Narrating the unusual – foundations of the analysis of biographical narrative
The reading of biographies (here understood as textual representations of a stranger’s life) is linked to specific expectations, to which every biographical representation must relate. Only this makes success possible for each attempt at communication – which is how every biographical account should be regarded. It is generally expected of a biography that it provide reliable information about the life of another person, and that this be presented in the context of a comprehensible narrative which, in the ideal case, offers good, or even gripping, reading. The most frequent reasons why the life of a person is made the subject of a biography is because the life ranks as unusual, its course is unique or the person is an instance of outstanding achievements. The biography is read because it has something to say about the conditions and circumstances of that unusualness. As well as and connected to this, biographies are often read if they promise answers to the question of a ‘good life’: what it looks like, which route leads to it, or which diversions must be accepted in its pursuit; or, in other words, because the life presented is accepted as a model and an example. The processes of representation, the narrative techniques and strategies which help both to evoke these expectations and to satisfy them, are the central focus of the project. It inquires into the very concrete ways in which biographical representations model the kind of unusualness that can be accepted as exemplary. This will fill a gap in research on biography, in which systematic analysis of biographical narration has largely been neglected. The project aims to compile a catalogue of the components that constitute meaning in biographical texts and to establish a systematic account of biographical motifs and representational elements and their functions, and to apply these in analyses of illuminating examples.