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The Fiction That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Pity literary biographers. There are few writers less appreciated, there are none more despised. There they sit, with their church bulletins of family trees and their dental records, their interviews with ex-lovers, mad uncles, and discarded children, and go about “reconstructing” the life of someone they never knew, or knew just barely. To George Eliot, biographers were a “disease of English literature,” while Auden thought all literary biographies “superfluous and usually in bad taste.” Even Ian Hamilton, the intrepid chronicler of Robert Lowell, J. D. Salinger, and Matthew Arnold, thought that there was “some necessary element of sleaze” to the whole enterprise.

And yet biographies of writers continue to excite the reading public’s imagination. Last year alone saw big new accounts of the lives of W. G. Sebald, Fernando Pessoa, Philip Roth, Tom Stoppard, D. H. Lawrence, Elizabeth Hardwick, H.G. Wells, Stephen Crane, and Sylvia Plath. The most controversial of these, of course, was Blake Bailey’s biography of Roth, which was withdrawn by its publisher just a few weeks after it appeared owing to accusations against Bailey of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior. Even before these accusations were reported, Bailey was criticized by some reviewers for being too sympathetic toward his subject — and for posthumously waging many of Roth’s quarrels and vendettas, particularly against ex-wives and lovers. He presumptuously called his book Philip Roth: The Biography. The biography? As opposed to what?

Whatever privileges Bailey was granted by Roth, his biography will not be the last (it wasn’t even the first), nor will it be once and for all definitive. No biography can be. The entire notion of an authorized or definitive or “official” biography is mostly humbug; new information will always come to light, and fresh perspectives will eventually become necessary. (In the case of Roth, a fresh perspective already seems necessary.) That said, a “definitive” biography may serve as a temporary bulwark against the author-industrial complex. Heather Clark’s Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath is, by my count, the fourteenth biography of Plath, a poet who published just two books before her suicide at the age of thirty, and whose every letter, journal entry, and laundry list has been subjected to forensic analysis by a termitary of critics, scholars, relatives, schemers, and biographers. But to what end, exactly? I have read three of those biographies, as well as several volumes of Plath’s letters and journals, and I still don’t have the faintest idea who Plath really was. (“For all the drama of her biography, there is a peculiar remoteness about Sylvia Plath,” wrote Hardwick.). Each new biographical intervention feels like a paving over of the previous one, adding yet another layer between the reader and the subject.

But perhaps the cases of Roth and Plath are too unusual to be representative. After all, few writers’ lives are subject to the kind of bitter posthumous contention in which Plath’s family and friends have engaged, and even fewer are embroiled in the criminal accusations against the life-chronicler. On the whole, very little happens to writers in the practice of writing, even to those who, like Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Mann, or Naguib Mahfouz lived in the thick of history, with all its peril and precariousness. Consider Mann: born four years after the unification of Germany, he lived through the First World War, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, the Second World War, and the postwar division of Germany. He was hurled into exile, stripped of his citizenship, put on an arrest warrant for Dachau, and surveilled by the FBI for alleged communist sympathies. In America, his social circle included Albert Einstein, Theodor Adorno, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, among others. All of which amounts to an exceptionally fascinating life, but it tells us little or nothing about what finally matters: the fiction. In every account of his life, every time he sits down at his desk, whether in Munich, Küsnacht, Princeton, or Los Angeles, Mann disappears from view. We can reconstruct his punctilious routine, we can describe the texture of his desk, we can even name the various brands of cigar that he liked to smoke — but we cannot be present for the moment when the author of Buddenbrooks, Death in Venice, and The Magic Mountain put pen to paper and chose this word over that word and refined this idea or that idea and generally brought his fictional world to life. Writing is not an activity that can be meaningfully described from the outside. “Surely the writing of a literary life,” said Leon Edel, Henry James’ celebrated biographer, “would be nothing but a kind of indecent curiosity, and an invasion of privacy, were it not that it seeks always to illuminate the mysterious and magical process of creation.” But can this really be done? What is the bridge from the external to the internal?

