I am not the empathiser I had always hoped to be!’ I cry out, woeful, desperate, my negligee saturated in lipstick, ink stains and bile. Surely part of being an aspiring, or a fledgling biographer, is that I can relate to people; I can sniff out a story from another’s life and turn it from history into prose. Oh yes, it’s all so glorious, sitting, dreaming for hours about how I will one day be crowned an established writer, how people will flock to me with their stories, with ancient manuscripts in tow and secret estates to which millions have attempted to gain access. I will be the one they all want, to turn them from people into stories, to be enjoyed for hundreds of years.
So here lies my problem; I don’t much care for other people. It is so incredibly difficult to find another with whom you are fascinated enough to spend hours reading and writing about. I am envious to the point of exasperation in reading stories of other, actual biographers who have become obsessed with their subject. In honesty I do obsess, but it is an obsession which resides almost wholly in myself. As I sit in the bath restyling my mass of Ashkenazi hair, I think of all the other women who do the same and think that perhaps I ought to dig for people who are similar to me. Then, as if there was never another thought in my mind, my glance is redirected and I think how big and blue and close together my eyes look in the misty reflection of the tap.
My interests in life writing began when I was assigned a project on sculptress Camille Claudel. ‘There is a novel about her life’ was whispered to me as I left my classroom that afternoon; straight to Amazon I went, browsing the pages for this text which I had no idea was about to kick-start the biographical cogs lying dormant in my head. As I read about the life (albeit a fictionalised version) of the mistress of Auguste Rodin, I fell in love. This woman was passionate and creative; she was marvellous to read about and even more wonderful to research. What’s more, she reminded me of myself. Here I had found a kindred spirit, her childhood hopes that she would be a recognised artist, her dreams of perfect love and her paranoia that the bourgeoisie of nineteenth-century Paris would laugh at her legs, one shorter than the other. How I cried with compassion when I read about her ailment, for I too have a strange gait and have often ventured into London, desperately hoping that the scenesters won’t notice the bizarre angle at which my right knee bends.
So there you have it, I absolutely can empathise. Yet, I am still at a loss for subject matter, a lack of another to relate to.
Perhaps my problem is with laziness rather than disinterest; I reflect on my backlog of failed attempts at hobbies and sports. Gaps in my repertoire where I had intended on taking music exams, delicately fading certificates for various stages of Ballet, a Tae Kwon Do uniform still stiff with starch and about four years between attempts at jogging. Days languidly snoozing on my mother’s couch stuck with me and merely assisted me in all areas of procrastination and self-indulgence. I can’t help but think of Camille’s father finding her as a child playing in the mud, sculpting her family in perfect formation – an accomplished toddler.
I spent my Christmas holidays writing about my grandmothers and their cooking. I never met either woman but with my love of all things edible, all things Jewish and ‘ahem’ all things relatable to me, I just knew I would enjoy writing up my research. I adored discovering the lives of these two women, their routines, their clothes, their pastimes … their creativity and senses of humour and all the other wonderful attributes I had been searching for in my lineage; the reason I am who I am … this distracted and self-centred being. I felt I had at last been able to relate to my subjects and perhaps this was the perfect place to start – subjects within which I could see myself and therefore connect to their pains and habits and ideas. When feedback was ready for my perusal I was yet again to be shafted by my solipsism. Yes, it was a lovely essay … oh! And those snippets of autobiography worked beautifully … the best parts perhaps. My attempts at writing about others had once again fallen under my egotism and no veiling mass of curly hair or recipes for heirloom chicken soup could resuscitate them.
As I have worked my way through coursework, desperate to tap into an empathy which may one day render me publishable, the prospect of a new subject looms on me but only ever in the shape of my own gargantuan shadow. At this age Camille had already began her affair with Rodin, her influence had already chiselled its way into his marble and she had some essence of the love she always dreamed of. I can’t even pick an essay topic.
Camille, so desperate to sculpt, stole her clay from the upturned streets of Paris, she lived through the revolution, never letting poverty and sickness turn her from her need to create. I can hardly distract myself from Match of the Day and I, with my knee bent anti-clockwise, have previously never taken an interest in sports.
