Virginia Woolf's Nose: Essays on Biography

by Hermione Lee
ISBN: 0691120323

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A Review of: Virginia WoolfÆs Nose: Essays On Biography
by Greg Gatenby

Hermione Lee is globally regarded as one of the better literary biographers in Britain, and so it was with relish that I dove into her latest volume-not an account of an author's life, but a collection of essays about the actual writing of biography. In lesser hands, Virginia Woolf's Nose: Essays on Biography could have been just another example of academic masturbation wherein the author moans about how tough his job is and how terrible his life sleuthing after the essentials of an author's history (with nary a mention of his tenure, sabbaticals, or indexed pensions). But Lee is too smart and too good for such piffle, and her ruminations are witty and perspicacious. Right from her Introduction she poses the right questions: "How do biographers deal with moments of physical shock, with the subject's secret bodily life, with the mystery of death, and with the aftermath of rumour and reputation? How do they nose out the personality and the life of the writer through the often ambiguous or deceptive evidence of their work?" Lee then offers profound answers in the quintet that follows. The title essay, for example, is a savvy appraisal of Mrs. Dalloway, then of Michael Cunningham's debt to Mrs. Dalloway in his novel The Hours, and the David Hare screenplay of The Hours in which Nicole Kidman donned a prosthetic nose. While juggling with these three versions of the life of Virginia Woolf, Lee deftly adds discussion of her own biography of Woolf, and goes on to ponders upon the possessiveness readers feel about authors they adore, and the sense of ownership with which even authors talk about biographies-hence, as she notes, we say "Edel's James" or "Ellman's Joyce." Three of the essays were first delivered as public talks, and so reflect the attractive informality of the form. This is a wonderful and smart book.

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