Unfulfilling biography of artists’ lives

2010-09-01 00:00

COLM Toibin has created an unusual book. He focuses on a number of writers, poets, playwrights and artists who tried to practise their art while living lives as homosexuals. It’s a non-fiction book which promises deep insights into the lives of those struggling to be honest to themselves, sometimes­ in intolerant climates. Oscar Wilde, the most famous “sodomite­” of them all, is featured, as well as German­ author Thomas Mann, painter Francis Bacon, poet Elizabeth Bishop (the only woman) and Pedro Almodovar among others.

The book promised to be an illuminating examination of artists’ lives with particular reference to how their homosexuality shaped their art.

As a lover of biographies of artists myself, I looked forward to the read enormously. I’m really sorry to say that I was mostly disappointed.

Toibin admits that his interest in writing about his subjects evolved particularly because he is gay himself. This is as good a starting point as any. He also states that he enjoyed the work of some of his subjects even before he knew they were gay. He promises to “explore their work and their lives with that new knowledge”. I’m afraid he doesn’t quite deliver on that promise.

Instead of giving us brave new insights into their lives, many of the profiles are not more than a rehashing of the works of previous biographers­. This was especially true with Mann, Wilde and Roger­ Casement. Toibin seems loathe to suggest conclusions of his own which haven’t been mentioned before in print. He doesn’t do this with the biography of Almodovar, however, with whom he spent some time. Perhaps that’s why he was confident enough to write about Almodovar from his personal perspective. In a way, Toibin’s introduction is more interesting than most of the biographies as he draws on personal experience.

I would urge Toibin to trust his own judg-ment and to give the readers his own opinions. That’s the reason we read his book rather than the biographies he quotes.

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