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Category: Biography

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

Z_A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

Writing in the Author’s Note and Acknowledgments at the end of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgeral Therese Anne Fowler says she “tried to adhere as much as possible to the established particulars” of Zelda and Scott F. Fitzgerald’s lives. And in that she has succeeded. It is apparent from the first few pages of Z that the writer has done her research which, as she explains, offered varied – and greatly conflicting – versions of their story. “I often felt as if I’d been dropped into a raging argument between what I came to call Team Zelda and Team Scott,” Fowler says at the end of the book, “For every biographer or scholar who believes Zelda derailed Scott’s life, there is one who believes Scott ruined Zelda’s.” This, no doubt, made Fowler’s undertaking a very tricky one not least because of the Fitzgeralds’ own mythmaking. Their accounts – sourced from their epistolary exchanges – are riddled with liberal embellishments, exaggerations and occasionally downright machinations, rendering the truth indeterminable. As Fowler points out, it is difficult to establish whether it was Scott who brought about Zelda’s downfall or visa versa because opinion varies, paving way for pedagogic wrangling and biographical confusion. It is, however, clear that their mutual predisposition for excess played a large part in their undoing.  This is something Fowler aims to convey in the book, distributing the culpability equally between Zelda and Scott. Yet occasionally Zelda’s voice is also that of Fowler’s who, somewhat inevitably, has far more sympathy with her protagonist than she does with her literary husband.

Z is an interesting but deeply flawed book. Fowler writes wonderfully of the background sights and sounds that constituted the couple’s lives, their time in Alabama, their stint in New York, their travels around Europe and their sultry summers on the French Rivera. The writer’s imagination roams freely across the dance floor of Montgomery Country Club’s high-ceilinged ballroom where Zelda first meets Scott, the benevolent warmth of the Mediterranean landscape where Zelda begins to yearn for independence and the resonating buzz of the casinos and cafes around Antibes where the couple’s glamorous life begins to crumble. This is something that Fowler does very well, conjuring up consummately vibrant accounts of the atmosphere, places and people with impressive lucidity and verisimilitude. But Zelda’s voice – the linchpin of the book – is somewhat less convincing. We are introduced to Zelda as a precocious and effervescent 17 year old Southern Bell, running riot in her home town much to the dismay of her stolid and disapproving father. “Boys liked me,” she tells us, “because I shot spitballs and because I told sassy jokes and because I let ‘em kiss me if they smelled nice and I felt like it.” This seemingly carefree attitude, however, quickly dissolves when Zelda meets Scott and after a brief courtship begins to contemplate her future. “I knew that if I let Scott go, I’ll most certainly end up married to some nice, proper fella from a good family whose people have deep roots in the South,” she says, thinking on the matter, “I’ll be the same girl I’ve always been only the parties I go to will take place in drawing rooms instead of the Club or the Exchange Hotel…Looking down the road in the other direction, I see the life Scott offers me…It’s more unpredictable than Alabama’s weather in springtime…It will be an adventure…”

And the pair do indeed have an adventure, which Zelda then spends most of her time bemoaning. Fowler documents the couple’s domestic disputes, financial troubles and champagne-fuelled misadventures, speaking directly through Zelda, who never really manages to ingratiate herself with the reader. Her voice, inflected with a sensationally Southern drawl, fluctuates between frivolous and fatuous, conceited, rapacious and inane. Her contemplations are sometimes interspersed with witty and amusing observations, but even in her most private and reflective moments Zelda appears to be quite uninspired and uninspiring.  And this is Z’s biggest failing because the woman behind the reputation is never quite exhilarating, complex or compelling enough in comparison to the idea we already have of her. It is somewhat unfortunate that in writing about Zelda Fowler was always going to be competing with the man who knew her best. F. Scott Fitzgerald immortalised his wife perfectly – if not altogether accurately – in his books, writing about her in various fictional guises for several decades. From The Beautiful and the Damned (1920) –  the first of Fitzgerald’s works to include a portrait of Zelda as the volatile beauty Gloria Patch –  to Tender Is the Night (1934), his last book in which Zelda appears as the captivating but unhinged Nicole Diver, wife to the equally troubled Dick. The Divers were reportedly modelled on Fitzgeralds’ friends on the French Riviera, Gerald and Sara Murphy, yet the fictional couple’s marriage and all its elements – alcoholism, mental illness, a mounting emotional chasm and eventual separation – is more closely allied to that of Zelda and Scott. Again this is something Fowler explores in the book, paying particular attention to Zelda’s looming breakdown, which was reportedly spurred by Scott. “I was fighting for my right to exist independently in the world, to realise myself, to steer my own boat if I felt like it” Zelda says toward the end, “He wanted to control everything…He wanted his adoring flapper, his Jazz Age muse.”

