My new year resolution number six was to read more biographies. The main reason for this being my general suspicion to biographies and a want to appreciate the genre more. Having worked with historiography for some years my belief is that it is incredibly hard to write history well. There is - as most people are aware - a huge difference between lived history and written history and the historians' task is to try to make this difference smaller. (Though some historiographers would perhaps say that historians today makes the difference larger as they are more aware that they to a large they write fiction.) In my opinion the best written history is made by historians that admits they have a purpose with their writing and are thus not pretending to be objective. However, at the same time the historian should ideally have some distance to the topic.
Adapting this to biographies I believe it must be even harder to write a biography, than to write written history. It is so much easier to be personally involved when a personality is the subject. At the same time the purpose with history books and biographies, must be to give the reader entertainment and wisdom - both being equally important. My experience so far is that biographies very easily fall down in either too much entertainment or too much knowledge, but seldom much wisdom, though learning from our forefathers might have been the main purpose in writing biography. When I read my first biography this year on Queen Margrethe of Denmark, I had hopes of reading some words of wisdom. The book did not offer much wisdom, but it made me reflect over her view on historiography, so the book had some value for me. This summer I have read another biography and I will write a post on that tomorrow, but today I will continue with Henrik Ibsen.
As Norway (and the rest of the world) celebrates the centenary of Henrik Ibsen's death, the Ibsen Museum here in Oslo has finally been able to make the exhibition. As I find it hard to understand how it is possible to write biography, I find it even harder to understand how how it is possible to make an exhibition to justify a person's life - a biography is at least a story, an exhibition has to be very well curated to tell a story. The Ibsen Museum in Oslo is in the flat Ibsen spent the last years of his life and also where he died. I found it extremely interesting and entertaining to see his flat because of the image one gets of late nineteenth century, bourgeois life in Norway, but not because Henrik Ibsen used to live there. (I can also mention that I did neither have a thrill when visiting Shakespeare's birth place in Stratford-upon-Avon ten years ago). The exhibition - which is new this year and placed in the nabouring flat - however, did not catch my interest. Though I must admit I was fascinated with the colour scheme. The reason for my dislike was the exhibition's unhappy faith at being too entertaining, too personal and too much filled with facts. The exhibition has thus left me with these images:
- Red, white and black, glass, minimalistic fonts, play between light and darkness. The image of a cool restaurant.
- Why display his shaving equipment, his comb, his handkerchief and other very personal belongings? His notebooks are interesting since he is an author, but his shaving brush!!!
- Ibsen was a short man. I find this to be a distracting fact. Everyone in Norway who has a higher education knows that Immanuel Kant was 153cm tall (or short) because this is emphasised in the entrance course in philosophy, but hardly any one can tell you anything about his epistemology. I am afraid to now be more concerned with Ibsen's lack of tallness, than his works.
- There were screens everywhere, making it very interactive. But also making it look like a spaceship.
I know I would have preferred an "Ibsen - the author" museum, compared to "Ibsen - the man who lived in this flat" museum, but I am not quite sure how it could have been done. What are the important facts? How to experience his work? Would it not be best to watch some of his plays? If telling his life's story, how could it be linked to his work?
Whilst I write about Ibsen and his biography I am reminded of A.S. Byatt's The Biographer's Tale on a biographer writing the biography of a biographer writing a biography on Ibsen's early years. It has been a while since I have read it, but I seem to remember the difficulty of the biographer to catch the essence of the lived life. Instead of looking for the essence, the biographer looks for everything. He seems to want to re-live the other persons life, which of course is an impossibility. I suppose Byatt try to show the "too personal" and "too much information" traps.
Byatt's book is a novel, but perhaps she also have a solution to the biography problem. The entertainment part of a biography is perhaps much better taken care of in a novel. And as books of this sort often tend to become bestsellers, biographies proper should perhaps not aim for the same strategy?