I CHOOSE BIOGRAPHIES the way most people choose novels, for the writer rather than for the subject. A readable "life" is the work of the man or woman who wrote it, not of the one who lived it. Lives of men and women without great historical importance can appeal to me for that reason. If they have caught the attention of a fine biographer, they have caught mine. For me, this has been a banner year in biography: no obligatory life of Hemingway or Fitzgerald, instead Geoffrey Wolff's affectionate portrayal of his charlatan father, The Duke of Deception (Random House, $12.95), Leon Edel's beautifully conceived Bloomsbury: A House of Lions (Lippincott, $12.95), John Lahr's life and violent death of the murdered English playwright Joe Orton, Prick Up Your Ears (Knopf, $15, actually published in late 1978), and Edmund Morris' galloping The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, $15.95), a maiden effort, if that's the phrase for so robust a book. These splendid biographies are about people too little known or too well known to attract as subjects alone; but in the hands of their authors they fascinate.
A biographer earns my loyalty through narrative flair and a talent for intimacy. It is not enough to have a life pass smartly in review. I want to feel its presence. The best of the recent biographers have crafted opening chapters that carry us immediately to the heart of a life. Edmund Morris has us weaving our way through a White House reception to have our hands furiously pumped by a beaming Theodore Roosevelt, smelling of cologne and confidence. John Lahr opens his drama sensationally with the final running out of Joe Orton's luck, life and explosive sexuality. Meryle Secrest, in her study of the predicament of Being Bernard Berenson (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $15.95), dazzles us with the splendor of his attainments as a connoisseur of art and life, and then, seating us at the table of the 90-year-old master at I Tatti, his villa in Florence, whispers in our ear of the terrible spiritual costs.
The most memorable opening and the most remarkable book I read this year was Geoffrey Wolff's. Wolff is a master of openings; his beginning to Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby (Random House, $12.95; Vintage, $4.95) had us fidgeting with Crosby's wife and mother in J. P. Morgan's parlor while Crosby, late as usual, was killing himself. In the first chapter of The Duke of Deception, part biography, part autobiography, it is Wolff himself who, sitting with family and friends, is surprised by death -- his father's, and by his own reaction to the tragic news. In his forgiving portrayal of a life of deceit and mock grandeur, Wolff reclaims his family's past, honestly told at last, for his children, for himself and for the healing memory of his father. The book set me off in search of other filial biographies, and I found Nathaniel Benchley's now out-of-print Robert Benchley (1955), John Lahr's Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr (Knopf, $10), and Michael J. Arlen's elegant portrait of his parents Exiles (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $6.95; ballantine, $1.75) -- satisfying, intimate works, deeply felt and objective. Most of them, including Wolff's, were published when their authors were in their thirties or early forties and ready to come to terms with their parent's humanity.
That ideal of compassion joined to hard-won objectivity serves more than filial biography. All biographers are emotionally involved with their subjects and must find a way to strike a balance in the telling of a life. The task is to avoid collapsing either into adulation or hostility. When the life is of heroic scale, political or intellectual, the writer copes with historical as well as personal moods. Two recent biographies triumph over this dilemma: William Manchester's American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964 (Little, Brown, $15; Dell, $3.50) and Herbert Lottman's Albert Camus (Doubleday, $16.95). The Manchester book surprised me. The general was no childhood hero of mine; and Manchester, in the recounting of a life of rich hatreds and sporadic viciousness, gives me excuses for rehearsing my dislikes. But I see MacArthur's vision now, and the authentic concerns that pushed him forward. He was -- like Morris' Roosevelt -- a figure both dangerous and great. The Camus is the cooler of the two books, exploring not public but private struggle. It is a model of how to demystify a figure of legendary moral grandeur without diminishing him. Manchester and Lottman have both depleted the regiments of devils and angels, and enriched the company of men.
I have also come across a number of enjoyable books that deal not with individual lives but with relationships. John Pearson has titled his, The Sitwells: A Family Biography (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $15). One might quibble with the use of "biography" to describe something other than a person. Mary Soames subtitled her portrait of her mother, Mrs. Winston Churchill, Clementine: The Biography of a Marriage (Houghton Mifflin, $16.95) and Harry Crews subtitled his essay on his early years, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place. But, quibbles aside, the study of many lives in relationship to one another balances biography's usual and necessary treatment of friends and family as characters secondary to the central drama. The writer on groups takes on a task that is among the most difficult to carry off. Never is the biographer closer to the novelist. Leon Edel's book on the Bloomsbury set is proof that it can be done with depth and style, moving from parlor to parlor, from ego to ego, weaving the web of interdependency. I enjoyed another book dealing with congenial temperaments and the pleasure of being special together, Humphrey Carpenter's The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends (Houghton Mifflin, $16.95), which demonstrates that reactionary Oxford shared a talent for self-admiration with the determined modernists of Bloomsbury. Egotism is one of the grand and engaging themes of biography.
Among the biographies that disappointed me, only one is worth belaboring. The problem is not so much one of craft as of material. Otto Friedrich's Clover (Simon and Schuster, $12.95), a thin life of Marion Hooper, Mrs. Henry Adams, has its pleasures to offer, but Friedrich is starved for documents of his heroine's inner life. And so he flounders about searching for clues, making too much of too little. A clever remark by Clover Adams, on Henry James, works too well to describe her biographer: "It's not that he bites off more than he can chaw . . . but he chaws more than he bites off." There are, of course, too many instances of biographies whose authors bite off more than they can chaw. B. H. Friedman's Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (Doubleday, $14.95) is a recent sad example.
The book which bothered me most was no biography at all, but a fictionalized version of one: Rhoda Lerman's Eleanor (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $10). Lerman's book, which was researched as though for a biography but then transformed into what one reviewer perversely hailed as a portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt "more real than even some of the best biographers have given us," mocks the very authenticity we look for in a life-telling. Lerman's book opens up a challenge I thought had already been laid to rest: that facts are a hindrance to artistry. The biographer, someone once said, is a novelist on oath. The fine biographies I have enjoyed this year are proof enough that it is an oath worth keeping.