by Amanda Shubert
The More I Owe You is Michael Sledge’s biography of the modernist poet Elizabeth Bishop – a biography told as fiction. The novel covers the decade and a half Bishop lived in Brazil with the architect and aesthete Lota de Macedo Soares, years on which Bishop’s 1965 book Questions of Travel is based. The poems in Questions of Travel deal with the twin experiences of belonging and itineracy that occur equally in visiting memory as continents. This is also Sledge’s main theme, but imagined through the love affair between Bishop and Soares (a subject Bishop withheld from work published in her lifetime).
Incorporating the poet’s own words from her letters, journals and drafts, Sledge’s novel questions the terms on which we perform biographical inquiry. But it is an awkward grafting of genres, and the seams show. It is difficult to know whether this is finally a failure of concept or of craft. Sledge’s writing is clumsy and redundant, and the story moves at a glacial pace. The endless bedroom exchanges between Elizabeth and Lota are full of gratuitous sentiment and treacly expressions of affection. Moreover, Sledge cannot resist using these dialogues as opportunities to deliver little thesis statements about the novel’s main themes. In an early scene, as Elizabeth and Lota begin to fall in love, Elizabeth’s allergic reaction to a cashew causes her skin to break out into a rash so severe it encrusts her face and swells shut her eyes. It is a metamorphosis of sorts – her disfigurement at once a protective shell and an expression of crippling vulnerability. Lota has this to say about Elizabeth’s ailment:
What is it when a toenail goes inside? Turns on itself and causes pain? Oh, yes, ingrown. Encravado means ingrown. And tesao is a word that means life, passion for life… I know what has made you so sick. It is tesão encravado, ingrown tesão. And I also know the cure.
That’s right – love is the cure – and the entire novel proceeds this way, with mawkish speeches that serve more as explanation than exposition, undercutting the symbolic range of Sledge’s imagery.
Emily Dickinson wrote that biography “first convinces us of the fleeing of the Biographied.” Sledge’s didacticism works against the very potential of a project like this one to bring its subject to life without trying to pin her down. Instead of biography’s painstaking reconstruction of a life, fiction is a flight into the imaginary, and it is precisely because of this freedom from the responsibility of exactitude that novels can bring us so close to a human reality outside our own. Sledge’s mistake is in trying to get so close to Bishop he loses her altogether.