There are exceptions to the above, of course, when the writer’s external circumstances are so extreme that they penetrate more closely to the heart of the mystery of his or her art. Consider Osip Mandelstam, for instance, or the Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti, composing verse surrounded by the worst totalitarian horrors. Nor do I mean to suggest that one shouldn’t try to imagine the act of literary creation, or that it cannot be meaningfully documented in some way. But a straight historiographical method may not be the best way to get at the elusive target. In recent years, for example, there has been a flurry of biographies of individual books, and biographies of individual novels, including Portrait of a Lady, The Stranger, and Les Misérables. By reversing the role of the writer and the writing, placing a single text at the story’s center, these studies liberate the historical and documentarian impulse of literary biography from some of its sleazier and more invasive aspects. It prefers the achievement of the writing to the psychology of the writer, which in many cases would be a welcome reversal.

Still, if the process of creation is precisely what traditional biography cannot illuminate, then what purpose does the genre serve? Is it just a form of higher gossip? Or a way of prolonging our intimacy with an author, as John Updike charitably put it?

The genre is as old, almost, as the modern novel, and shares its subversive nature. If Don Quixote, among many other things, brought fiction down from the chivalric heights to the pedestrian grounds, so literary biography served as a tonic to the genre of biography as a whole, which has always tended toward the exemplary. James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, considered by many to be the first modern literary biography, details its subject’s appetite for drink, his shabby clothes, his disgusting eating habits. Johnson himself thought it the “business of the biographer to…lead the thoughts into domestic privacies, and display the minute details of daily life.”

But what can the daily life of a person whose main occupation consists of sitting at home tell us? A writer’s life, truthfully told, would be unremittingly, unbelievably boring. (At least those writers who have the historical privilege of a secure and peaceful life.) It would be a catalog of all the possible ways of describing everyday banalities: scratching one’s head, gazing out the window, tapping an impatient finger against a desk. (For excitement, perhaps posting a letter, or emptying the dishwasher.) A writer lives on paper, but on paper a writer’s life resembles nothing so much as a failure to live. To circumvent this problem, most biographers tend to put the process in reverse: since they cannot find much to say about the writer’s work from the dailyness of the life, they instead mine the work for clues about the life. They frantically insist on what is incriminatingly known as the biographical fallacy: the connection between life and art. “They have to,” as Martin Amis once put it, a little simplistically, in a review of a biography of Philip Larkin. “Or what are they about? What the hell are they doing day after day, year after year… if the life doesn’t somehow account for the art?”

This is what gives many literary biographies their reductive, psychologizing, and prurient nature. Childhood trauma, sexual repression, marital failure: complex fictional worlds are reduced to the graspable symptoms of underlying conditions, and the author is stripped of his mystery and his ability in some way to transcend his conditions and become more than the totality of his circumstances. As late as 1911, an essay by Frederick Graves in The Westminster Review dismissed literary biographers as rakers: “No degree of eminence, no feeling of compassion, may appeal, for the greater the man in the halls of fame, the more touching his struggles on the slopes of Parnassus, the busier are the rakers upon the ashes of his past.” But by then it was already too late: Lytton Strachey’s reputation-puncturing Eminent Victorians was published in 1918, freeing all future biographers from the chains of decorum and respect. In his preface, Strachey said that it is not the business of the biographer to be complimentary but to “lay bare the facts of the case, as he understands them.” He concluded the preface to his exercise in genre subversion by quoting the French economist Charles Dunoyer: “Je n’impose rien; je ne propose rien: j’expose.”

