Guest post by Michael Lackey
The Danish painter Einar Wegener had an elective surgery in 1930 to become the woman Lili Elbe. At first glance, David Ebershoff’s novel The Danish Girl is about this transformation. But if one understands how the biographical novel converts an historical figure into a literary symbol, then one can see how The Danish Girl actually illuminates more than just the “life” of the first person to have a sex-reassignment surgery. It illuminates some of the most important ideas and experiences about sex and gender identity in the contemporary world.
The biographical novel, a work of fiction that names its protagonist after an actual historical figure, has become a dominant literary form in recent years. But why? This is the question I sought to answer when I interviewed prominent biographical novelists for my book Truthful Fictions, and my new book The American Biographical Novel contains the results of my four years of research.
One could wrongly assume that readers get an accurate version of an actual historical figure in a biographical novel, but Lance Olsen illustrates why this is not and cannot be the case. For a long time, historians and scholars believed that Hitler and the Nazis adopted and made use of the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche. But Nietzsche explicitly and unambiguously opposed core Nazi ideas, such as nationalism and anti-Semitism. So how could the Nazis appropriate him and his work? In Nietzsche’s Kisses, Olsen answers this question by picturing how Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth, converted the paper person of Friedrich Nietzsche into her husband, Bernhard Förster. In essence, to advance their political agenda, the Nazis adopted and used, not the ideas and person of Friedrich Nietzsche, but Elisabeth’s Försterized version of her brother, a figure that is almost the complete opposite of Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s Kisses is vintage biofiction because, while it is about an actual historical figure, it is also about so much more.
To put the matter simply, biographical novelists are different from biographers, because they are more committed to the sacred art of imaginative creation than biographical representation. Thus, they take unapologetic liberties with the life of their subject in order to communicate their own vision of life. For instance, Barbara Chase-Riboud authored a powerful biographical novel about Sally Hemings, the slave-“wife” of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was forty-five and Hemings was fifteen when they first became romantically involved, and Jefferson fathered at least seven children with her. Chase-Riboud found something historically, politically, and intellectually significant in this story, so she invented a wide range of characters and scenes in order to clarify how Jefferson could promote a philosophy of life and liberty for all, but simultaneously enslave his own children. So while Chase-Riboud creatively imagines the “life of Hemings,” she actually uses Hemings to expose a contradiction at the core of American democracy, a contradiction that originated with Jefferson but persists even to today.
Only now are we starting to understand the uncanny power of the biographical novel. This is a form of fiction that tells us as much about someone from the past as it does about who we are and how we came to be in the present.
There is still a lot of work to do in order to understand and appreciate the biographical novel. Fortunately, this is the ideal time to do this work, since there are now so many brilliant biographical novels out there.
Michael Lackey is Professor of English at the University of Minnesota, USA. His books include The Modernist God State, Truthful Fictions: Conversations with American Biographical Novelists and The American Biographical Novel, all available from Bloomsbury.