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The Art of Biography - Einstein and Goethe


I recently read an interesting review by J. Parini in the May 11, 2007 Chronicle of Love, Life, Goethe: Lessons of the Imagination From the Great German Poet by John Armstrong. According to Parini, Armstong’s approach is non-chronological, instead focusing on different thematic "nodes" in Goethe’s life. This style of biography is remarkably similar to that of Jürgen Neffe in his recently translated Einstein: An Autobiography. Unlike Isaacson’s best-seller Einstein: His Life and Universe, Neffe presents Einsteins’s life prismatically in chapters that go over the same events, but with different emphases. (See my review of Isaacson and Neffe) Here’s Panini writing about Armstrong’s Goethe:

In the case of Goethe, there were many observers, and the factual record is not much in doubt. Hardly anyone crossed his path who did not feel compelled to record an impression. And so biographers have a wealth of material, some of it quite marvelous. Armstrong plucks the choicest bits from that vast record, but refuses to narrate the life in conventional terms. Instead, he picks 10 key words and gathers his work around those nodes: Luck, Love, Power, Art, War, Friendship, Nature, Peace, Happiness, Death. There is an underpinning of chronology here, as one might expect; but the timeline is folded back upon itself, even discarded for long stretches as Armstrong lunges into meditations on the meaning of the life itself in the context of those seminal words.

The image of "timeline folding back upon itself" is a wonderful way of describing this biography of connected "nodes." Panini goes on to describe the effect of reading such a biography…

Armstrong's approach seems old-fashioned, even anachronistic. But I found myself enthralled by his notions... One can learn a good deal about life as well as art from this book. It will, perhaps, remain an anomalous volume on the shelf of Goethe biographies, but it's the one I plan to reread in future years. I certainly plan to revisit the last section of Armstrong's book, on death — usually the part I skip when reading a biography. For some reason, I love the image of Goethe on his last day, propped in his chair, his mind and body worn out, still writing away — he traced letters with an imaginary pen in the rug that lay across his lap. Would that we knew what he had written.

I feel the same way about Neffe’s Einstein - although it is already a best seller in Germany and much of Europe, where it was released 2 years ago, and will most likely not be considered "anomalous".

Neffe’s work is filled with similar images of Einstein - there’s a real artistry in writing about a life that provides such vivid imagery as well as facts.

Interestingly, both Einstein by Neffe and Armstrong’s Goethe were published by the same firm: Farrar , Strauus, and Giroux. I wonder if this is a coincidence, or there is some philosophical slant to biography writing being fostered by FSG.