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Jeffrey Meyers Knows People

If you consume biographies of authors—or artists, like Modigliani, or maverick film directors, like John Huston—chances are you have read something by Jeffrey Meyers. We bet your local library has his Hemingway biography. The next beach house you rent might have his book on Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe on its bookshelf. Someone sitting next to you on the plane might be reading his celebrated book on Poe. And so on. If you know some of his books but don't know his name, that's partly a reflection of the biographer's art. But in his latest book, Resurrections: Authors, Heroes—and a Spy, Meyers presents chapter-long biographies of some of the personages who have fascinated him the most and, thus, reveals much about the preoccupations and passions that have informed his own life. Meyers agreed to answer a few questions about his latest book and its extraordinary cast of characters—almost all of whom, Meyers wearily reminds us, belong to the ages now.

Q: After a career in the self-effacing role of a biographer, in Resurrections you finally come out from behind the curtain and appear as a character. Was this a struggle for you at all, from either a craft or personal standpoint, or did you find it stimulating?

Meyers: My biographies are not entirely self-effacing. I was attracted to pugnacious subjects who reflected aspects of my own character: Wyndham Lewis, Hemingway, Edmund Wilson, Orwell. I’ve published ten autobiographical essays that have not been collected in a book. There was no struggle at all to write a covert autobiography. Writing memoirs of friends appealed to me and came quite naturally as I remembered our close relations and brought them back to life.

Q: When the subject of your biography is also a close friend—for example, James Salter—is it difficult to move past homage or appreciation and into the kind of rigorous analysis you’d bring to, say, a biography of Samuel Johnson? Or do you see a book like Resurrections as a fundamentally different undertaking with different goals?

Meyers: My biographies and memoirs have the same goals. They seek to illuminate the character of the subjects I write about. Arthur Miller was my only biographical subject who was also my friend. I learned about all the others from their writing and works about them, from interviews and from unpublished material in archives. Knowing impressive friends like James Salter gave me even greater insight. There was no need to glorify him. I expressed my admiration of his life and work, based on personal experience and on our correspondence

Q: Some reviewers note the presence of gossip in a biography as a drawback, but you are very clear about your attraction to gossip, and you are not afraid of including it in your books. Is the distinction between so-called gossip and more substantive or relevant information useful at all? 

Meyers: In a conversation with the poet James Dickey, he called me “an investigative reporter of the spirit”—and characteristically added, "That’s good!  You can keep it!” I love gossip as long as it has some relation to the truth. Otherwise, I could say something like, "according to Mr. X’s dubious assertion . . .” Gossip reveals information, especially about sexual matters, that biographers might not otherwise know about, and makes their books more lively and interesting. Since I personally knew the subjects of these memoirs, there was no need to rely on gossip. What they told me about other people was sometimes indiscreet but always true.

Q: Both Paul Theroux and James Salter wrote you numerous, and very personable, letters. Do you think either one of them was aware you might write about him one day, and maybe even quote from the correspondence? Do you ever detect them speaking for posterity? The question isn’t meant to be cynical—in each case you’re dealing with a man who knows perfectly well how literary friendships are publicly recalled by other writers.

Meyers: Both Theroux and Salter were well aware of their literary stature and knew they would later have biographies written about them. Theroux himself wrote a brilliant and provocative memoir of his troubled friendship with Vidia Naipaul. The revealing letters of Theroux and Salter, quoted in Resurrections, are a vital part of the record and my book will be an important source of later works about them. But they wrote to me rather than to posterity. I showed Theroux, my only still-living friend, the chapter about him. He made a few small corrections, but gave me a free hand and liked what I wrote.

Q: Somehow one doubts that a biographical profile of any of today’s authors would ever include anything on the order of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s capture of a German general, which sounds like something straight out of Where Eagles Dare. Where do you think the adventuring impulse displayed by so many of your subjects comes from—their war experience? the example of Hemingway? And how is it connected to their creativity?

Meyers: Almost all my friends, as well as the heroes Basil Blackwood, Derek Jackson, Nicola Chiaromonte and Xan Fielding, fought in World War I, the Spanish Civil War or World War II. That was perhaps the greatest experience of their lives, and they were lucky to survive and be able to write about it. They all showed astonishing courage under fire and their adventures made their lives even more fascinating. War undoubtedly sparked their creativity. Gerald Brenan, five years older than Hemingway, won the Military Cross as a teenager. He told that when Hemingway entered the room there did not seem to be enough air for anyone else. Hemingway’s novels and eye-witness reports about several wars certainly influenced his contemporaries and later writers.

Q: You mention the search for an ideal father figure. Which person in the book comes closest to this ideal and why?

Meyers: My search for an ideal father is a dominant theme in the book. The great Canadian realist painter Alex Colville, born in 1920, comes closest to my ideal. During my three trips to see him in Nova Scotia he showed me the local scenes that had inspired his art and we discussed his extensive literary influences. He was cultured, intelligent, stimulating and responsive: one of the most impressive men I ever met. Brenan, Salter and Patrick Leigh Fermor also contributed to my image of the ideal father.

Resurrections: Authors, Heroes—and a Spy is available now.

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