One of the reasons why I finally put away Amos Oz's Geschichten von Liebe und Finsternis was chapter five, where he, well, rants (there has to be a more appropriately lit crit term, but a rant it is) about good and bad readers, and complains about the cheap voyeurism of the latter category. He is certainly entitled and probably right to object to the over-simplifying direct equation between the author and his creation, and to readers who neglect any complexity in a work of literature and only dig for the squalid details in the author's biography, but in some ways his complaint is an over-simplification as well.
So I politely read chapter six and then carefully put the book in a plastic bag in order to return it -- maybe because I have sufficient evil voyeuristic tendencies not to be able to automatically count myself among the 'good readers', but mostly because I don't react well to being told how I'm supposed to appreciate a book. (In fact I don't react well to pressure of any kind.)
Der Raum, den der gute Leser sich bei der Lektüre erschließt, ist nicht der zwischen Text und Autor, sondern der zwischen Text und ihm selbst.
Yes. No. Not either, but both. Literature -- especially fiction, because it allows for more leeway of the imagination and subconsciousness than any strictly historic or (auto)biographic writing -- to me is always intimate in more than one way. There's the connection to a novel's ideas and/or characters, but at least in some cases there's also a connection to the person of the author as another human being, even if it's one-sided and (s)he's already dead. In fact to me hat's the beauty about books, the possibility to establish such links across distances and ages.
It is different with various authors: Sometimes it doesn't matter at all - I can love Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice without ever having been overly interested in the biographies of Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen. I don't need to know where Patrick O'Brian personally stands in regard to Jack Aubrey or Stephen Maturin. Reading Crime and Punishment it never occurred to me to suspect Dostojewski, to quote Oz, 'des düsteren Hanges [...], alte Frauen zu berauben und zu ermorden ', but the person of the author is very present in his strong convictions about the worth of human life and compassion and the rejection of the nihilistic arrogance that allows someone to elevate himself above such considerations. With Thomas Mann it is different yet again: I always have the feeling that here the author is very close to his work, not in the sense that they are identical, despite the inclusion of (auto)biographic details, but that the writing and the author complement each other and are necessary parts of a unity. To me the most profoundly touching thing about Doktor Faustus is that, just as Adrian's conversation with the devil can be regarded as a kind of inner monologue (a possibility that almost shocks Serenus Zeitblom more then the (im-)possibility that it might actually have happened), the whole book is? can be seen as? an inner monologue between 'eine[r] Parodie meiner selbst' and a figure, which contains 'mehr von meiner eigenen [Lebensbestimmung], als man glauben sollte – und glauben soll'.
And if an author's personality or public persona seem to be diametrically opposed to the ideas manifest in his writings, to realise this can be important too, because it teaches something about the complexity and contradictions of human nature. Is it so very wrong and voyeuristic wanting to see, and, as far as this is possible, to know, the human being whose ideas one has found touching or meaningful?
M. Yourcenar writes in Mémoirs d'Hadrian, 'Les plus opaque des hommes ne sont pas sans lueurs: [...] Et il y en a peu auxquels on ne puisse apprendre convenablement quelque chose. Notre grande erreur est d'essayer d'obtenir de chacun en particulier les vertus qu'il n'a pas, et de négliger de cultiver celles qu'il possède.'
It's all part of being human.
I don't think it's entirely one-sided, either. While I'm not a writer, my guess is that that an author cannot not be aware of how much of him/herself (s)he's putting out there. Why write at all, why attempt to get published? At least part of the motivation must be the wish to be heard, to be recognised, the very basic desire of every human being to be known. Maybe even to expose those parts that are not generally seen or known.
Which brings me to something else I've come across quite often recently, mostly in the context of fandom, but to all appearances coming from people who have an academic back-ground in literature and literary criticism: authorial intent, or more precisely its (un?)timely demise. Now I must admit I never heard this particular term before I noticed it in discussions on the internet, which may be because there's a different one in German that I can't recall at the moment, or because I never had much to do with literary criticism. As far as I remember, in school there were three approaches to analysing a text, although I doubt it was ever categorised like this: Firstly, the author's intentions, as far as they are (and can be) known from the text itself and other sources. Secondly, a more, for lack of a better word, subconscious level, which can include both the author's personal subconsciousness (childhood, personal experiences, &c.) and a more collective one - values and ideas of the time and society he grew up in. Finally (and popular for Schularbeiten) there was the 'How do you interpret...' approach, where, while expected not to entirely neglect historical circumstances and such, at least not as far as they had been taught in class, we were pretty free to give our own interpretation, as long as it was well argued.
It would never have occurred to me that the third approach could be regarded as the only valid and/or important one, and while I've learned since that this does indeed seem to be an accepted academic position [please correct me if I've misinterpreted something], it still appears extremely disrespectful to me.
Not to mention willfully ignorant and self-limiting. My personal opinion is that one always profits in some way from putting oneself in another's position, and to deny oneself that experience, a possible broadening of horizons, merely not to have one's own opinion shaken, seems stupid at best and harmful at worst.
It's perhaps because I went on to study history that I have such difficulties with this way of interpreting literature. You do realise that human perception is always biased and often faulty, that theories and interpretations are fallible, because it becomes obvious (or should become obvious) that just as you criticise what was written fifty, twenty, ten years ago, future generations will take apart your theories. But there's also one unshakable truth -- that if we're dealing with the past. things, did happen in exactly one way out of the myriad of ways they could have happened. They happened for a certain reason or combination of reasons. We may not yet have developed the perfect methods of discovering the Whys and Hows but we damn well better try, because the lalala, it's all the same approach renders any kind of science absurd. Where the past is concerned, there at least is a truth, and discovering, or trying to discover, it, does teach us something about human nature, the human mind, ourselves.
Perhaps that was the appeal of history to me - facts, truths.
The fourth Pet Shop Boys CD. This might be a good place to stop...