I was reading biographies last night or not so much biographies as reviews of biographies (from the LRB archive) which give you the overarching narrative and the pick of the anecdotes and are altogether much less of a waste of time. Some of them are wee masterpieces- for example Alan Bennet's cruelly witty review of a book about W.H. Auden and Chester Kalman. The more you learn about Auden, he says, the less you like him. But isn't that usually the way? Biographies are mostly sad- because life is sad. Here's Princess Margaret for example: what an arc that is: fairy-tale princess to gilded young socialite to gin-soaked bore and boor. Or Groucho Marx: now that was a life that was struggle all the way- with star-bursts of glory- and then the all too familiar descent into the dim. Or Coleridge. Coleridge was a hell of a mess- a hero-worshipping, self-doubting, addictive personality- with a first-rate mind attached. If only he'd died young! How horrid to wish it and how unavoidable. He would then have been a shooting star- a poete maudit- but instead he lived long and tiresomely. Finally, in the batch I scanned, there was Southey- the third Lake Poet- whose arc was something like Coleridge's only without the highs and lows.
The Mail on Sunday has dug up Partrick McNee's autobiography- written in the 80s, largely forgotten and now hard to obtain. McNee would probably have preferred it to remain that way as it seems- at least in the Mail's redaction- to be little more than a self-congratulatory wallow in remembered caddishness. McNee as a man was the shadow side of the bowler-hatted avenger John Steed.
Are we gratified to know that the great and good are also the most frightful shits? Well perhaps. Schadenfreude and all that. But there's encouragement too in knowing that one isn't alone in being cruel, callous, hypocritical and all those other things one accuses oneself of- and that no-one exits this life with a spotless report card.