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Here I stand: David Marr’s Seymour Biography Lecture

September 16, 2016

This week Mr Gums and I went to our second Seymour Biography Lecture, an annual lecture devoted to life-writing which was endowed by the Seymours in 2005. Our first, last year, was given by Robert Drewe who discussed memoir as a form of life-writing that is differentiated from but as valid as autobiography. It was a wonderful lecture, so we were keen to attend this year’s, and particularly when David Marr was announced as the speaker.

David Marr, NLA, Sept 2016

David Marr, NLA, Sept 2016

David Marr, as you may know, is one of Australia’s most recognisable contemporary public intellectuals. He wrote a biography of controversial politician and Chief Justice Sir Garfield Barwick (Barwick) and the multi-award-winning biography Patrick White: A life. In recent years he has written several biographical essays for the Quarterly Essay: on John Howard (2007), Kevin Rudd (2010), Tony Abbott (2012), George Pell (2013), and Bill Shorten (2015). The National Library of Australia’s Director-General, Anne-Marie Schwirtlich said, when introducing him, that these essays represent “a new form of biography”. That sounded interesting, but it turned out not to be the subject of his lecture. Oh well … a topic for another day, perhaps?

At this point David Marr got up to speak … I’ve seen him many times on television, but I greatly enjoyed seeing him in person. He has a lovely, natural speaking style – articulate, but informally formal if that makes sense. He started by saying how good it was to be giving a lecture in someone’s name, not in their memory but in their presence! (The Seymours were in the audience).

What’s the story?

Marr commenced by describing how he was called to Patrick White’s place in 1988 during one of White’s “near-death” experiences. When he got there, other family and friends were already there, waiting for the ambulance. Eventually, Wendy the ambo arrived, walked in, and asked, very appropriately Marr said, “What’s the story?” As it turned out White lived through more episodes like this, before dying in 1990. He told us all this, not so much because it was an interesting story, but to make the point that although he was present at these occasions, and although he wrote about them in his White biography, we will not find him there. That is, he did not put himself in the room with the others. In fact, he did not put himself in the book anywhere (although he admitted, slyly, that of course he is everywhere in the book – the words, the judgements, are his).

Marr then gave us his rules for biographers, but I’m afraid I only got four of the five down. They are:

  • The voice of the subject must be clear;
  • The biography must not “muck around with time”;
  • The biographer must spare the reader his/her “homework”; and
  • The biographer must stay out of the life.

This last “rule” would be the theme of his lecture …

Be an invisible biographer

Before exploring this, however, Marr said that it is the biographer’s truth that everybody’s life is open to writing about, that no-one owns his/her life. True, yes, he said, but “mighty obstacles can be put in your way”. Subjects can:

  • Stop their friends talking to you
  • Block access to their papers
  • Withhold copyright consent. He expanded here on family ownership of copyright, and the typical family view that “what’s hidden in life must be hidden in death”. (Hence, methought, sisters like Cassandra Austen destroy precious letters!)
  • Place a curse on their biographers. Here he mentioned Greek poet, Cavafy, who wrote “From all I did and all I said/Let no one try to find out who I was” (“Hidden things”). Cavafy also said that sometimes it is better to wait, that some things cannot be understood until time has passed.

Marr said he feared every one of these obstructions when he approached White – particularly the curses! But the timing was right for White, and Marr’s biography project was, amazingly, accepted. Marr described his aims as absolutely conventional: “I was  born in Pymble after all,” he said! They included finding out who White was, where his books came from, his impact on the world and world’s on him, and so on. But White – the irascible White – saw it quite differently. He saw it as his “last reckoning”, his last chance to see where all his life passions had ended up, his last chance to see which of his many and diverse arrows had hit their mark.

