There’s a piece on Byron by William Hazlitt in which, as he’s routinely and genially abusing the latest instalment of Don Juan, he learns that Byron is dead. Well, of course, Hazlitt says, he was the greatest writer of the age. The sudden deaths of contemporaries wrong-foot us: we have to turn too quickly into posterity’s representatives. A living writer is part of the unsatisfying, provisional, myopic, linear, altogether human present, but add a full stop and you can read the work backwards, sideways, whatever, because now it’s an oeuvre, truly finished.
Angela Carter annoyed people quite a lot when she was alive (‘I certainly don’t seem to get the sympathy vote,’ she observed with more than a shadow of satisfaction when last year’s big prizes were announced). But when she died everyone scrambled to make up for it, and perhaps there was more than a shadow of satisfaction behind some of those glowing obituaries, too: she isn’t going to come up with any more surprises; that disturbing sense of someone making it up as she went along will fade; Literature can take its course. For the first time I see that there’s at least one virtue in literary biography: a ‘Life’ can demythologize the work in the best sense, preserving its fallibility, which is also the condition for its brilliance.
This has been critical heresy for a long time. Writers’ lives merely distract us from the true slipperiness and anonymity of any text worth its salt. A text is a text is a text. Angela, of course, was of the generation nourished on the Death of the Author (Barthes, 1968 vintage), as was I.
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