I couldn’t see a topic in anything we had read or discussed. I proposed to do those presentations that were based on subjects I knew I could throw myself into: cookbooks and books written about adventures in Scandinavia. Rather than the literary research and the deep dive into the subject’s lives as my peers were doing, I spent my preparation times toasting crushed coriander seeds, peppercorns and almonds for Alice B Toklas’s Hashish Fudge and scrolling through pages of blogs about Scandinavian street style and speaking to a Danish friend about Swedish marzipan buns. There was no room for any serious empathy in this round of study.
I reflected on autobiographical studies on Mary Wollstonecraft’s adventures in the North, her travelogue of letters written to a man who no longer wanted her. How she had spoken so Romantically of Scandinavia gave me chills as I recalled my recent trip to Copenhagen and how I had felt enigmatic on my departure home, sure to return to this bizarre and breathtaking kingdom. With every chip on my new ring, adorned with the emblematic Daisy, I felt a pang of upset, as if the hard, conservative edges of English table tops were trying to disengage me from my love of the Danes and their wonderful customs … and their stunning floral harem trousers. Learning about Mary’s heartbreak, suicide attempts and instabilities whilst desperately trying to remain a respected advocate for women’s rights was touching, but again my connection with her lay in my own life and any empathy lay in memories of my own past sadness. As I began constructing my fictional account of her upset I realised how strongly I was drawing on my own experiences of unrequited love and disappointment. I wrote about myself but masked my experience with Mary’s and replaced the names of those I miss with Mary’s dispersed lovers and long dead acquaintances.
I have found solace in cooking. I have found myself depending on Friday night dinners to fill my week with some routine and an accomplishable edible intention has overcome my need to complete my assignments. It is so simple for me to pick something to cook, if only I could think of a subject to whet my appetite in quite the same way, my writerly equivalent to saliva. I have even let cookery intervene with my essays. According to my account of Mary Wollstonecraft, she copied up recipes to soothe her spirit and regain sanity. I have become fixated with cookery books, I adore flicking through batter-encrusted pages and I am obsessed with tasting the outcome (of the recipe, not the encrusted page). Food memoirs are often bestsellers and I would enjoy basing my writing on some area of my consumption but I doubt my gluttony will be of any interest to a reader, or indeed a publisher.
Mary Wollstonecraft’s writing began to adjust when she reached twenty-eight. Her publisher Joseph Johnson found her increasingly ‘selfconscious style’1 amusing and to me, her last published book A Short Residence in Sweden is the greatest display of her literary talent. Perhaps my writing will be increasingly less self-indulgent as I mature. Yet I can’t help but think that Mary’s Scandinavian travelogue is as close to self-indulgence as a writer can reach. The letters are written with an intention of guilting her disinterested lover back into her arms. Mary even threatens never to reunite him with their daughter. This is selfish writing at its best and perhaps it is her detachment from her previous texts which make A Short Residence such a great read; the reader is wholly invited into Mary’s heart, we know who she is.
My devotion to writing comes from an interest in the self. Being picky and stubborn about subject matter is imperative to the success of my work; I want to empathise with a few and I want to despise the rest. I consider my discernment a gift; it means that when I have made that rare connection with another, it will give my writing an extra ounce of passion. It is also important not to take your obsession too far. Let this be a lesson to those of you who have (like me) declared yourself the reincarnation of your adored subject; my heart practically dissolved when I read on about the great sculptress. Camille Claudel was sent to an asylum when she was thirty-nine, her affair with Rodin had been finished for years and she had few friends. Until she was carted off, she lived secluded in her atelier in Paris, surrounded by stray cats. She died thirty-nine years later in the institution, paranoid and abandoned by her family. She was buried in a communal grave in the grounds of the asylum and her funeral was attended only by a few of the nurses on duty. Needless to say, when I had finished my project on Camille I decided that there were in fact a hefty number of dissimilarities between us. However, the connection I had felt with her never ceases to be wonderful; that empathy I had had for her moved me and made me want to seek out others to whom I could also relate. For me, life writing is about finding the soul of another and, in doing so, discovering more about myself; even if that discovery leads to nightmares about asylums, moulded clay and a writer’s annex filled with cats.