In his lively book on the subject, The Impossible Craft, the late Scott Donaldson, a career biographer of Cheever, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and others, wrote that with biography there is a time before Freud and a time after Freud. (Lytton Strachey’s brother and sister-in-law, James and Alix Strachey, were Freud’s authorized English translators.) As theories of psychoanalysis began to pervade the broader culture, artistic achievements were regarded as clinical documents — as the records of sublimated sex drives or compensations for some general inadequacy. Thus, Robert Louis Stevenson’s life is read in the light of his relationship to his mother, or Thomas Mann’s fictional works as a sublimation of his homoerotic desires. And so on. In other words, the mystery of literary creation is trivialized by being rendered familiar, comprehensible, scrutable. (It is worth pointing out that Freud himself remained skeptical of this biographical approach, and in 1936 turned down Arnold Zweig’s offer to serve as his biographer, remarking that “to be a biographer, you must tie yourself up in lies, concealments, hypocrisies, false colorings, and even in hiding a lack of understanding.”)

And yet we should keep in mind that the notion of the “biographical fallacy” was introduced by exponents of New Criticism in the 1930s and 1940s — by radical formalists with no interest in the connections between literature and life. Espousing the primacy and the autonomy of the text, New Critics repudiated the idea that a writer’s life could in any way be reconstructed or inferred from a piece of writing. There is a cautionary grain of truth in their insistence on reading art as art, on the independent power of the imagination; but as Edel sensibly pointed out, “if a work cannot be redissolved into a life, it can offer us something of the — shall we say? — texture of that life.” Some of the great nineteenth-century critics, such as Georg Brandes and Charles Sainte-Beuve, were gluttons of life; their essays are fattened with anecdote, detail, incident, gossip. True, their critical judgments were not always sound — Sainte-Beuve in particular was almost impressively wrong about all the writers who mattered — but they wrote with an attractively novelistic ravenousness.

Perhaps they also wrote with a certain innocence, a charming naivete that could not be sustained into the twentieth century. Certainly the attitude toward literary texts and their authors became more interrogative, more suspicious, even accusatory. At its worst, the post-Freudian psychobiography degenerated into a dismal rap sheet of cruelties, failures, traumas, and offenses. Lo and behold, behind a masterpiece there stands a mere mortal! And a rather repugnant one at that. I have always found James Atlas’ account of his decision not to write a biography of Edmund Wilson, for instance, a little comical. In the introduction to his biography of Saul Bellow, Atlas recounts signing a contract for a Wilson book only to discover, five years later, that he had a “toxic response” to Wilson’s character: “The bullying proclamations, the tedious self-revelations, the drinking and philandering — in the end, he just didn’t appeal to me as a subject to whose life and work I was willing to apprentice myself for the better part of a decade.” It is an odd admission: as if Atlas thought his task was to write the biography of a philanderer and alcoholic rather than of an uncommonly brilliant and prolific literary critic. I do not mean that the unsavory aspects of Wilson’s life and character should be excised from an account of his life; only that to be appalled by the realization that a writer whose work you admire was, in his or her private life, disappointingly and fallibly human — well, why on earth are you reading literature if not to be baffled by humanity? (Atlas went ahead and wrote a nasty biography of Bellow, whom he clearly disdained.)

All writers lead double lives: one on the page, one off. And no account or portrait of a writer’s life will resolve this fissure. There will always be a scandalizing disproportion between the human messiness of a writer’s life and the size, the scope, and the opacity of their fictional work. Partly this has to do, I think, with a general epistemological uncertainty. One of the sources of human tragedy is that we cannot ever truly and definitively know anyone, not other people and not even ourselves. We must always be approximating and interpreting. Philosophers call this the problem of other minds — and what is literature, if not the creation, and the interpretation, of other minds? How, then, should we presume to know someone whose life consists of living vicariously through fictional invitations? “My own view,” Valéry observed in an essay on Descartes, “is that we cannot really circumscribe a man’s life, imprison him in his ideas and his actions, reduce him to what he appeared to be and, so to speak, lay siege to him in his works. We are much more (and sometimes much less) than we have done.”

A small confession: I am a one-time literary biographer. My subject, fortunately, was little known, long dead, and largely forgotten, thereby all but ensuring that my book would be hermetically sealed from public interest. But in the three years I spent writing it (and in subsequent work of a related nature), I have come to sympathize with an idea of Roland Barthes’, the truth of which I see no point in denying: literary biography is fiction that dare not speak its name.

