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A Little Inquiry into Biographees by Victoria Roberts (Chatto & Windus, 1984) by Sommer Browning

On a recent trip cross-country to move my various bits of paper and wind-up toys, i.e. my belongings, to Denver, my husband and I stopped for the night in Columbia, Missouri. A few things that are beside the point: It was the Fourth of July. War Pigs is a very good karaoke song. There’s lots of parking off Walnut Street.

In a small used bookshop called Get Lost!, I picked up a copy of a strange looking, warped (in more ways than one) orange hardcover, Biographees by Victoria Roberts. It’s mostly a book of drawings, five short biographies told in illustrations and a few sentences. I immediately thought of Edward Gorey’s pseudonymous works, but as I’m never wrong, I was wrong. It’s actually weirder than Gorey.

The creature regarded them Balefully.

The creature regarded them Balefully, from The Glorious Nosebleed by Edward Gorey (Mead, 1975)

The five biographies in Biographees are all told in unique, smart, unassumingly disturbing ways. Their surreal, black & white illustrations are hilarious and strange. Characters might appear as black lumps, while the next page might have a character’s nose peeking through a curtain, and the next page, a multiple choice of mustaches. On the surface, the drawings and text are simple, but together they form something a bit more complex; they’re perfect little anti-biographies. There is the story of the escape artist, escaping any situation in which she risks being described. There is the biography of a wealthy recluse with scopophobia (the fear of being seen), told in very detailed hearsay. Another story is the wishful biography of a young son’s polar adventure daydream.

I wish I could scan in a drawing or two from Biographees or point to them on the web, but this is what’s found on the t.p. verso: “All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.”

I am a little terrified to even mention the book, now that I think about it.

In each of the stories, despite missing something greatly important to the narrative, an ending, a resolution, an explanation, in one, even the main character himself, they are full and bursting with something more important. Samuel Johnson, biographer of many, wrote this about biography, “There are many invisible circumstances which…are more important than public occurrences.” When you’re writing the biographies of the fictional the invisible circumstances are infinite and Roberts chooses the most evocative and necessary.

It’s difficult to find much in the way of biography about Victoria Roberts. Though she’s a regular cartoonist for the New Yorker, has written and illustrated over 20 books, was the star of a couple of one-woman shows, there are only the most generic facts floating around about her.

from The New Yorker, May 18, 2009

She was born in New York and lived in Mexico and Australia. A look at TheVictoriaRoberts dot com is a look at a website three baby steps away from TimeCube on the sanity scale. In June 2008, she conducted an interview for Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn and according to the blog post, Roberts’ computer crashed and all interview footage went missing.

We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure — Samuel Johnson, speaking on the equalizing value of biography.

The only image of her I can truly say is her own, is one in which she is in disguise; done up as her alter ego, the Australian octogenarian Nona Appleby.

Nona Appleby

Roberts is often seen as Nona in public, on stage and in film. Nona is the main character in Roberts’ dozens of amazing YouTube videos.

I am dreaming that Biographees is an answer to why she’s private, poking fun at just what’s important in biography, what you need to know and why. Is biography an accumulation of everyday details? Must a biography be about someone who “did” something? Lack of detail expands our desire to know and, necessarily, our imagination rushes to fill it in. I like when that happens.

In my copy of Biographees, there is an inscription:


Another book that screamed your name when I saw it on the pews of St. Bartolphes [sic], Cambridge UK, May 1996.

Fondly, Marilyn Labe

Someone is leaving some very cool books on the pews of St. whatever! What a wonderful, mysterious inscription! And, I’d say, an essential  detail in Catherine’s biography and Marylin’s and the biography of the pews of St. Bartolphes themselves and Victoria Robert’s and, now, my own.

All Samuel Johnson quotes are from The Rambler #60.

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Published Jul 26, 2010 - 1 Comment so far

1 Comment

  1. […] my first post about illustrator Victoria Roberts. Posted by admin at 2:11 […]

    Pingback by I’m Blogging Sporadically on Drunken Boat! » Asthma Chronicles — August 18, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

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