Grace Hartigan, Grand Street Brides, 1954 (Sharon Mollerus / Creative Commons)

What the hell did I just read? That’s what I thought after tearing through Fleur Jaeggy’s These Possible Lives (New Direction, $12.95, 64 pp.). Though I suppose you’d have to say it’s a work of literary biography, it often reads more like poetry, or flash fiction, or fable. Polonius’s lines from Hamlet come to mind: “The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited.” Jaeggy’s book is poetical-biographical, fictional-critical, essayistic-historical—a book unlimited.

It’s also a work of almost impossible compression. In around fifty pages, beautifully translated from the Italian by Minna Zallman Proctor, Jaeggy offers three mini-biographies of three very different writers: Thomas De Quincey, most famous as an opium-eater but most interesting as a writer of and about visionary experience; John Keats, the Romantic poet whose gift, Jaeggy rightly notes, lay in his imaginative and ethical restlessness, in his “not knowing how to reconcile himself” either to the world or to his sole self; and Marcel Schwob, a nineteenth-century French symbolist largely unknown in the English-reading world. (Jaeggy herself has translated his Imaginary Lives into Italian.)

Those looking for an exhaustive treatment of these writers will have to look elsewhere. You won’t hear much about Keats’s class position or the early deaths of his parents. De Quincey’s relationship to Wordsworth—complicated, shall we say—gets short shrift, as does pretty much everything about Schwob, whose section runs a grand total of nine pages. Jaeggy is uninterested in the particular kind of detail that most literary biographies trade in: meals eaten, lectures attended and given, friendships made and dispensed with, reviews received and obsessed over. This isn’t biography-as-accumulation, emerging from years of research in the archives. Here, instead, is a typical passage from the Keats section:

He saw Brown, Dilke, Bailey, Hazlitt. Things were lukewarm with Shelley. Haydon showed him the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon. Keats didn’t have the money to travel the world but made a long walking tour of Scotland. He wore a sack on his back filled with old clothes and new socks, pens, paper, ink, Cary’s translation of the Divine Comedy, and a draft of Isabella.

In a typical work of biography—say, Walter Jackson Bates’s superb 1979 John Keats—such happenings would receive dozens of pages. Consulting the index for Percy Shelley in Bates’s book on Keats, I read, among other entries: “advises K to defer publishing,” “assonance in,” and “on vegetable diet.” For Jaeggy, it’s “Things were lukewarm with Shelley,” and then we’ve moved on. Keats’s visit with Haydon to the British Museum inspired “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles” and proved a fructifying influence for “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Jaeggy follows up with neither poem.

Rather than biography-as-accumulation, this is biography-as-condensation, with details compressed and burnished until they burn with a hard gemlike flame. Jaeggy reads the lives of De Quincey, Keats, and Schwob the way we read poems—imaginatively and associatively—and so she writes their lives the way poets write poems.

The carefully selected, limpidly presented particulars of These Possible Lives hum with significance. After De Quincey’s sister Elizabeth dies, for instance, “The desolate dandy stared at her transparent eyelids. He noted the Bible and other small objects in the dim room, and then heard a cracking sound, hollow and desolate—everything had become so remote. A requiem shone between the girl’s stiffening hands, the light was mocking and complicit. The boy set about writing.” Jaeggy’s style is stringent and exacting, the descriptions precise and unsentimental. Later, as Schwob lies dying in 1905, “His face colored slightly, turning into a mask of gold. His eyes stayed open imperiously. No one could close his eyelids. The room smoked of grief.” That last sentence—the final sentence in the entire book—is perfect: the unexpectedness of the verb “smoked,” the absolute control of rhythm that clinches this moment of finality.

Jaeggy sees biographical detail—De Quincey’s first experiences with opium, Keats’s relationship with Fanny Brawne, Schwob’s childhood illness—not as sturdy building blocks that the biographer lays end-to-end until a life has been constructed. Instead, she sees biographical details as stars and the life she limns as a kind of constellation, patterns and associations she traces (i.e., invents) in order to find beauty and meaning.

