“Why does the writing make us chase the writer? Why can’t we leave well enough alone? Why aren’t the books enough?” – Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot
As careful and observant readers we are in a constant search of meaning hidden behind the works of literature. No matter how hard the authors try to stay outside this intricate web of words, meanings and truths, we, the readers, tend to draw them and the personal details from their lives into it.
The readers often neglect the possibility, announced by the French literary critic Roland Barthes, that “the reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost…the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted”.
Somehow the idea of the death of the author seems unattractive. Thus, when the details from intimate lives of some cultural icons emerge from time to time, we are given a whole new insight into their personality, and whether we like it or not, these details can and often do influence our approach to their work.
1. Fitzgerald’s letter to himself
How are you? Have been meaning to come in and see you. I’ve been living at The Garden of Allah.
The Garden of Allah, located on the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights Boulevard, was a popular gathering spot for the Hollywood artists and bohemians and a home to many celebrities including the Marx brothers, Hemingway, Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart. Fitzgerald moved in here during his screenwriting days, and The Diamond as Big as the Ritz was written here.
2. The Barrett – Browning letters
The story of their courtship is as famous as their poetic works and it has long intrigued scholars and lovers of their poetry. The long correspondence between the Victorian poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning comprises the sum of 547 letters in total and led to their secret and forbidden wedding after which they moved to Italy.
The first letter is well known: “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett”, wrote Browning and she replied, “I thank you, Mr. Browning, from the bottom of my heart”.
A perfect romance, a story of courtship, blossoming of a true love and a secret marriage is engraved in these letters.
Sonnet 43 from Sonnets From the Portuguese, c1846
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, — I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! — and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
3. Faulkner’s resignation
Before William Faulkner, the Nobel prize winner, became a prolific author he had had a series of different, short-term, careers. Amongst other things, for a while he was a postmaster at the University of Mississippi. Apparently, he did not take his position seriously enough. “You mistreat mail of all classes,” wrote a postal inspector who pursued a charge against young Faulkner, “including registered mail; … you have thrown mail with return postage guaranteed and all other classes into the garbage can by the side entrance,” and “some patrons have gone to this garbage can to get their magazines.” To these public accusations Faulkner replied instantly.
“As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp. This, sir, is my resignation.”
Despite the fact that his career in the postal system was short everything but illustrious, Faulkner’s face appeared on the stamps issued 1987. by the US postal service.
4. A suicide note
A heart breaking letter comes from Virginia Woolf. Dedicated to her husband, Leonard Woolf, it was written short before her suicide, and discovered a day after her body was found in the River Ouse.
In this simple, and yet so sincere and profound note, she explains her struggle and her inability to cope with the lifelong illness.
“Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that — everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.”