17 November 2013

Biography Conference in Mexico City

"Under history, memory and forgetting,
Under memory and forgetting, life.
But writing a life is another story.

These lines by the French philosopher and poet, Paul Ricoeur, are a good introduction to my next topic, a two-day conference on biography I attended in Mexico City in October. The conference was the brainchild of Daniela Spenser, a historian at the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropologia Social (CIESAS), and her fellow historian and colleague, Milada Bazant.

Daniela, it should be said, also has roots in Central Europe, and her late mother's extraordinary life was such a paradigm of 20th century European history that I will digress for moment to summarize The Guardian's recent obituary of her. Her mother's name was Ruth Tosek, and Ruth was born into a Czech-Polish Jewish family in Poland in 1926. The family soon moved to Prague, and when the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia In March 1939, Ruth, aged 13, escaped at night with her father through the Czech-Polish border and eventually made it to the UK. Ruth's mother failed to join them in time and ended up in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Ruth was then put into a foster family and children's home until the age of 17, when she joined the British army. Given that she spoke fluent German, the British intelligence service used her to broadcast coded orders to enemy pilots, luring them to their destruction.

Immediately the war in Europe ended in 1945, Ruth went to Germany in search of her mother. Typhoid-ridden and weighing only 88 lbs, her mother fainted when Ruth arrived at Bergen-Belsen. Back in Prague, Ruth worked in the English section of Czechoslovakian national radio, but in 1952 was dismissed during the Stalinist purges. Divorced from her first husband, she married the Czechoslovakian national TV commentator Vladimir Tosek and both were involved in the Prague spring in 1968.Vladimir presented the underground broadcasts that co-ordinated the nation's passive resistance and subsequently fled with Ruth to the UK to avoid arrest. Once there, they worked for the BBC East European Service (where I narrowly missed meeting them, for I had worked in the same service until 1966) and edited an exile bi-monthly journal, Listy, which included Vaclav Havel among its contributors. After the collapse of communism, Ruth moved back to Prague and lived there until her death in mid-October.

Daniela also grew up in Czechoslovakia, and also fled to England after the Soviet invasion of 1968, where she acquired her last name through marriage to an Englishman. After graduating from Kings College, London, and the London School of Economics, in Latin American literature and anthropology, she moved to the University of Mexico to teach Latin American history, and along the way got her PhD in Latin American Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is currently finishing up a major biography of the Mexican labor leader, Vicente Lombardo Toledano, hence her interest in the genre, and when I pointed out to Daniela that her mother rated a biography of her own, she jumped at the idea and says she will start work on it soon. I hope she's able to realize her intention, since I for one would love to read it.

When I asked Daniela and her colleague, Milada (who, as her first name shows, is also from a Czech background - though born in Mexico - and is also working on a biography) why they had decided to hold a conference on biography, I learned there was no tradition of literary biography in Moscow, and therefore little discussion of the theoretical questions raised by the genre or understanding of the craft. Sure enough, most of the presentations were by scholars who had slipped into biography almost by accident, who spoke almost exclusively about their subjects rather than the problems of writing about them. It's a pity they weren't able to wait to write their papers until after listening to the conference's keynote speaker, Francois Dosse, the well known French biographer and historian of structuralism, who spoke brilliantly and with an actor's flair about both the art and craft of biography and covered all the big issues. It turns out his book, Le Pari biographique. Écrire une vie (translated into Spanish as "The Art of Biography"), is virtually the only serious work on the subject published in Mexico and is extremely popular in literary circles.

I too had been invited to bring an international perspective to the subject, but had been poorly briefed and stuck narrowly to a single topic arising from my biography of Arthur Koestler, namely the conflict between autobiography and biography in seeking the "truth" (a word that always has to be placed in quotes when the subject is biography). During his lifetime Koestler had published four book-length works of autobiography and several autobiographical essays, and the problem was how to cover the same territory while producing a completely different and personal (that is, from my point of view) narrative that was still faithful to the facts. I interpreted this as a challenge, leading to a sort of literary competition between the autobiographer and the biographer, in which each has advantages and handicaps, without drawing conclusions about who won and who lost in this particular case (not that I had any doubt about Koestler's superiority inmost regards).

One interesting discovery I made was that the other presenters and our modest audience, presumably of graduate students at CIESAS, seemed much less familiar with English and American biographers and literary writers on biography than they were with French examples. I found this surprising, and a bracing corrective to my Americo-centric expectation that American literature on biography would be more familiar than any other. Given the relative strengths of the French and English biographical traditions, however, I decided it wasn't chauvinistic of me to regard this as a pity, and Daniela and Milada agreed. It was a subsidiary motive for their conference, and had they remembered to tell me the context at the outset, I would have taken a broader view of the subject.

One of Dosse's literary heroes, by the way, and the subject of his best known biography, is Paul Ricoeur, though I stumbled across the words quoted at the start of this entry only after our conference. It embraces the idea that history belongs both to those who live and those who write it, and is always incomplete and open-ended. There can never be an end to the process, and I hope this was the message carried away from the conference by a majority of its earnest participants.