The best way to review a book this stylish is mainly just to quote from it, and so I’ll leave Jaeggy with this passage. It comes midway through the De Quincey section. In the dizzying preceding paragraph, De Quincey has mourned the death of Wordsworth’s daughter, Kate, and has increased his already high consumption of laudanum. Late one night, he began to feel “a singular sensation shooting from his knee down his calf. It lasted for five hours and when it was over, despair abdicated. He was overcome with laughter. The memory of Kate disappeared and her little red morocco shoes were deposited alongside other secular relics.” Then, we get this passage, remarkable both for its obliquity (What does this list of eccentric personages and their eccentric actions have to do with De Quincey?) and for its suggestiveness (their obsessions with dreams and violence and gloominess and the Lake District in fact have everything to do with De Quincey):

Henry Fuseli ate a diet of raw meat in order to obtain splendid dreams; Lamb spoke of “Lilliputian rabbits” when eating frog fricassee; and his sister Mary, wielding a knife, chased a little girl who was helping her in the kitchen and then stabbed her own mother through the heart; Hazlitt was perceptive about musculature and boxers; Wordsworth used a buttery knife to cut the pages of a first-edition Burke. Coleridge, his head shrouded in a fog, read poetry badly and moaned gloomily. The dreams of Jean Paul, the crow that loved the storm, reverberated across the Lake District. This was TDQ’s Western Passage.


Though Sharp is a very good book, a less expansive cast of characters would have made it better without compromising the historical argument.

The challenge Jaeggy sets herself in writing These Possible Lives—to write about three lives in under sixty pages—is hard. The challenge the journalist and critic Michelle Dean has set herself in writing Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion (Grove Atlantic, $17, 400 pp.) is even harder. Dean tries to weave into a single book not three lives but ten: Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm.

Why these particular figures? Because, Dean argues, they all “came up in a world that was not eager to hear women’s opinions about anything”; because they all, through the sharpness of their minds and the sharpness of their writing, made people listen to their opinions; because they all, against great odds, made their living and reputations by getting people to listen to their opinions. And why write this book at this particular moment? Because “there is something valuable about knowing this history if you are a young woman of a certain kind of ambition”—like Dean herself—and “there is something valuable in knowing that pervasive sexism notwithstanding there are ways to cut through it.”

Many of Dean’s writers were what Roxane Gay calls “bad feminists”: they displayed a fundamental ambivalence toward certain feminist ideals and toward the feminist movement more generally. Take Joan Didion. As Dean writes, Didion “thought that in their books the feminists had constructed a kind of self-delusion…‘persecuted even by her gynecologist,’ ‘raped on every date.’” Yikes. Yet Sharp is itself a work of feminist criticism, sketching how a group of female writers came to live out, and make new, the traditionally gendered role of “man of letters.” In the process, Dean shows how these writers went from being criticized as sharp—mean, cold, destructive—to being, in this book and in our current literary moment, praised as sharp: intelligent, hip, cool.

I will confess, I really wanted to like Sharp. I enjoy Dean’s criticism in the New Republic, and she’s chosen to write about many critics from my own personal pantheon: Adler, Kael, Malcolm, West. And I’m happy to say that, by and large, Sharp succeeds in its aims. Many of these short chapters—in particular those on Parker, West, Sontag, and Kael—are exemplary capsule biographies, displaying an awareness of writerly strengths (Malcolm’s self-reflexivity and Kael’s stylistic brio) and writerly weaknesses (Sontag’s fiction and Didion’s tendency to flatten out the complexities of the feminist movement).

Ideas mattered to these writers, and Dean makes them matter to the reader, too. It’s easy to see how and why ideas mattered to Arendt, a figure so serious and of such obvious cultural significance that, in one of the book’s many small gems, Janet Malcolm remembers being “flatteringly mistaken…for someone who might have been invited to Hannah Arendt’s parties in the fifties.” But Dean delights most in more surprising moves—for instance, showing how seriously Kael took the notion of fun (“fun was the one thing Kael was consistently devoted to. She made it a credo”), or how McCarthy’s uncertainty wasn’t, as her critics claimed, “a sign of unseriousness” but a sign of an irony that could think through—and past—political consensus. Fun and irony have often been treated as feminine things, which is another way of saying that they haven’t been taken seriously. Dean’s writers, and Dean herself, admirably right this wrong.

I described the chapters in Sharp as capsule biographies and, unlike Jaeggy, Dean provides us with most of the context we expect. In the chapter on Dorothy Parker, for instance, we get her background (her “family name was Rothschild—not those ones, as Parker reminded interviewers all her life”), her early success at Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, and her later and lacerating self-doubt: as Dean writes, “The knife had traveled inward, and instead of urging her to do increasingly better work, it shredded her will to do it at all.” There’s even a wonderful bit about Parker’s arrest at a march for Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927: “She pleaded guilty to ‘loitering and sauntering’ and paid the five-dollar fine. When asked by the press if she felt guilty, she said, ‘Well, I did saunter.’” (Here and throughout, Dean appears to have mastered all the material on all of her writers, with every Parker quip and every Ephron barb at her fingertips.)