The subject of my biography was Jens Peter Jacobsen, an influential Danish novelist and botanist who died of pulmonary tuberculosis in 1885 at the age of thirty-eight. Though his great novel Niels Lyhne would eventually become, as Stefan Zweig put it, the Young Werther of its time, Jacobsen produced only a few hundred pages of writing and virtually nothing in the way of diaries or letters. My task, then, was both remarkably straightforward and virtually impossible: I had to imagine being a young man whom I had never known, in a time in which I had never lived, using only whatever scraps of biographical material he left behind, filling in the gaps with the recollections of his contemporaries. Beyond that, I had only two novels, six stories, and a few dozen poems to work with.

Where possible, I stuck to the facts. The fiction that dare not speak its name is not entirely fiction: there are facts and they matter. But sometimes the facts are few or controversial. If I came across an anecdote about Jacobsen that I suspected of being apocryphal, or one that I could not verify — well, if it suited my purposes, I naturally decided to include it. Why not? Any portrait of another human being, especially one about whom so little is known, will require an element of fiction beyond that afforded by the written record. And during the writing, adherence to the real, the actual, is gradually augmented by adherence to the imagined, the inferred, the supposed, to your educated but imperfect impression of what this or that person was like. I found it both daunting and emancipating to realize, a year or so into the writing of the book, that my portrait of Jacobsen would inevitably be equal parts Jacobsen and Jensen. (As if to emphasize this point, a flyer advertising one of my readings erroneously identified me as “Morten Peter Jacobsen.”)

Let me give another example. In 2000, a minor controversy flickered in Denmark when the Kierkegaard scholar Peter Tudvad, in a blizzard of newspaper articles, began a sustained and systematic assault on his colleague Joakim Garff’s acclaimed and bestselling biography of Kierkegaard, called SAK for its subject’s initials. In an essay in the Danish literary journal Faklen entitled “SAK – An Unscholarly Biography of Kierkegaard,” Tudvad accused the book’s author of being so insufficiently critical of his sources that it was “impossible to distinguish systematically between historical truth and literary fiction.” One of the supposed infractions that Tudvad pounced upon involved the matter of Kierkegard’s servant, Anders Westergaard. In Garff’s biography, Kierkegaard was accompanied by Westergarrd on his trip to Jutland on July 17, 1840, but as Tudvad painstakingly expends five paragraphs demonstrating, this was impossible, because Westergaard was not hired by Kierkegaard until 1844. What’s more, Garff mistakenly describes Westergaard as being two years older than Kierkegaard, when in fact he was four years younger. An outrage! Tudvad continues:

There are many other errors in Garff’s chapter on the Jutland trip, errors particularly well suited to strengthen the view of Kierkegaard as a dandy. He is described by Garff, for example, as installing himself immediately upon his arrival in Århus in the city’s best hotel, even though we know nothing of where Kierkegaard stayed that first night. Similarly, Garff presents Kierkegaard, the resident of Copenhagen, as offended by the amount of bovine excrement in the streets of Århus, even though he must have been accustomed to maneuvering his way through such excrement since Copenhagen had three times as many cows then within its city walls as did Århus.

His extreme pedantry no doubt performs a certain scholarly service, but really what Tudvad is revealing is simply that his image of Kierkegaard is at odds with Garff’s. Tudvad does not agree with Garff that Kierkegaard was a dandy — but so what? That is a difference of interpretation, not scholarly fact. In other words, Tudvad is himself inferring things from his imagination, the very crime for which he arraigns Garff.

In general, Tudvad treats literary biography as a kind of science, or at best an art form that demands overwhelming empirical rigor. He accuses Garff of telling a story at the expense of a “trustworthy biography.” But what kind of biography could deserve to be called completely trustworthy? “Biographers aren’t stenographers,” the biographer and critic Ruth Franklin observed recently, “we’re more akin to novelists, constructing a narrative of a person’s life and making editorial choices at every turn.” A biography, if it is to be more than just a collection of evidentiary material, must necessarily tell a story, and a story distinguishes itself by what it leaves out as much as by what it includes. To suppose that rigorous scholarship could ever be sufficient basis for the portrayal of a life seems to me a ludicrous positivistic presumption.

