Keirkegaard once described himself as a letter facing the wrong way in a line. Maybe only a writer would seek a simile of himself in misprints and typographical errors. God knows that most biographies of writers stress the bizarre and flaky in the lives of their subjects. Often, after reading about an author, one has to immerse oneself in his writings to recapture admiration for him, and the sooner the better.
Of course one can be a good writer and a good person—and we could substitute golfer, hang-glider, ocarina player or brain surgeon for writer and keep the same truth. Art is the perfection of the thing made, not of the maker. But it is a continuing marvel that consummate beauty can emerge from a tainted container.
When Flannery O’Connor came upon the definition of art while reading Maritain—that art is the perfection of the thing made—she sighed with relief. For too long she had heard that writing was an exercise in self-expression, and instinctively she was reluctant to feature herself in what she wrote. Of course the aim of her art was to make as good a story as she could.
Nonetheless, we think we get a sense of the author as we read, and sometimes this is corroborated from other sources. Letters, anecdotes, perhaps personal knowledge. Sometimes the writer is a good person as well as a good writer. Who wouldn’t have wanted to know Flannery O’Connor or Rex Stout, Paul Claudel or Chesterton? Still, literary biography insists on combining loathsome persons and exquisite artists. The poet who sang so sweet and pure, philandered, ran up debts, abandoned his wife and children. The novelist whose stories throbbed with thirst for justice cheated at cards, kited checks and underpaid his secretary. Even if such biographies are overdone, satisfying some leveling need on the part of the biographer, it seems inescapable that many writers who can elevate our minds and refine our feelings were untrustworthy cads.
Some have wished to exempt artists from the common morality, arguing that their misprint lives are the price they pay to produce enduring work. Yeats conveys this in his poem The Choice. “The intellect of man is forced to choose/perfection of the life or of the work. . . .” Of course, this is Romantic rot. Tell it to Dante. Tell it to Dr. Johnson.
How then can weak instruments put before us such convincing portraits of heroism and high virtue, of tragic falls and the calibrations of remorse of conscience? Well, how can we, sinners that we are, respond to such writing? Moral sensibility comes at various letters. We can admire what we do not do, even though we should. There is an aesthetic grasp of nobility that does not ennoble. Still, it might dispose us for virtue. After all, wallowing in pornography disposes one for the acts depicted.
I have been reading a life of Cyril Connolly of late, and it has tried my high estimate of his writing severely. Moreover, I have come to think that in his case his moral flaws were the source of flaws in what he wrote. Waugh based a character in his war trilogy on Connolly, not that Connolly ever went to war. But his biographer seems far more odious than Connolly. One reads of the writer’s “high courage” in continuing to lead a sybaritic life in wartime London. Connolly himself never saw his self-indulgence in the light. And he was loyal to his father. His biographer tries to make virtues of his vices, prompting one to notice the real virtues of the man. In any case, I shall soon be rereading Enemies of Promise.
The ultimate moral test of a writer is his reaction to a typo in what he wrote. What has preceded has been meant to prepare for an apparently casual, lighthearted reference to last month’s “End Notes.” Readers may have been surprised to learn of a new novel by Willa Cather, Lucy Grayheart. Doubtless it was homophobia on the part of the typesetter. The correct title is Lucy Gayheart. Smile when you learn that I imagined readers from coast to coast casting aside the issue in horror, reaching for the phone to spread the dreadful news. Virtue comes hard, particularly for the minor writer. I am a letter set backwords in a line. . . .