George Calderon and the blog-biography
George Calderon by William Rothenstein
By MICHAEL CAINES
Last September, I blogged about a blog – Patrick Miles's Calderonia. Now Calderonia has drawn to a necessary close: its purpose has been to trace events of a century ago, from day to day, through the last year of a man's life.
The man in question is the Edwardian playwright, translator of Chekhov and notable early TLS reviewer George Calderon, who volunteered to fight in the First World War, and was killed in action at Gallipoli in early June 1915. I've been following Calderonia irregularly over the past year, but missed out on the recent posts. Now I see it has become not only the means for making fortuitous discoveries about Calderon, but also a meditation on writing a biography. It has become a biographer's autobiography. . . .
As somebody who only posts the occasional squib or diatribe, I'm in awe of those who stick to a daily (and in this case scholarly) regime. There have been painstaking posts, for example, about subjects such as the likely circumstances of Calderon's death in battle (all the time in the awareness that he didn't "need" to go to war at all, on account of his age). Sticking to the exact chronology of events means recording that Calderon's wife, Kittie, received two letters from him four days later.
Then there is the excitement of discovering a post-war letter from Kittie about George and their friend Percy Lubbock's book about him. And a taste of the literary times in Calderon's dig at A. E. Housman, recalled by the painter William Rothenstein: "Well, William, so far from believing that man wrote A Shropshire Lad, I shouldn’t even have thought him capable of reading it!" (See above for Rothenstein's fine pencil portrait of Calderon, identified by Miles earlier this year.)
Boris Johnson (or at least the ghost of Boris Johnson) has barely a year in which to write a Life of Shakespeare. Patrick Miles first studied George and Kittie's papers some thirty years ago, and has come back to them in earnest over the past five. The blogging has happened in tandem with writing a biography of Calderon. And it has had a potentially productive pitfall: "chronotopia", a tension between keeping a tightly focused day-by-day record and thinking about the long-term, joined-up narrative, too. Blog-time and biography-time eventually got out of sync. And this is how Calderonia has become a biography in its own right.
"Both for me and, I know, some followers", Miles says of the past year's virtual life-writing, "it also seems an eternity because we have lived through it all day by day":
"Somewhere, I believe, Carl Jung said that the present is ‘terrible in the intensity of its ambivalence’. Rather like one’s own life, so many of the days of this blog have been intense with that ambivalence that I can no longer remember them all; the relevant brain cells have apparently been seared out; I cannot possibly now get my memory round the whole of this blog-year’s events."
One of those memories will be about the general challenge of biographical writing, as in this post, a critical response to Ruth Scurr's salutary Guardian essay about biography and her novel approach to writing a biographer's biography. Is biography, as strictly defined here, flourishing today – or is it "almost at a standstill"? For some, we are living through a new golden age, albeit one too heavily gilded with Shakespeare biographies; others, I suspect, are sceptical about attempts to escape from the plod of the cradle-to-grave approach. (Don't we still rely on them, despite the insights and gains of books about Peacock Dinners or Nights at the Majestic? And anyway, aren't such "momentary" accounts just following in the wake of the immortal joy that is Alethea Hayter's A Sultry Month?)
Golden age or not, though, the problem remains the same: in Scurr's words, "how to find a narrative form that fits the life (or lives) in question". In George Calderon's case, maybe there are two forms that fit. I wonder who is next for the blog-biography treatment.