Obviously — well, I hope it is obvious — I don’t mean to diminish the necessary, the indispensable, the fundamental role that history and recorded fact serve in any account of a writer’s life. Without it, biographies of Shakespeare and Cervantes, writers about whom we know very little, would almost be inconceivable. When Clarence Brown wrote his great life of Mandelstam, the excavation of basic facts out of the obscurity of the poet’s exile, the establishment of the poet’s whereabouts in any given month or year in the Stalinist hell, was an even greater accomplishment than his readings of the poems. And even if we cannot look over Joyce’s shoulder as he wrote Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake, our understanding of his life and his work have no doubt been improved by the colossal achievement of Richard Ellmann, his best biographer.

The crucial point is that although we can reconstruct much, if not most, of a writer’s life, in terms of events and incidents in the world, we cannot reconstruct the writer’s inner life. The vagaries of Virginia Woolf’s mental health, Thomas Mann’s feelings toward his children, the precise nature of Henry James’ sexuality — these are questions to which there will always be different answers. There is nothing relativistic about this; it is the very nature of humanistic understanding. The facts are the anchor but interpretation is the sea, and it is seldom still.

Perhaps the question of fiction in biography can be illuminated by the question of biography in fiction. Based on what I have written above, I ought to be gratefully receptive to what John Mullan calls “biographical fiction,” and what Anthony Domestico refers to as “literary fanfic.” Here the fictional element in the account of a real author takes center stage, and a proper novelist, unshackled by fealty to the clang and whir of biographical machinery, imagines a fellow writer into being from the ground up. Tolstoy, Zelda Fitzgerald, Vanessa Bell, and Virginia Woolf are just a few of the increasing number of writers who have had novels made out of them. Possibly the best-known example of this peculiar genre is Colm Tóibín’s The Master, a much-lauded and award-cosseted portrait of Henry James.

Any reader would sympathize with the desire to imagine one’s favorite writers into being, especially with the solvent of fiction, whereby the novelist is free to go where we biographers generally fear to tread. Imagine what I might have done with — or to — Jens Peter Jacobsen had I been gifted with a talent for fiction and the artistic daring required to pursue him off-piste. Would I have permitted him a brief romantic dalliance? A passionate exchange with a literary ally? Or perhaps a tearful goodbye with his friends in Copenhagen, before he returned home to his parents in Thisted to die? And all the while I would insist that, no matter how fanciful my inventions, I was still writing about the actual Jens Peter Jacobsen.

The problem with most biographical fiction is that it is too anxiously tempted toward biography and thus away from fiction. Ironically, therefore, it suffers from a paucity of imagination. It is intimidated by fact, and it battens off the allure of facticity. With so much of the scaffolding already done, the enterprising bio-novelist is free to acquit himself by merely applying a little fictional adhesive to the preassembled bits of written record. Tóibín’s second foray into the genre, The Magician, a novel about the life of Thomas Mann, reads less like a novel than a diligently paraphrased biography. Here is a passage from about a third-way into the novel, just as the First World War gets underway and Thomas and Heinrich Mann, brothers and bitter rivals, find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict:

While Heinrich developed a following among young, left-wing activists, Thomas found himself the object of casual deprecation even among those who had been his avid readers. Since much opinion was censored, it was difficult to write openly about the war. Offering views in print, instead, on the relative merits of the Mann brothers came to be an indirect, but powerful, way for writers and journalists to make their position on the war clear.

