“He took a dim view, if, indeed, a view, in all consciousness, could be considered one, when the very act of its perception was, by definition, barely discernible, of biography, that addiction to 'truth-seeking' that so often cloaked, when it did not, more accurately, mask, a predilection for poking into corners best left unpoked, for lifting up stones heavy enough, one would have thought, to crush existence itself out of the low and wriggling forms of life that secreted themselves, ever so hopefully, ever so persistently, in pursuit of a safety indubitably not to be vouchsafed, beneath the mossy sides of their seemingly permanent shelters.” A heavy stone indeed, that sentence, cast – not by Henry James, but by one wearing the mask (or is it the cloak?) of Henry James – in the general direction of Leon Edel.
Instant Lives, first published in 1974, abounds in such excesses of allusion, anachronism and disguise. Intending perhaps an affectionate nod in the direction of the just-published and justly popular Atlantic Brief Lives: A Biographical Companion to the Arts, 1972 National Book Award-winning poet and (until his death in 1987) New Yorker magazine poetry editor Howard Moss lent his gifts as pitch-perfect parodist, as uncannily accurate barometer of style and sensibility, to the creation of something original under the sun. Abetted by cartoonist Edward Gorey – he of the pseudo-Edwardian black-comic miniature, of the hollow-eyed waif and the kohl-eyed debauchee – Moss made brazen to essay a Python-esque new recipe for the biographical cameo: the artist's life reduced to a single apocryphal anecdote, incorporating all the essential cliches. Thus Claude Debussy, floundering nauseated aboard a storm-tossed dinghy, gathering “impressions” for La Mer while casting a nostalgic look back at his less demanding preparations for Prelude a l'Apres-midi d'un Faune (“Then he had simply lived among the goats in the back hills of Sicily for a month, his flute never far from his mouth, his foot never far from his flute”). Thus “celebrity-struck” Gertrude Stein, hosting yet another icon-packed Left Bank soiree (“There they were! 'Pablo! Djuna! Janet! Henry! Virgil! Marcel! Claude! Ernest! Kay!'”), only to end up – again – in a panting tug-of-war with the young and impecunious Picasso over the latest, barely dry canvas (“'I just wanted to show it to you,' he said, nervously”). Thus a demoralized Henrik Ibsen, racking his brain in pursuit of a can't-miss hot topic for his next social drama (“Bear-baiting? No, that was in another country . . . Alcoholism? He reached for the beer that, it seemed, had become his one solace . . . The misuse of lumber? The smuggling in of wigs?”).
Gorey's illustrations for 25 of these 34 delightfully impudent “lives” must, of course, be seen to be believed, and enjoyed. (Less enjoyable is the degradation, week after week, by cute music and sound effects, of his work for the credit sequences of the PBS TV series Mystery!) My own favorite is that of an anxious, vulnerable ewe, eyed from behind a large boulder by a tartan-swathed T.E. Lawrence, whose pre-Arabian career as a shepherd, we're told, “has been too well documented in Cicely Shearing's Sleeping With Sheep for me to repeat the bare facts here.” Or perhaps it's the one of a gym-togged Louisa May Alcott who's just been scolded by a veiled and brocaded representative of Concord's Library Vice Squad (“'Little Frump,' Louisa shouted after Mrs. Fortress-Rondeau, anticipating, in the singular, the title of a novel she was never to finish”).
Thirteen tacked-on pages of additional Moss material, sketches that appeared in The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books 10 years and more after the publication of Instant Lives, are every bit as funny as the others, albeit superfluous in the present context.