Last week I read two biographies that I happend to have on my e-reader. I was in Ireland, visiting family, did not bring books, only an e-reader with a couple of hundred books. I’d planned to read some theory, or a novel, but I read two biographies.
I don’t recall why I started reading Ann Beer’s biography of Milton (Milton, Poet, Pamphleteer, and Patriot, 2008). Probably because I don’t know a lot about Milton, and not a lot about seventeenth century England. I was curious, and positively surprised. When I finished it, I decided to try the new English biography of D’Annunzio: The Pike: Gabriele D’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War (2013) by Lucy Hughes-Hallett. It was mentioned in the review section of the Guardian, and that’s why I remembered I had it saved.
In very different ways both biographies are about literature and politics. Milton, a champion of free speech, about whose private life we know almost nothing for sure. D’Annunzio, about whose private life we know very intimate details, the a-moral esthete whose ideas and public actions foreshadow violent fascism.
Both biographies are well-written, not overly long, and keep a perfect balance between describing 1. private life, 2. the books and the writing, and 3. politics and the larger social an cultural context. The result is a view on England (London) in the seventeenth century and European culture in the belle epoque through the lens of a writer’s development. (In Milton’s case there’s more literature, in D’Annunzio’s case more private details). It creates a fuller perspective on an age. Sure, that might be what one expects of a biography anyway, but not every biography manages to deliver it.