This sentence could be lifted and seamlessly dropped into virtually any biography or biographical essay about Mann, unchanged even in tone. Nothing distinguishes it as an exertion of the imagination. Here is another example:

Late in 1915, Heinrich published an essay invoking Zola as a novelist who had, during the Dreyfus case, attempted to alert his fellow countrymen to a wrong that was being committed… As the war waged, Thomas continued to monitor Heinrich’s articles. His brother, he saw, did not often write directly about the conflict. Instead, he shared his views on the French Second Empire, leaving enough space for his readers to understand the connections between France then and Germany now.

And here is Ronald Hayman, from his biography of Mann, which Tóibín reviewed in the London Review of Books in 1995:

Now, unable to criticize either Germany or complaisant intellectuals, Heinrich had found a way of breaking the awkward silence he’d kept since August 1914 by commenting obliquely on the current situation. Attacking France’s Second Empire as a state that had come into existence through violence, he praised Zola for realizing that it was disintegrating and for championing Dreyfus, the Jewish officer who’d been unjustly accused of treason.

Tóibín’s passage has the linguistic flatness of information, which is much more egregious in a novel than in a biography. When he was typing such paragraphs, and the novel is full of them, what did he think he was doing?

The Magician is one of the most anxious and perfunctory novels that I have ever read. It is nothing but protracted literary piety, or very long-form book chat. It is so unpersuaded by its own claim to being a work of fiction that it dare not loosen its grip from the sturdy handrail of biography. And so it proceeds in meek chronological order, dutifully integrating little facts into the colorless edifice of its prose, and goes exactly, literally, where you expect it to go. Why is this interesting? And when Toibin shakes himself loose from his prosaicness and tries to take flight, things get worse and one longs for a return to austerity of the factual. The few flights of fancy that Tóibín allows himself — most notably, the unlikely idea that Mann acted on or consummated his homosexual desires, a fantasy that has become the hot cliché of contemporary Mann worship — more closely resemble failures of imagination than feats thereof. They seem more like examples of wishful thinking. Is Mann being enlisted in the cause? Was this novel about Mann conceived as a contribution to gay literature?

Perhaps biographical novels are, in essence, little more than minor instances of historical fiction, the perfect middlebrow entertainment. The satisfactions of historical fiction are vicarious and voyeuristic, which is why so many historical novels eventually become adolescent fare. One of the most astute diagnosticians of the historical novel was Henry James, who in 1901 wrote to the historical novelist Sarah Orne Jewett:

The “historic” novel is, for me, condemned, even in cases of labour as delicate as yours, to a fatal cheapness, for the simple reason that the difficulty of the job is inordinate & that a mere escamotage, in the interest of ease, & of the abysmal public naïveté, becomes inevitable. You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures & documents, relics & prints, as much as you like — the real thing is almost impossible to do, & in its absence the whole effect is as nought; I mean the invention, the representation of the old consciousness, the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world, were non-existent. You have to think with your modern apparatus a man, a woman — or rather fifty — whose own thinking was intensely — otherwise conditioned, you have to simplify back by an amazing tour de force — & even then it’s all humbug.

James is here describing what we have come to call kitsch. And some of the same “cheapness” and “naivete” impairs most biographical fiction. Like biopics, they seem like projections of our own cultural moment grafted onto the past.

To read a work of biographical fiction is to read a novel that desperately, harassingly, wants to assure you that it is not just a novel, that it is more than a novel. But it is less than a novel, and except for reasons of commerce it has rarely anything to commend it. (The dialogue is usually the fictional equivalent of Romans or Nazis speaking in English or American accents). And as is the case with The Magician, there is usually an acknowledgments section to undo the spell, like the long unspooling of credits at the end of a movie. These acknowledgements are the final insult, because there is something rather peacock-ish about them. Research is nothing new in fiction; but it is fatal for fiction to recommend itself for its research.

Of course it is possible to write imaginatively about other writers, only it requires a more oblique, sidelong approach. Lisa Halliday’s Assymetry, a novel partly based on its author’s affair with Philip Roth, is a bold exploration of fiction’s ability to conjure the consciousness of others. Jose Saramago’s novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, based on the last year of Fernando Pessoa’s life, is a metafictional inquiry into narrative and selfhood. In The Messiah of Stockholm, Cynthia Ozick explored the legacy of the Polish Jewish writer Bruno Schulz in the farcical yet finely moving scenario of a middling Swedish literary critic convinced that he is Schulz’s son.

