“Reality does not easily give up meaning; it’s the biographer’s job to clobber it into submission. . . . Life-writing calls for any number of dubious gifts: A touch of O.C.D., a lack of imagination, a large desk, neutrality of Swiss proportions, tactlessness, a high tolerance for archival dust. . . . There must be more to it all than this, you think as you unload the dishwasher again. And there is; while you are ostensibly feeding the kids you are really back in 18th-century Paris, except with Internet service.”
Stacy Schiff, “The Dual Lives of the Biographer.” The New York Times, Sunday, November 25, 2012, SundayReview p. 8.
I wouldn’t dare call myself a life-writer. What I can discover of my subject is the barest outline of a life, mostly composed of the sort of land transactions in which English gentry seem to have been constantly involved. But the OCD, the tolerance for dust, the effort to clobber some meaning into the delicate tissue of dates and defendants, and above all, the sense of living in two centuries at once, all that is true and familiar.
I spent six hours in the stacks of a proper research library on Tuesday, not counting driving time. When I got home, Sir John had already had dinner, and I remembered the old joke: “Marry an archaeologist—the older you get, the better you’ll look to him.” Sir John’s wife is obsessed with another man, and spends hours away from home in order to stalk him, not even coming home in time for meals. But it’s okay: the other man has been dead for centuries!
Actually, this sounds like the set-up for another vampire story: scholar’s obsession turns out to be Undead. I could probably make my fortune writing it, except I really don’t care for vampire stories. Anybody want to do it and give me a small cut of the proceeds?