggests that I seriously considered getting a tattoo of a skeleton riding a flaming Harley Davidson in the aftermath of our break-up.
The notes in the final book, a black leather number with a “Save the Dolphins” sticker on the back, are more elliptical still. There are depressing little poems and transcriptions of my dreams. In one of these, I am standing in the woods with James Taylor, watching from a distance as my father tries to leap a moat.
What these notebooks show but don’t tell is the fact that I no longer wanted to be a comedian. Instead, I was dragging myself along guiltily, afraid to admit that I wasn’t that good while lacking the resolve to get any better. Other people, meanwhile, were doing exactly that and some were even becoming famous. Pushed up against the limitations of my ability, I was demoralized and insecure, and I was inclined to view the achievements of others as a direct affront to myself.
I got out of comedy and pulled myself out of my funk, emerging relatively unscathed but fascinated by what I have come to think of as the corrosive aspect of creativity. We are all familiar with success stories and how it takes years to become an overnight sensation, but what about the times when ambition and ability stand at odds, when the effort to achieve is deleterious to happiness, and the success of others is experienced as a kind of asphyxiation? Are these just ugly feelings best ignored? Or is there something built into the structure of success that actively encourages an assault on self-worth?
To answer these questions, I outsourced them — in the form of research for my next book — to a group of people I suspected would be able to tell me how it might feel. All knew a bit about creativity and fame, as they formed an intimate circle around the Romantic poet Lord Byron.
In the history of celebrity, Lord Byron is a pivotal figure. As one of the first writers to have his work distributed on an industrial scale, discussed by a large and voluble press and consumed by a literate and expanding middle class, he was an early example of the way in which modern media constructs celebrities who are physically detached from their audiences and who take on their primary existence in the largely phantasmal space of gossip, speculation, and advertising. The idea of Byron that emerged from the publication of his long poem Childe Harold in 1812 was so forceful and seductive that the poet came to inhabit an almost mythical space where his charisma, emotional sensitivity, and ability to reduce experience to its inner core were all taken as evidence of an enhanced and superior personhood.
In many ways, the Byron myth benefitted from a fundamental change that took place in the wake of the industrial revolution, namely the idea that people should be judged and rewarded according to their industry and talents, as opposed to considerations such as heredity or wealth. The corollary to this, however, is that unshackling success from status means that those who fail are themselves at fault. In the case of John Polidori, the young doctor who accompanied Byron when the poet entered his voluntary exile in 1816, failure filled him with shame and envy. Polidori had literary ambitions of his own, but the long shadow cast by Byron’s fame made everything Polidori did seem paltry and derivative until the weight of rejection pressed down on him like a judgment on his very being.
Also in Geneva that summer was Claire Clairmont, the half-sister of Mary Shelley. She reveals the gendered aspect of proximity to fame: While Polidori wanted to be Byron, Clairmont wanted to be with him, but as a woman, she was forced to reconcile herself to basking in the aura of a well-regarded man — a form of subordination that put her in conflict with her feminist convictions and made her feel the full extent of her powerlessness.
Both Polidori and Clairmont were in essence presented with two equally unlikely options – to either become as famous as Byron themselves or else to be labeled as failures and marginalized accordingly. For Claire, who had a child by Byron, the affair and his subsequent ill treatment of her became the defining experience of her life, despite the fact that she lived to eighty and was only involved with Byron for a few months at the age of eighteen. Polidori, falsely accused of plagiarizing Byron for his own gain, was unable to endure the humiliation and ended his life with an overdose of Prussic Acid.
It’s strange to think that celebrity can affect us in this way, but there’s no denying its power. At the New York Public Library, the place where I researched much of the book, I met and shook hands with Keith Richards, then plugging a book of his own. His effect on the room was notable for the tightly compressed hysteria it produced in a group of adults trying their utmost to keep their cool. It wasn’t just that no one wanted to embarrass themselves by fainting or kissing his boots; it was that we all felt the need to put up defenses, to defend the dignity of our own existences and in so doing guard against the possibility that his super-abundant existence might envelop our own. The effect lasted for days, and, in what must be one of the most devious marketing ploys of all time, began to dissipate only after I’d purchased his book.