A fascinating book! Provides incredible insight into the “madness behind the method” of the dedicated method biographer.
added to: read-again
The self-described ‘jobbing method biographer’ Jacob Reichmann is well known for his numerous biographies on artistic and post-WWII military luminaries, as well as his articles for the New Yorker, the New York Times, the New York Post, New York Press and various other publications containing the keywords New and York, including unwittingly the now-defunct York News, a publication in Yorkshire, England.
This book, however, is his most ambitious work to-date, an account (in the form of a confessional) of Reichmann’s attempt to live his life – as serious method biographers must do – of no less a giant than the so-called Father of Method Biography himself, Jan Pietrs. (Method Biography is one of the primary areas of ongoing literary research at the Bibliographic Studies Institute at Jesus and Mary Magdalene College, University of West Clare.)
The title and early impressions
The title of Reichmann’s book is of course a knowing reference to being Jan Pietrs, being himself, the pioneering method biographer Jan Pietrs’ own attempt at reaching the “pinnacle of my profession”, as he described it: the auto-method biography. Ultimately, of course, that project proved overly ambitious, and resulted in the first of Pietrs’ attempts on his own life (as well as the lives of several other people he insinuated had somehow contrived against him and his life’s work, including the hapless subway ticket inspector Carl Birch and hotdog vendor Joe ‘Blue Lips’ Brown, who later led the notorious class action lawsuit against Pietrs and the actor Daniel Day Lewis, who Pietrs claimed to be at the time of both assaults).
[In fact, I would heartily recommend being Jan Pietrs, being himself, both as required reading in advance of taking up this account, and as a fascinating glimpse into the truly tortured soul of Jan Pietrs.]
The early chapters of Reichmann’s book form a sort of prelude to the whole thing. Reichmann, having built himself up to this greatest challenge of his professional career, toys with various ideas as to how best to ‘become’ Jan Pietrs: that is, is it sufficient to be Pietrs himself, or should Reichmann be Jan Pietrs in character: that is, should he be Jan Pietrs being Other People? (The title perhaps gives away the outcome of that particular conundrum.)
Other considerations that Reichmann appears to have deliberated upon – as time passes, and in keeping with the character of Pietrs himself – include the degree to which he ought to take up the life of Pietrs for real; not impersonating him (with the attendant implication of crude and cheap fraudulence that no self-respecting Method Biographer would countenance), but rather becoming Pietrs: that is, Reichmann taking over, cuckoo-like, as much of Pietrs’ life as he could, invading and ultimately claiming for himself as many facets of the life and personal space of Pietrs as possible, disregarding impropriety, imposition and societal norms.
A further (and not insubstantial) quandary concerns Pietrs’ ongoing existence. Reichmann struggles with the great fork in the road that bedevils all Method Biographers:
- Live Pietrs’ life in its entirety (in a sort of fast-forward), thus gaining first-hand experience of Pietrs’ experiences;
- Take up Pietrs’ life in the present day, writing the autobiography solely based on his interpretation of what Pietrs’ own reminiscences of his experiences at this moment would be.
The Germansteinsenberger Incident
Casual readers will of course be drawn to the chapters centring on the Germansteinsenberger Incident, as the media referred to it contemporaneously.
Pietrs, of course, was himself perhaps best known at the time (the late 1970’s) for his method biographical work involving esteemed political figure, schizophrenic and charlatan Senator Michael Germansteinsenberger. In the notorious fallout surrounding the revelation that he in fact was Germansteinsenberger – or at least had been since the previous mid-term – Pietrs disappeared from public view, only to re-emerge with a man claiming to be Germansteinsenberger in an infamous press conference that included (amongst other things) a sacrifice of a bull and eagle to the god Ra on a conference table. Reichmann covers the entire thing here in extensive detail, but to say more here would be to spoil perhaps the finest portion of Reichmann’s (or Pietrs’) autobiography.
Sole (Minor) Quibble
Reichmann’s rendition of Pietrs’ infancy and later years is absolutely flawless, and a masterclass in Method Biographing; however, where Reichmann struggles is in his recreation of Pietrs’ teenage years, at least for this reviewer. Pietrs’ early bacchanalian sexual exploits and misadventures with drugs are handled somewhat clumsily by the straitlaced (and closet heterosexual) Reichmann, although this is a brief and minor misstep in what is an undeniable masterpiece in Method Biographing, and this incidental aberration is certainly not enough to warrant anything less than five stars for the finest book of this sort in over a decade, and perhaps the millennium to-date.
Closing & Comments:
being Jan Pietrs, being Other People by Jacob Reichmann is now available through all good and bad bookstores, as well as online.
How about you: what did you like most about the book? Please add your thoughts in the comments below to add to the debate.