Fowler does well to show us Zelda’s evolution as a personality – and a woman – who outgrows her lavish lifestyle and her insular existence. “I considered how I might become more like the women I respected and admired,” she muses as the novel progresses, “Surrounded as I was by such ambitious, accomplished women, I couldn’t ignore the little voice in my head that said maybe I was supposed to shed halfway and do something significant. Contribute something. Accomplish something. Choose. Be.” In highlighting Zelda’s personal development, Flower permits us to get a glimpse of her as someone who was deeply driven, intelligent and ambitions. Her introspection, her dreams, worries, aspirations and observations make for some interesting reading, especially in regard to other historical figures such as Ernest Hemingway, Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Dorothy Parker, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso and Edmund Wilson, whom Zelda asses with incisive consideration. But again, there is little real indication of just how unstable Zelda is (aside from the reference to“blackness” in her head) or how this may have affected Scott. Fowler does, however, tap into the popular idea that Scott hindered Zelda’s literary progress as well as her rights as a woman, subjugating her to the role of his sidekick and that of a mother. “There’s no need for you to be a professional dancer, writer, anything,” he says to his muse, “Be a mother. Be a wife. I’ve made a good life for you, Zelda; stop rejecting it.” Fowler also explores the idea that those in Scott’s camp (namely Hemingway) believed the opposite was true and that Zelda, driven by professional jealously, set out to bring down her husband. This, again, is the area where Fowler sides with her protagonist.

Reading Z one senses a distinct lack of sympathy with Scott, who for all his faults – passing off Zelda’s work as his own, pilfering dialogue straight out of her diaries, controlling and neglecting her – was someone that loved her very deeply and was fiercely protective of her. “I fell in love with her courage,” he once wrote in a letter, “her sincerity and her flaming self-respect and it’s these things I’d believe in even if the whole world indulged in wild suspicions that she wasn’t all that she should be, I love her and that’s the beginning and the end of it.” It is difficult to ascertain the true nature of their relationship or be objective in the process, as even their own records are filled with misinformation devised to contribute to their own romantic myth. The Fitzgeralds’ story, however, should be read as a cautionary one, a tale of two people who ruined themselves and each other through carelessness and excess. And in many ways, this is how Fowler sets out to project it through granting Zelda a voice of her own, allowing her to tell her story and debunk the unjust depictions of her circulating in the literary ether. But Fowler’s Zelda never quite manages to make herself heard in the way she deserves, often lacking conviction and authority. This is perhaps due to the fact that the writer aimed for objectivity but if so it begs the question why write the story from Zelda’s perspective at all? Zelda was a hurricane of a woman, disarmingly intelligent, outspoken, passionate, fearless, ambitious and unapologetic – everything that Z is not.

Publisher:  Hodder & Stoughton
Publication Date: April 2013
Hardback:  384 pages
ISBN: 9781444761405