Marr spent four years (I think) on the project, meeting with White, visiting places he’d been, meeting people he knew, and so on, but he is not in the book. Editors today, he said, would “tell me to get in there”, to write of his adventures in research. He described this style as “quest biographies”, and he doesn’t (generally) like them. They “inflict their homework on readers” and “they also bugger around with time”. For example, the biographer may write about being in Greece researching the subject’s life while simultaneously describing the subject’s life in that place in some time past. Biographers can also, inappropriately in Marr’s view, foreshadow aspects of the subject’s life, as in “that was the last time X ever went to Y”. He argued that it is the great drama of our lives that we don’t know what is going to happen. Great biographers make the future unknown, he said. Even though we usually know the fate of the subject, a good biographer can make it a surprise.

He gave examples of visible biographers that he doesn’t like, but admitted that rules can be broken. The “quest biography” is, for example, suitable for the life of a fraud. And there are cases where the biographer has “absolutely earned the right” to be in the biography, the perfect example being Boswell in his Life of Johnson. Boswell’s world was Johnson. He spent twenty years talking, living, arguing with Johnson. Do the work, said Marr, put in the years, and deal with yourself as ruthlessly as Boswell does!

David Marr, Power TripThen Marr admitted that he has broken his own rule – when there’s been a purpose for him to be there in the work. His Quarterly Essay on Kevin Rudd is an example. He told of dining with Rudd who, late in the meal, asked Marr what his essay was about. When Marr told him, Rudd lost his temper, in a very controlled way. He was “astonishingly eloquent”, Marr said, speaking from his “angry heart” and Marr had to be there to be able to describe the experience.

So, there are no rules, but overall he’d like to see an end to biographers in the text. They should be in the shadows, “manipulating everything”, and saving their stories about themselves and their research for writers’ festivals and, when they’re old, for lectures!

Q&A

We had about 15 to 20 minutes of Q&A but some of the questions, interesting though they were, ranged wider than the focus of Marr’s lecture, so I’ll keep this brief.

  • How do you choose who to write about? Marr chose White because he read something contradictory about White’s parents. White had always said that they did not want him to be a writer, but then Marr read somewhere that White’s parents had bankrolled a publishing project on the condition they published a book of White’s poems. He wrote his Barwick biography because he was enraged by what Barwick was getting away with. He’s an explainer he said, rather than a creator.
  • Do you as a biographer ever withhold information? Yes, said Marr. There are some private matters that have no place in biography. His deal with Patrick White, he hastened to say, was that it was his (i.e. Marr’) book and he would write what he wanted to write. Any information he withheld, then, was withheld because it was not, in his opinion, essential to our understanding of White. Legal issues, too, can sometimes result in information being omitted, as has happened with his various Quarterly Essays on contemporary politicians.

During the book signing at the end of the evening, Marr commented that his was “a craft lecture”, meaning I suppose that it wasn’t a theoretical or philosophical one on the form and its meaning. Well, “craft” it may have been but I enjoy hearing from writers about their craft and, anyhow, amongst the “craft”, as you can probably tell, we got a bit of theory and philosophy too. Another wonderful Seymour lecture, with another thoughtful, inspiring writer.

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. September 17, 2016 1:06 am

    Thanks so much for sharing the details of Marr’s talk and insights. Much appreciated. Biography interests me but writing more about little people from history. I’ve stumbled across some very interesting story researching my family history through Trove and submitted one in a short story competition recently.
    I feel he’s very brave for taking on Patrick White…an intimidating subject.

    • September 17, 2016 1:11 am

      Thanks Rowena. Yes, I think he was brave tackling that, but clearly he was the man to do it because White accepted him.

      I agree re biography about little people. What fun I’ve had wandering around Trove looking for my family members. I’ve found some interesting things too … but I could never turn them into an interesting short story. I don’t have that sort of imagination. So, good for you!

  2. Anne Fenn permalink
    September 17, 2016 7:17 am

    Such an interesting and informative report WG, thanks very much indeed. You do the hard work, we readers are the lucky ones. David Marr is a very public figure but you reveal a different, very professional side to him here.

    • September 17, 2016 8:41 am

      Why thanks Anne! Fortunately, it’s enjoyable work, so we all win. I like what you say about Marr. I did feel I saw another side of him, so am glad that’s come across.

