When is a biography a novel? by Brenda Stones

Two doorstop-sized ‘biographies’ were published in 2021, to keep us going through lockdown: Colm Toibin’s The Magician on Thomas Mann, weighing in at 430pp; and Alison McLeod’s Tenderness on DH Lawrence, topping it at 600pp. But both are described as ‘novels’; so when is a biography a novel – or vice versa?

The Magician is magisterial and sombre, like its subject. It is strictly chronological in sequence, and charts all the major events of the subject’s life, though surprisingly skating over a few significant contemporary political events, like the Munich Revolution of 1918. The book scarcely enters into Thomas Mann’s interior, emotional life, though there is invented dialogue to animate the interactions between the many family members.

Tenderness, by contrast, is all emotion, and leaps about between scenes in Lawrence’s life as he muses on his deathbed in Vence. Again, you could say this befits the subject, notorious for his lyrical descriptions of scandalous sensuality. The author herself is evidently also a rather less buttoned-up character than her Irish counterpart; so both authors were clearly drawn to subjects of like spirit to their own.

The two subjects themselves could scarcely be more contrasting: Mann born in 1875 and living a life of public acclaim, including the Nobel Prize for Literature, until his eventual death in 1955; whereas Lawrence, born just ten years later, died prematurely in 1930 at the age of 45. Lawrence’s reputation was dogged by the Lady Chatterley trial, and copies of The Rainbow were publicly seized and burned in 1915. Yet both writers have now attained a level of historic veneration that assures them respectable places on literature syllabuses.

So why did both authors choose to call their works ‘novels’ rather than ‘biographies’? McLeod admits, and this is no doubt true of Toibin as well: ‘Some scenes and circumstances have been changed, invented or imagined for artistic purposes, and to offer a wider window of understanding: to evoke, in other words, the ‘human moments’ that might have occurred between the date-points on the timelines of official history.’ A perfectly valid reason.

Both authors acknowledge reams authentic of source material and research, and skilfully trace the original inspirations for their novelists’ works; but by calling their own work fiction, it gives them licence to bend and invent in order to make connections or straighten kinks in the actual lives, and also to engage the reader through livelier scene-setting.  Or could it also be, commercially speaking, simply that fiction gains more public attention these days, in terms of review space and retail shelf space, than biography?

Given the fanciful flights of imagination in McLeod’s study, including a daring invention of Jacqueline Kennedy’s presence at the New York trial of Lady Chatterley, it has to be said that Tenderness is far further along the fictional spectrum than is The Magician. But however they choose to describe their works, we are lucky to have two such blockbusting volumes to fill the long hours.