The art of understanding artists

2009-07-23 00:00

DURING the course of delivering the 16th Alan Paton lecture titled “The Examined Life: Paton as autobiographer”, Peter F. Alexander quoted ­Harold Nicholson’s remark that a good biographer needs to be “a snouty little man”.

Does the description apply to Alexander, author of several biographies, including Paton’s? “Someone said that I look into aspects of a person’s life he or she would prefer were best left alone,” Alexander responds. When it comes to writing biographies he is happy to stand by Latin dramatist Terence’s dictum: “I am a human being. I regard nothing ­human as alien to my concern.”

“I am as interested in a subject’s ­finances as their sexual life,” says Alexander. “What fascinates me is their material existence, the day-to-day events and how that is turned into art. That sudden flashing into art.”

Alexander had read Paton’s classic novel Cry, the Beloved Country as a schoolboy and been “profoundly moved by it”. He later studied English at Wits, went to Leeds university in England to do a Masters and then on to Cambridge where he set about a PhD thesis on the South African poet Roy Campbell. Then one day in 1974, Alexander found himself “quite unexpectedly driving to meet Alan Paton in the flesh”. Alexander had been told Paton was working on a biography of Campbell and consequently “would have all the facts at his fingertips”.

On first meeting, Paton could be a forbidding prospect. “But I was drawn to him,” says Alexander. “Once past that crusty exterior, the pale blue glare ... I warmed to him.”

Clearly Paton warmed to Alexander, and by the end of their first meeting had passed on the baton of the Campbell ­biography. “I don’t like Campbell,” Paton told Alexander. “And I don’t like his family. How would you like to do it?”

“It was the kind of thing every young researcher dreams of,” says Alexander. “At the time neither he nor I could foresee that he had changed the course of my career decisively.”

The biography of Campbell was ­followed by one on William Plomer. “Then I thought I would do the third of the trio — Laurens van der Post.” As young men, all three writers had spent a memorable time in 1926 at Sezela on the Natal south coast, producing the first three issues of the landmark literary magazine Voorslag — “whiplash”.

“But Van der Post was alive and prickly, so I thought I’d leave it until after his death,” says Alexander, who opted for a study of Plomer’s friends Virginia and Leonard Woolf who had championed Plomer’s first novel Turbott Wolfe.

Alexander’s relationship with Paton grew into friendship, and when Paton died in 1988, he was the natural choice for a biographer. “At around that time his widow Anne was setting up the Alan Paton Centre,” recalls Alexander. “This meant all the material I would want was largely under one roof. Biographers are overwhelmed with paper, so it was a godsend to have it all in one place and sorted.”

After Van der Post’s death, and at the request of his daughter, Alexander ­returned for another try at Van der Post. “We planned and discussed it, but then I began to discover things she didn’t want to be found out.” Alexander retired from the field leaving it to J. D. F. Jones who unrepentantly told all in Storyteller — The Many Lives of Laurens van der Post.

“Van der Post didn’t live a narrative, he created one, and it looks to have been hollow,” comments Alexander. “Paton was the opposite, a man of great substance although very little external show. Paton gained respect as I worked on his life. The worry of a biographer is that you will lose respect for your subject, which would probably have happened with Van der Post, whereas Paton gained in stature and validity.”

Alexander is now living in Australia (he is professor of English at the University of New South Wales in Sydney) where he found another biographical subject, poet Les Murray. “It was a first for me writing about someone who is still alive. What if I uncover unwanted girlfriends or unwanted boyfriends? I asked him. ‘Everything’, was his response. His largeness of spirit gave me space.”

As well as giving the annual Paton lecture last week, Alexander was also ­attending the conference held to mark the 20th anniversary of the creation of the Alan Paton Centre. It was the perfect occasion for the launch of Alan Paton: Selected Letters which Alexander has edited.

“I selected them in such a way as to give Paton’s view of his own life, to produce a narrative to allow the reader to make sense of what the balance of his life was like. In effect, it’s the book Paton didn’t know he was writing.

“Paton was an attractive letter writer whatever the subject, the voice is clear, there is nothing fake about the letters — they were not written with publication in mind — there is a freshness about them. Whatever he’s writing about, his various interests — political, spiritual, literary — it’s a real voice speaking to you. The muscularity of his mind is very attractive.”

Alexander’s biography of Paton was published in 1994, the year of South ­Africa’s first fully democratic elections. It was the realisation of Paton’s vision. Time has since seen the liberal stance that Paton represented sidelined and vilified.

“That’s sad, if that is true,” says Alexander. “The liberal values Paton represented are as necessary now as then — the ideas that the individual has value, that freedom is worth defending for its own sake.”

“It is a characeristic of moderates that they are attacked from both sides. They were left during the Nationalist period and now they are seen as being of the right. As a liberal you can change places while standing in the same spot.”

I am as interested in a subject’s finances as their sexual life. What fascinates me is their material existence, the day-to-day events and how that is turned into art.

The liberal values Paton represented are as necessary now as then — the ideas that the individual has value, that freedom is worth defending for its own sake.

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