Another recent example is Last Words on Earth, a first novel by the Spanish writer Javier Serena, which tells the story of a Peruvian author — “I’ll call him Ricardo, Ricardo Funes, although that isn’t his real name, or last” — who toils away in passionate obscurity in a coastal town north of Barcelona, achieving literary acclaim only to die prematurely of a lung disease. Funes, quite obviously, is modelled on the Chilean poet and novelist Roberto Bolaño, who spent the last decades of his life in Blanes, a Catalan beach town north of Barcelona, and like Funes died just as he began tasting the fruits of literary fame. To anyone familiar with Bolaño’s life and work, the similarities are almost comically obvious (and just in case, there is the back matter and promotional text to remind us) — so obvious, in fact, that some reviewers have wondered why Serena did not simply go ahead and call his fictional creation by his proper name.

But this seems to me to miss the point. Bolaño was an intensely self-mythologizing writer; several details of his biography, such as the idea that he was imprisoned in Chile after Pinochet’s coup against Allende, or that he spent time with the guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front in El Salvador, are likely apocryphal. His fictional universe, connected and constructed across several novels, novellas, and short stories in which characters appear and reappear, is steeped in literary mystery and mythmaking. At least one of Bolaño’s recurring characters, the writer Arturo Belano, is a fictional self-portrait. In the novel The Savage Detectives, Belano is described as having been involved with a rebellious literary group in Mexico City in the 1970s called the Visceral Realists, and Bolaño was himself part of such a group in the same city at the same time, called the Infrarealists. In Last Words on Earth, Serena has Ricardo Funes belong to a radical literary movement in Mexico City in the 1970s called negacionismo.

For readers who look to the novel for a deeper and less self-regarding relationship to reality, all this may seem like a Borgesian rabbit hole. In Bolano’s case, however, it may be said that he brought it on himself. Serena’s novel succeeds because it knows that a writer whose life was as soaked in fiction and self-mythology as Bolaño’s deserves to be appropriated by a rival fiction rather than be detained by biographical fidelity. Otherwise, the novelist becomes hostage to a panoply of fictions not of his invention, and thus surrenders some crucial measure of his artistic freedom. Still, one must wonder whether all these metafictional devices and tricks should suffice to protect a writer from an empirical and critical account of the facts of his life and his style. If biography is fiction and bio-fiction is fiction, then this is yet another case of the widespread contemporary abandonment of the scruple about veracity.

Biographical fiction, at least in its more literalist mode, is a gratuitous genre, like the novelization of a film. Biography is always already fiction, at least in part, because it involves imagining one’s way into a life lived primarily in the imagination. (This is what distinguishes the biography of a writer from, say, the biography of a politician, where the achievements for which they become known are so much more public.) What’s more, being fictional, biographical fiction is often very bad at the necessary nonfictional elements of biography. In Tóibín’s The Magician, the fascinating and formative years of the First World War, when Thomas Mann cheered the German cause and wrote his Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, which over time became a record of his dramatic intellectual evolution, are dispensed with almost in passing, despite its being, as Mann’s biographer Hermann Kürzke has put it, one of the “great riddles a biography must solve.”

Too self-conscious to be wholly fictional, too fictional to be sufficiently factual— no, the biographical novel is a superfluous endeavor, a bourgeois indulgence. We are stuck, in other words, with old-fashioned literary biography, warts and all. But perhaps, by virtue of leaving so much space for the imaginative, for the fictional, biographies of writers may be in some strange way the most truthful form of biography there is. Like writers, most people lead double lives, too: one in their imagination and one out there in the world. As William Dubin, the title character of Bernard Malamud’s Dubin’s Lives, a novel about a biographer writing the life of D. H. Lawrence, observes, “There is no life that can be recaptured wholly.”