West’s World by Lorna Gibb

West's World by Lorna Gibb

William Shaw – long-time editor of The New Yorker – once prophesised that Rebecca West would have a “lasting place in English literature”. Sadly, today, she is largely forgotten except among those with an avid interest in either feminism or books or a combination of both. In her time, however, West was a ubiquitous literary figure, revered and feared in equal measure due to her formidable intelligence and forthright opinions. Speaking during a routine interview, for example, West once described T.S Eliot as a “poseur,” proclaimed she held no admiration for E.M Forster due to his nonsensical novel about India, deemed that George Bernard Shaw had a “poor mind,” said W.B Yeats “boomed like a foghorn” and quipped that Somerset Maugham “couldn’t write for toffee”. This, of course, made for some very titillating copy but there was much more to West than acerbic apothegms. Rebecca West – born Cicely Isabel Fairfield – was a force of nature; wilful, obstinate, exacting, highly influential and successful, she was also a woman of vertiginous contradictions. “A uniquely talented personality, West was showered with rewards and tributes for her novels and journalism during her lifetime,” writes Lorna Gibb in her new biography of the early feminist icon, “Sadly her eclecticism was her undoing; her writing could not be categorised into those pigeon holes so beloved by the literati.” Gibb is an acutely conscientious biographer who goes to painstaking lengths to document the precariously momentous rise of her subject, whose seditious temperament and intrepid nature was evident from early childhood.

While at George Watson’s Ladies College, West was described by the headmistress as having “difficult and radical views” which stemmed from a longing for equal rights for women, and a proactive approach to attain them. Gibb notes, however, that while deeply sympathetic to the Suffragette Movement West also enjoyed the drama surrounding it, which eventually led her to the stage. It was then, after several very average forays into acting, that she became involved with the Fabian Society and began mixing in the same social circles as H. G Wells. The infamous intertwining of their lives and their subsequent tidings is something that Gibb explores throughout the book, focusing considerately on the affair which West dismissed in later life as being wholly uninteresting. This statement, however, smacks of defensive flippancy and Gibb does well to contradict her subject’s proclamation by unravelling their torturous, passionate, dizzyingly intense, mutually stimulating and destructive love affair that changed both their lives. West bore Wells an illegitimate son – Anthony – whose childhood, Gibb explains, was one of “isolation and rejection…bewilderment and great loneliness”. The couple’s domestic life was highly unstable and conducted entirely as an open secret, their son sent away to boarding school at the tender age of three, to guard against gossip and proliferating murmurs of impropriety. Gibb writes assiduously of the difficulties posed to the couple by Wells’ marriage, by the outbreak of war, by West’s tempestuous nature and her lover’s infidelities, by her mounting aversion to domesticity and his growing dependence.

It is through her examination of West’s personal life that Gibb chronicles her subject’s development as a novelist, journalist and a zealous political activist. West’s immersion in various causes, her prolific output and her thriving social life was a direct result of domestic problems with her son, her possessive older lover and her fruitless love affairs, including one with Max Beaverbrook, John Gunther, Tommy Kilner and Steven Martin. Despite her manifest admiration for West, Gibb remains objective throughout the book, portraying its heroine both at her worst and her best, as a neglectful mother and a brilliant writer, as a whimpering paramour and vivacious companion, as a generous friend and a woman of guts and conviction. We get to see various sides to West, which Gibb uncovers page by page, in a bid to give us a clear picture of this now obscure writer, who once yielded tremendous power. West’s World is an intriguing book, carefully researched and written, it reads like a comprehensive account of both West’s personal and professional achievements. But it is also a work whose writer boldly includes the more ridiculous and amusing aspects of human nature, pertaining to her subject’s life and all those who entered it. Gibb documents, for example, an incident when in a bout of rage Wells accused his long-time friend [George Bernard] Shaw of being an “ass”. And another instance when Ford Madox Ford’s wife, Violet Hunt, prompted by impending madness, flung her lace-trimmed knickers out of the balcony. She also comprises less notable but no less humorous bon mots such as when Virginia Woolf likened West’s first novel, The Return of the Soldier, to an “over-stuffed sausage” or when Zelda Fitzgerald threw the biggest party of her entire life in West’s honour, which the latter failed to attend due to logistical glitches.  These diversions, however, do not detract from the gravitas of the work but rather add to it a very humane quality which makes West’s World both an insightful and exciting book.

