Writing the lives of others comes close to being the ghostwriter of their autobiographies and with the ever-doubtful benefit of hindsight. We mayknow more about the contexts of their lives but precious little of their day-to-day routines, their motivations, aspirations, and frustrations. Biographies are absurdities dressed up as plausible portraits. They are the result of empathy with – and critical distance from – the person in question. They require meticulous research and discreet assumptions, assessments of a personality based on their papers, interwoven with comments by their contemporaries and, inevitably, speculation.
In the case of biographies of poets, visual artists, and composers – like my ‘Austrian quintet’ – it is the interrelationships between their lives and works that define their being and resonance. Biographers assume that their ‘objects’ have something to tell us ‘today’, at the time of writing. Unless one is writing the first biography of a particular person, all biographies also deal with the achievements and failings of previous biographers.
So, what about Rainer Maria Rilke, Georg Trakl, Oskar Kokoschka, Anton Bruckner and Stefan Zweig? Looking for common denominators other than their − in Rilke’s case − shaky ‘Austrianness’ is not an easy task if one does not want to distort their idiosyncrasies, plentiful contradictions, and their precarious psychological conditions, after all the very capital of any artist. Asked what it was that made me write these four partly biographic, partly monographic works in German and add a fifth one in English – crossovers in terms of genre – it was the intrinsic interconnection between life and work that intrigued me – with one exception, Anton Bruckner. With him, the main question was: where did these colossal symphonies come from? What was it in his development that prepared him for composing them? Bruckner was the most accomplished organ virtuoso of his time and much sought after, even in Paris and London. Originally a provincial musician, he became the composer of symphonies that constitute a world, if not cosmos of their own.
The members of my Austrian quintet share a radical individualism against the odds of their respective time – with Rilke implicitly and Zweig explicitly representing a decidedly European cosmopolitanism, whilst the artistic achievements of Bruckner and Kokoschka were transnational by definition. The fascination with the dark visionary Trakl rests on his poetry that made the bottomlessness of existence resound in vowel-dominated cadences. If I had to rewrite his biography, I would most likely call it: ‘A Life as Nightmare’. My quintet of artists originating from the cultural sphere of Austria and Bohemia share just one common feature: their lives and works exposed the crevasses in that very culture, which was almost too rich to be true.
The form of biography is a problem. If form contains the aesthetic aspect of truthfulness, we need to address the truth about the form of biography, too. If I ever write another biography, it might be of Friederike Mayröcker or Bertha von Suttner, and I might choose a diaristic approach: quasi daily reflections on aspects of their lives and works. But I fear that I would only be writing for my bottom drawer, as I doubt that any publisher would dream of taking such extravaganzas on board. Or, maybe, diaristic biographies are the life-writing of the future.
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