  3. September 17, 2016 9:21 am

    His rules make an interesting conundrum for anyone writing biography today. Since I’ve read (and really enjoyed) a few ‘quest bios’ I suspect that they are what publishers and the public want. Even Brenda Niall includes the story of how she came to write the life of Mannix, though (from memory) I think her presence was mainly at the beginning.
    Still, he might be right, the quest bio may be a passing fad along with social media making its presence felt in everything from Q&A to the programs on ABC radio. Bios that stick to his rules may be the ones that last the distance.
    Thanks for this article, Sue, it’s been a pleasure to read:)

    • September 17, 2016 9:36 am

      Thanks Lisa. Actually, at the book signing I told him he’d given me something to think about because I rather like reading the biographer’s journey too! I nearly put this in my post but at really 1400 words it was getting long. Perhaps, though, this personal response should have been included!

  4. September 17, 2016 9:29 am

    I must say I enjoy seeing the biographer in the biography, I don’t think all stories have to be linear in time. Still, I very much enjoyed Marr’s Patrick White. And re White’s parents – my parents didn’t want me to be a truck driver but they helped me buy my first truck.

    • September 17, 2016 9:38 am

      Ha ha Bill. Love your truck story. Fair point. Parents can support you even if they don’t agree with you. As for biographers in their work, see my response to Lisa!

  5. September 17, 2016 11:53 am

    Thank you, Judy – I wasn’t able to attend this lecture, but this is an admirable overview. I have heard David Marr in person in the past, and I agree with you – he has a great speaking style. And I am heartened by his injunction to the writer not to be present in the work (or at least, obviously so, in the form of contemporary reflection and commentary). Writers of history these days are under some pressure to ‘put themselves into the text’, something that I personally find difficult to do (unless the work is a personal memoir combined with history – a form that I am contemplating for one book that has not yet been written).

    • September 17, 2016 2:24 pm

      Thanks Ros – though it’s Sue here not Judy!! I’m glad my response to him accords with yours. I thought that what he said about biography and writers in the text is also happening in history. As Lisa and I said we quite like it but we’d also agree that it should be a case of horses for courses and not a “rule”. Writing is a creative art and should not be bound by rules – for a start!

      • ian darling permalink
        September 17, 2016 6:20 pm

        Sounds like a really interesting lecture. Should the biographer figure in the book? I think that he/she has been there at least since Boswell and that a lot of the best biographies have this in them. Two classic examples might be Symon’s The Quest For Corvo or Richard Holmes’ Footsteps. A similar tendency would be with travel writers internal journey being as important as the external. Of course those are not the only ways to write travel books or biographies.

        • September 17, 2016 8:41 pm

          Thanks Ian. Yes, I think you’re right, though his point I was that it’s something biographers are being encouraged to do now as a matter of course. I don’t know those two you mention at all. Will add them to the list.

          As you say at the end, there’s not one way to write these things – the important thing is for the writer to make the choice they make work, so the reader enjoys and agrees with their approach.

  6. September 17, 2016 8:15 pm

    A wonderful post. Again! I think rules like Marr’s can be always be broken – but only if they are brilliantly broken…

    • September 17, 2016 8:42 pm

      Haha, Michelle, I like that, “brilliantly broken”! I thought of you as we set off to this lecture.

  7. September 21, 2016 5:32 am

    What an interesting evening. I rather like biographers in the biography when it is done well. It reminds me that there is a human being telling the story of another human being, choosing and arranging and keeping silent and making opinions. It keeps it from being Facts and Truth. But then I have also read plenty of really good traditional biographies as well. In the end I suppose it is all up to the skill of the biographer.

    • September 21, 2016 8:51 am

      Yes, that’s how I see it too Stefanie. I like both styles. Depends on skill as you say and also whether there’s a purpose as Marr says. But I like your pants that the biographer’s presence can prevent a biography being simply Facts and Truth.

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