One of the most germane and considered aspects of the biography is West’s familial relationships, among them that with her sisters, her son and her husband, Henry Maxwell Andrews, with whom she felt an affinity due to a mutual sense of social inferiority. Not only that Gibb suggests that West initially saw Henry as a refuge from her troubled past and married him as a sign of “gratitude”. Unlike her relationship with Wells, West’s marriage was more or less solid. Speaking of it once during an interview, she said it had been the most important thing in her life. But the union was by no means an entirely happy one, due to incessant difficulties with Anthony, Wells’ interference and Henry’s chronic philandering, the strain of which rendered the couple’s sex life non-existent. While West’s personal life was always troubled her career prospered, bringing her together with other literary notables such as Anaïs Nin, with whom she formed a friendship bordering on a love affair, Woolf whom West admired but found condescending as she did the whole Bloomsbury set and D.H Lawrence whom she deemed an “angel”. And yet despite her growing reputation, her accolades and tireless work ethic, West faced continuous sexism, which prompted her to famously retort that people thought her militant and a feminist simply because she expressed sentiments that differentiated her from “a doormat or a prostitute”. Gibb touches on this in the book, noting the various unsolicited sexual advances toward West, but never really explores the adversities they presented. She does, however, point out that the only two male contemporaries to offer congratulations to West after she was made a Dame were Eliot and Noel Coward.

But for West sexism was an on-going battle, which often manifested in covert criticism of her work as it did after her coverage of King George VI’s funeral. “If one is a woman writer,” she wrote in reply, “there are certain things one must do – first; not be too good, second, die young, what an edge Katherine Mansfield has on all of us; third, commit suicide like Virginia Woolf. To go on writing and writing well just cannot be forgiven.” Sadly this sentiment still rings true today, particularly in regard to West’s own work, which is now largely overlooked and ignored. But in her time, West was considered among the best political and social commentators, her book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon deemed a definitive account of political travel writing. Her reputation, however, as Gibb explains at the start of West’s World, has suffered greatly due to her “eclecticism” and the fact that she had once been Wells’ mistress. It is difficult to gauge the merits of these two very different writers or try to ascertain the superior of the two, but rather better to concentrate on the facts which Gibb does here. West’s World gives us a well-rounded if somewhat rudimentary picture of Rebecca West as she was – taking into account both the positive and the negative – but it doesn’t consider what her having been might mean today, or how it influenced women’s history. Rebecca West was a writer of great strength, wit and intelligence who rose through the ranks from fairly humble beginnings at a time when social status, money and class determined everything.  It would be wrong to deify her for she was a woman of many failings but it would also be wrong to speak of her as a *woman first and a writer after at least in terms of her work and her legacy, which is something West’s World aims to highlight.

*”I’m a writer first and a woman after.” Katherine Mansfield

The Paris Review | Rebecca West

Publisher:  Macmillan
Publication Date: March 2013
Hardback:  304 pages
ISBN: 9780230714625

Robert Bird: A diligent and enthusiastic biographer

Fyodor Dostoevsky by Robert Bird

Fyodor Dostoevsky was an enigmatic man. Sigmund Freud, for example, writes Robert Bird in his book on the famous Russian discovered “four distinct faces for Dostoevsky, the creative artist, the neurotic, the moralist and the sinner”. All of these are carefully examined in Bird’s critical study, which suggests that Dostoevsky’s multi-layered image presented the writer himself with certain “mysteries”. As his fame grew Dostoevsky would frequently decline to pose for photographs deeming it an infringement upon one’s person, believing that the physiological was inseparable from the spiritual self. In his case, however, there was a great dichotomy between the two. Bird quotes a number of descriptions of the writer to illustrate the ostensible discord between his physical appearance and his personality, his “intellectual authority” and his “unappealing exterior”. “A little man, skinny, grey fair hair, the colour of his face and of everything was grey,” wrote one observer in 1880, “he read and everyone listened, holding their breath. He began quietly and ended as a prophet.”  Another account of Dostoevsky is provided by Varvara Timofeeva, an editor with whom he worked on the Writer’s Diary. His “was not a kind or evil face,” she wrote in 1873, “it somehow simultaneously attracted and repelled, frightened and captivated”. Bird suggests it is for this reason, among others, this puzzling duality of the corporeal and the spiritual, which also came to define Dostoevsky’s works, that our interest in him has never dwindled and is showing no sign of doing so.