Yet to say that these are exemplary capsule biographies is also to admit that they’re just that—capsule biographies. Many feel rushed. I wanted to spend more time with Rebecca West, for instance, whose masterpiece Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is rushed through. Dean has a smart passage about the gap between West’s writing and life: “There was something about who West was in prose that promised people something they then felt distressed not to see materialize in person.” But soon we’re off to Zora Neale Hurston (the least satisfying and least integrated chapter in the book), and then to Hannah Arendt, and then to Mary McCarthy. I admire Dean’s desire to be synoptic, but the wide-angled vision leaves some of these sharp writers looking a bit fuzzy.

Jaeggy’s prose verges on the poetic. Dean’s does not. That’s not necessarily a criticism. The kind of book Dean is writing, explicatory and analytical, requires lucidity above all else. And there are moments of critical sharpness throughout: Adler “was, mostly, smarter than those who surrounded her, and…she liked to show it off in print”; Kael’s personality comes not through the authorial “I,” which appears rarely in her reviews, but “in the vigor with which she analyzes something, turning it over, looking for clues.” There are also, though, moments where the prose sounds, well, prosaic. Adler “bears down on the subject with bull terrier determination”; she “can be a bit like a dog with a bone when she senses logical fallacy.”

Again, I suspect such instances of stylistic flatness are simply the result of having to dispatch with so many writers in so little space. Though Sharp is a very good book, a less expansive cast of characters would have made it better without compromising the historical argument. For Dean’s purposes, five writers would have worked as well as ten. There’s a reason that the best group biographies—Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, for example, or Eileen Simpson’s Poets in Their Youth—are very careful about how many subjects they choose to focus on.


If you like literary dishing, then this is the purest catnip on the market.

David Plante’s recently reissued Difficult Women (NYRB Classics, $16.95, 208 pp.) might not make the list of best group biographies ever. But it would be on my list of the most wicked and pleasurable. First published in 1983, Plante’s delightfully bitchy book features three of his friends, none of whom are flattered, all of whom are, in some way or another, betrayed by Plante’s depiction: Jean Rhys, a significant novelist and, in Plante’s hands, a self-dramatizing, self-embarrassing drunk; Sonia Orwell, George’s widow and a literary socialite; and the feminist Germaine Greer.

Greer was the only one of the three still alive at the time of publication in 1983. Her response? “When Difficult Women was all but finished, Plante…begged me to read it, so that he could change anything I didn’t like. I refused point-blank. I despised him for being so ready to change his work, and also because—though he made a great parade of sensitivity—he had no idea how deeply I would resent being made to utter namby-pamby Plante-speak like a dummy on his knee.”

Toward all three women, Plante displays almost equal measures of sycophancy and malice. He’s eager for their attention and the material they provide: Rhys falls off the toilet and drunkenly rants against fate, herself, and Plante; Orwell sees dinner parties primarily as a chance to pettily display her own social superiority. Greer, physically and intellectually commanding, comes off best out of the three. Yet here is how she’s introduced:

When we arrived we found a baby, about a year and a half old, at a table under the fig tree, playing with finger paints. The baby was slopping green paint onto a shiny piece of wet paper, her hands covered to the wrists; some of the paint was on her face. She was preoccupied and didn’t see us until Germaine, standing over her, shouted, “That’s not the way to use fucking finger paints,” and the baby stared up at her with a look of shocked awe that there was a wrong and a right way to use finger paints.

Plante is sharp in the way that Dean’s writers were often criticized as being sharp—nastily catty, delighting in cruelty. At least Plante is just as mean to himself as he is to his subjects. When he goes to visit Rhys, Plante plumps himself up to cut himself down, baldly displaying his own delight in having access to literary power: “I asked at reception for Mrs. Hamer. It always gave me pleasure to use her married name, not the name she was known by.” Difficult Women frequently skewers Rhys and Orwell and Greer, but it just as frequently skewers Plante himself. Yes, Rhys is a mess, and yes, Orwell is a bully, and yes, Greer is a bit pompous. But Plante is, in many ways, the worst of them all. At the very least, he’s the most self-consciously duplicitous: “I would get home from an evening of being victimized, angry and depressed, and swear I’d never see Sonia again. The next morning, however, I’d ring her to say what a lovely dinner party she’d given, and how I longed to see her again soon.”

If you like literary dishing, then this is the purest catnip on the market. And if you, like me, loathe dinner parties, then the Orwell chapter cuts through all the pretense with chilly delight: “As she laughed, I laughed, my laughter as hard and dry as hers. She said, ‘I hate dinner parties,’ and laughed. I laughed.” That’s Plante’s book at its cold-hearted core: hard, dry, and sharp.


These Possible Lives
New Direction
$12.95, 64 pp.

Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion
Grove Atlantic 
$17, 400 pp.

Difficult Women
NYRB Classics 
$16.95, 208 pp.

Anthony Domestico is chair of the English and Global Literatures Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Published in the January 25, 2019 issue: View Contents
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