Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Presumably: A Glance at Penguin Author Biographies

Author biographies that are found on book covers or within books, are, one would think, matters of fact. Especially in this era when information can be so easily accessed, and triple checked, perhaps even with the author involved.

In looking at an early Penguin Books copy of a Graham Greene novel, it reveals that complete knowledge about authors was not as easily acquired in the past. There was room left for uncertainty. Perhaps even mystery.

In looking at my copy of Graham Greene's The Ministry of Fear (New York: Penguin Books, 2nd printing January 1946 [1st Penguin US printing January 1944, and 1st edition hardcover Viking, 1943] ), the "about the author" on the back of the paperback drew my attention for a number of reasons. One, for the phot
ograph of the author which looks like it was taken in the late 1920s, which would put the author at his mid to late twenties. At the time of this American paperback printing, Greene was 41 years of age. Secondly, the biographical description reveals a possibly less known fact for it refers to the initial American title The Labyrinthine Ways for his book The Power and the Glory. Thirdly, it refers to him as a gifted poet which adds a nuance of romance and literary beginnings. And finally it drew my attention for the penultimate sentence which reads:

After leaving Oxford he took up newspaper work, and by 1926 he was on the London Times, where he presumably remains today.

Presumably. That seems so fresh and laissez-faire. The hint of uncertainty leaves room for the imagination to stretch possibilities. (One can almost imagine the editor asking the copywriter if he knew if Greene was still with the Times, and saying, well, put in "presumably," that should cover us, we have a deadline after all....) Gone are the days of the "presumably" it seems. (Though that may be presumptuous of me considering authors like Thomas Pynchon and authors in extremis.)

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This "presumably" sentence has had me looking more intently at other "about the author" features and they can be interesting. Some of the descriptions are amusing. I thought I would provide a few as examples. Penguin copywriters seem quite adept. Often with a hint of subtext.

Margery Allingham took to writing naturally; in her family no other occupation was considered natural or indeed sane. (Sweet Danger, Penguin Books, 1971.)

Jocelyn Brooke was born in 1908 on the south coast and took to the educational process with reluctance. He contrived to run away from public school twice within a fortnight, but then settled, to his own mild surprize, at Bedales before going to Worcester College, Oxford, where his career as an undergraduate was unspectacular. (The Orchid Trilogy, Penguin Books, 1981.)

Nicolas Freeling was born in London in 1927 and spent his childhood in France. Before taking up writing he worked for many years in hotels and restaurants, and from their back doors got to know a good deal of Europe. (Love in Amsterdam, Penguin Books, 1975.)

John Wyndham was born in 1903. Until 19011 he lived in Edgbaston, Birmingham, and then in many parts of England. After a wide experience of the English preparatory school he was at Bedales from 1918-1921. Careers he tried included farming, law, commercial art, and advertising, and he first started writing short stories, intended for sale, in 1923. . . In 1946 he went back to writing stories for publication in the U. S. A. and decided to try a modified form of what is unhappily known as 'science fiction.' (Consider Her Ways and Others, Penguin Books, 1979.)

Nina Epton was born in London of a Scottish father and a Spanish mother. Brought up on self-control and hockey in England. . . . (Love and the Spanish, Penguin Books, 1964.)

Alfred Douglas was born in England in 1942. Inspired by his family's interest in arcane tradition, he began to study occult symbolism when he was still very young. . . Douglas divides his time between an apartment in London and a house in Whitby, where Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, on the rugged coast of the Yorkshire moors. (The Tarot, Penguin Books, 1979.)

The illegitimate son of an itinerant astrologer, Jack London was born in San Francisco in 1876. He grew up on the waterfront and was soon a heavy drinker, a fighter, and an outlaw as well as a voracious reader of books from the public library. (The Assassination Bureau, Ltd., Penguin Books, 1978.)

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