Any writer who tackles the messy job of biography must decide at the start whether they are going to cast aside the veil of celebrity or act as keeper of the myth. Two recent biographies, one of the British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, the other of the American writer and novelist Philip Roth — two giants in their respective fields, both of whom died in 2018 — illustrate these contrasting approaches. Only one of them works.
Everything about Stephen Hawking was burnished with the bright — and blinding — dazzle of fame. He was born in 1942 in Oxfordshire on the 300th anniversary of Galileo Galilei’s death; he claimed a brilliant career despite his struggles with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and his work advanced our understanding of why and how the universe exists. By 1992, when Time magazine named him “Einstein’s heir”, Hawking’s 1988 bestseller A Brief History of Time had sold 1.7m copies.
Myth threatens to eclipse science, the legend almost overwhelms the man, yet Charles Seife’s biography Hawking, Hawking: The Selling of a Scientific Celebrity is an object lesson in how to write fairly but critically about genius and fame. “The professor’s image had been built into a towering contradiction,” Seife writes. “He inhabited an intellectual plane above the realm of normal humanity. Yet, on the other hand, he could be treated like a nearly inanimate object.”
Readers flocked to Hawking’s lectures and bookstore readings; he was photographed with Pope Francis, with Nelson Mandela, with Queen Elizabeth II. In October 2017, Cambridge university uploaded Hawking’s 1965 doctoral thesis, and drew such a flood of fans that they crashed the website. Hawking’s research on the nature of black holes, space-time and expanding universes caught the public imagination — even if not everyone understood the physics.
“It’s almost like writing about Mother Teresa,” Seife said in a recent interview, but he tackles Hawking head-on. As well as considering how far the man who possessed one of the most remarkable minds in human history was trapped inside the fame machine, he also asks to what extent Hawking contributed to his own myth-making (answer: a lot).
Another solution, arresting but imperfect, is Seife’s decision to follow Hawking’s life backwards in time. It is technically risky, and the reader has to work to keep pace with the transitions, as the account moves from Hawking’s outsize aura in his seventies to the breakthrough work that he did on black holes in his forties and thirties, to his life as a young student, untouched by the disease that would be inextricably linked to him. But Seife, a science writer and academic, whose previous books include Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea and Decoding the Universe, gives us a compelling — and fully human — portrait.
I wish Philip Roth’s biographer, Blake Bailey, had displayed the same good sense and scepticism in his massive, 921-page account of the writer’s life, Philip Roth: A Biography. Roth, who died at the age of 85 in 2018, was one of the great writers of his time and his novels, from Portnoy’s Complaint to The Human Stain, are not just celebrated but — a rarer tribute — widely read and loved today.
“I don’t want you to rehabilitate me. Make me interesting.” This was Roth’s instruction to Bailey, and yet it came after he had already fired one biographer for being not sympathetic enough.
For all Bailey’s credentials — he has written well-received biographies of John Cheever, Richard Yates and Charles Jackson — his latest book has been justly criticised for its partiality, especially in relation to Roth’s personal life. Bailey is always handy with an explanation for Roth’s often appalling treatment of his wives and disenchanted lovers, and several of his misogynistic remarks are passed on without judgment.
This month, Bailey and his publishers WW Norton came under fresh scrutiny, after the author faced allegations of sexual assault. Bailey’s literary agent has since dropped him and WW Norton has decided to take the book permanently out of print. Bailey has denied the allegations, calling them “scurrilous charges”. But the worn-out argument made throughout Bailey’s book — that genius is its own excuse for behaving outrageously, inexcusably, unforgivably — appears to tell you as much about the attitudes of its author as those of its subject.
Like Roth, Hawking was no saint. “Turn back the clock, and what emerges is a real human: petulant, arrogant and callous, as well as warm, witty and brilliant,” Seife writes. By challenging both the structural conventions of biography and the myths surrounding the man, he sets his subject free.
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