It seems the curious thing with biographies is that good people survive bad ones. Or, perhaps more accurately, if you are interested in the individual you can read through a bad biography – perhaps only reading into it what you want to.
And this goes for autobiography too. William Buroughs renamed Paul Bowles’s Without Stopping as Without Telling – and certainly the book was a lesson in economy. Then Sawyer Laucanno’s Invisible Spectator appeared – the mere mention of it would throw Bowles into a rage. For myself, I could find nothing untoward in it, nor in Millicent Dillon’s numerous portraits, etc. It wasn’t until I saw Cherifa and Mrabet and some of the other “local” players in the story interviewed that I began to see something uncomfortable – that Bowles and his cronies were, to a degree, little more than East Coast snobs. Bowles armed as much by the manners of the well to do than any deep empathy with the “jumblies” he sought to live among. A return to the written texts merely made this suspicion more concrete and opened my eyes to my previous blinkered reading. (which does beg the question – what blinkers am I wearing now?)
The Tim Mitchell biography of John Cale that I have just finished reading was a dismal affair; its superficial, fawning vacuousness matched only by the proof readers ineptitude. Given that this was originally published by Peter Owen – a publisher not shy of charging a fortune for a pamphlet – I find it extraordinary why they elected not to treat the proofing of a manuscript as an important part of the process. Perhaps this all goes to explain why I picked it up for £3 in a remainder store. However, the fact is that Cale remains a very intriguing man – and consequently I read through the work more or less in a single sitting.