The question popped into my head this afternoon as I enjoyed a short story from Haruki Murakami's The Elephant Vanishes. I have read a handful of Murakami's novels over the past several years but it occurred to me while I was a reading a story titled, "On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning", that I know absolutely nothing about the man. Then it occurred to me that I don't want to know anything about the man. I'm comfortable with the relationship I presently have with Murakami and his writing and I do not feel the need to push the boundary of my understanding.
It was only after I had read a fair amount of Saul Bellow's work that I began to make an effort to learn something about his life. Even then, my interest was prompted by a friend who had some less than glowing appraisals of Bellow the human being. My inquiry revealed that Bellow had a reputation as a misogynist, a bit of a racist and a part-time neoconservative with a distate for counter-culture. Disappointing revelations indeed, but with my fondness for Bellow's writing already well-established, I have been able to navigate around these unfortunate bits of information and separate the man from his fiction.
I remember distincly an incident when things did not work out quite so neatly. It was during my tenure at an educational software company in Boston. I was on my lunch break, eating lunch in the office break room. I was sitting there, munching on carrots, reading Spring Snow, when the rude and annoying project manager with outrageous halitosis joined me at the table. She noticed my book with some excitement and ventured into a lecture on Yukio Mishima's ritual suicide. When she was through I returned to my desk rather disturbed, and when the work day was done I returned Spring Snow to the library. I wasn't able to separate the man from his fiction because I was not given the opportunity to wander through his writing on my own. I was frustrated by the information I had attained--at least in part because of its source--and so I gave up on the book. I'll get back to it someday soon.
In many cases learning about the life of an artist can enhance one's appreciation for that artist. Unfortunately not all artists are admirable beings, and more than a few have some serious skeletons in their closets--one need not look any farther than the recent news of Günter Grass's secret SS past. Distinguishing the artist from the person behind the art is often easier said than done. I am unsure about what the role of the reader should be in terms of investigating the life of the writer. In most cases I try to avoid the biographical details altogether, but part of me thinks that it is the obligation of the discerning reader to dig into the details and attempt to find out what it is that makes a writer tick.