Telling Oneself Short

Published : Tuesday, April 10, 2007 | Label: Critiques  

What I disliked at first about this little brown book, Brenda Niall’s memoir of a life spent writing other people’s lives, I came in the end to admire.

For half its length Life Class reads like another Australian work of nonfiction speaking itself tunelessly forth as though literature were the work of novelists alone. Despite its wisdom and circumspection, Life Class is a piece of life writing without much life in its writing.

Niall, an accidental biographer whose subjects have included the Boyds and Judy Cassab, confesses that writing biography felt to her, for many years, like a species of literary failure. If you’re embarrassed about your writing, it might leak into your syntax and diction. That’s what I thought was happening here

But midway through Niall’s memoir, swayed by her intelligence and modesty, I realised that reserve is an ethic she learned in a Catholic education; it is an aspect of the voice of authors she has loved and studied (Edith Wharton and Henry James especially); and it is has made her the astute and trustworthy biographer she is.

Life Class is not embarrassed; it is truthful and unadorned and modest, like its maker. If it sounds a little uncertain, that’s because this biographer has learned that she writes from shaky ground, from “somewhere between detachment and identification.” It’s not a place for show.

Brenda Niall, Life Class, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, March 2007

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