4x4th Estate: Investigative Biography


A Life Discarded

How do you write a biography of someone you’ve never met?

Condensed from a preoccupation that lasted half a decade, Alexander Masters’s latest book A Life Discarded locates fantasy in ‘a daily record of an [ordinary person’s] thoughts about their existence, written […] so to speak, from the inside’. Again, Cambridge – by now surely to be understood as the author’s topographical muse – is the tableau; the city’s seemingly uncanny ability to both produce and submerse its more ‘sensitive’ inhabitants providing reader and author — armed with paper, pen and a private investigator named Vince — a series of wildly compelling, darkly comic revelations.

Having come into possession of some 148 mould eaten diaries, abandoned to landfill outside a recently demolished Cambridge residence, Alexander Masters finds himself ‘driven by a sense of destiny and devotion’ to an ‘unknown, perhaps unknowable project’ of pursuit, investigation, discovery and insight. At times measured biography, at others, frenzied bibliomancy, A Life Discarded is one of those rare texts that demonstrates how much magic can be hidden in the most mundane of places.




How different A Life Discarded would be were they Anais Nin’s diaries discovered in that skip! These infamous confessions, compiled and unexpurgated, wholly upend the “extraordinary ordinary” conceit so crucially deployed in Masters’s text – any reader of Nin’s would surely agree that she was anything but “ordinary” – and read rather more like a sort of proto-celebrity memoir, goading the reader’s investigative impulse by effortlessly weaving the banal and the sensational in an engaging, earthy patchwork. Imagine, say, Patti Smith’s M-Train written for the Black Mountain College, and you’re only halfway there.

Which is not, of course, to say that ordinary things cannot spellbind extraordinary people. In her Diary, Nin is a blur between rooms and gardens, cities and countries, reading and writing, letters, lovers, and other universal tediums. Languidly transcribing the minutiae of her life in a delicate, lilting prose quite at odds with the celebrity of her associates or the, erm, candour of her more initimate relationships with them, Anais Nin’s Diary is an investigative biography insofar as it tacitly – seductively – lulls the reader to investigation.




In a 2013 interview, Julian Barnes claims that he does ‘not think of the novel as any form of confessional’ – that the most graceful novel writing may indeed be that which, as best it can, obfuscates the figure of the person responsible for it. ‘Books’, Geoffrey Braithwaite, protagonist of Barnes’s brilliant, Booker shortlisted novel Flaubert’s Parrot, dejectedly muses, ‘books are not life, however much we may wish they were’.

Flaubert’s Parrot is, on the surface of things, at least 3 books, though its stylistic net is cast far wider than that. At once a piece of literary criticism, meta-fiction, biography and autobiography, it is much more than the self-penned story of amateur critic Geoffrey Braithwaite’s investigative descent into the very root canals of Rouen in search of her most lettered son. Hard though it is to believe – he holds grudges against some decidedly extant literary critics – Braithwaite is not a real person. It is thus a testament to Barnes that, by vanishing so expertly, he has authored one of the most inventive “confessional novels” in contemporary fiction.




The degree to which Knausgaard’s monumental series Min Kamp can be called “investigative” is perhaps contestable. What I will say however is that in reading this gargantuan disclosure, I felt as though I was probing my own life and experiences, investigating my own personal history, my own private thoughts, longings and secrets. This sounds a little romantic perhaps, but is, I can assure you, a statement made in tandem with a growing legion of Knausgaardians, many of whom much more remote from the author’s native Norway than I am.

In scruffy, sometimes unfinished feeling prose, Karl Ove draws upon the obvious muscularity of his temporal lobe and limbic system, rushing to memorialise his memory on each page in what reads like real-time. Readers are invited into kitchens with his mother, bedrooms with his girlfriends, bars with his brother. Nothing is left out; even less is poeticised. Though My Struggle (that title as honest and grotesque as the words inside its cover) is an undeniably ugly book to read, it is a quite magnificent thing to “remember”. By way of self-reflection, self-investigation, it may just be that Knausgaard has written the first truly universal biography. Maybe.


Words from Darren Biabowe Barnes

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