Dostoevsky rose from humble beginnings, although occasionally he liked to suggests otherwise. His father worked in a hospital for the poor and money was always a source of worry, even later on in Dostoevsky’s life when he had achieved considerable success.  “From early on,” explains Bird, “ Dostoevsky’s financial problems were exacerbated by this wholehearted immersion in the imaginary realms opened up by poetry, drama and fiction.” Experiences of monetary hardships infiltrated his fiction from as early as Poor Folk, The Double and White Nights all of which lament, as Bird points out, “the disfigurement of society and the individual psyche under the pressures of modern life,” defined by “forces that constrain human freedom, both exterior forces such as money and power and interior ones like illness and sexual desire”. Bird unveils Dostoevsky as a formidable social commentator, whose works were infused with popular philosophical and ideological ideas akin to those of Karl Marx. “As different as their analyses and solutions were,” writes Bird, “both Dostoevsky and Marx sought to identify the iron fences of necessity in order to establish the conditions of new freedom.” In his own way Dostoevsky sought to form these conditions with every single one of his books, two journals, Vremya and Epokha, and continuous calls for artistic liberty, which saw him arrested for sedition and sent to the Semipalatinsk labour camp. Dostoevsky later described those four years in Siberia as deadening as being “buried alive and enclosed in a coffin”. But Bird notes that surviving documents paint a picture of Dostoevsky as a brave and courageous “man trying to stay true to his artistic vocation in the face of crushing physical and psychological blows”.

Bird is very diligent in chronicling how each period of Dostoevsky’s life shaped his fiction. After leaving the camp, for example, Dostoevsky began “remaking himself as a writer” and resolved to set up house and raise a family. In 1857, he met and married a widow by the name of Maria Dmitrievna Isayeva. “Family, patriotism, religion,” writes Bird about this time in Dostoevsky’s life, “all three elements of this essentially conservative mind-set issue directly from the artist’s attempt to compose a new image for a new time.”  To keep this momentum going Dostoevsky launched the first of his two literary journals, Vremya, with his brother Mikhail, which showcased a “nascent ideology for national unity”. And for a while the future of literature and society seemed to rest with “his talented, socially committed pen,” which deemed it imperative for Russia to find its own place in the world, away from the Western Tradition. “Our task is to create for ourselves a new form, our own, native to us,” Dostoevsky wrote at the time, “taken from our own soil, taken from the national spirit and from national principles.”  This notion would also apply to the writer himself, who in 1861 resumed writing Dead House, a fictionalised account of prison life in a form of “notes” consisting of disconnected and fitful narratives, rich in dominant ideological standpoints. In order to proceed with Dead House, Dostoevsky had to invent a new literary form because his vision, Bird explains, “refused to submit to conventional means of literary representation”. Dead House was an artistic turning point for the writer just as Crime and Punishment would later elevate his “name to a wholly new status”.  But this was also a troubled time for Dostoevsky, who found himself in a dire emotional and financial position following his wife’s death and the folding of both his literary journals. It prompted Dostoevsky to refer to himself as “a literary proletariat,”  perpetually toiling away with little  to show for it.

Dostoevsky’s lack of control over his gambling and his estate haunted him until the end. It was in part due to his impractical nature and his inability to abnegate the vices of the flesh despite his Christianity, which was a dominating element in his personal and professional life. While travelling around Europe, for example, Dostoevsky became fascinated with religious art, deeming the famous Sistine Madonna “the greatest revelation of the human spirit”. The painting was later obsessively mentioned in all of Dostoevsky’s mature novels, except one (The Brothers Karamazov). But even in his early works of the 1860s, the religious element was at the forefront of the writer’s mind as he set out to “create a Christian literature”  in his own unique way. “Christianity infuses his work as a gesture,” Bird explains, “changing the quality of his images by setting them against an infinite horizon. The crucial decision was to stop projecting ideas onto fictional forms and to allow both form and idea to emerge viscerally from his raw experience”. Bird illustrates this point throughout the book with learned enthusiasm, occasionally too academic and scholastic in tone.  But this is no surprise as Bird’s main area of interest is the aesthetic practice and theory of Russian modernism, whose spectres loom over the otherwise very well balanced book, which conscientiously appraises all of Dostoevsky’s faces.

“The Idiot,”  Bird writes mid way through the book, “is a novel that reveals most about Dostoevsky’s inner life, his experience as an epileptic and his dreams of (and for) the world.” One can clearly see elements of Myshkin in Dostoevsky, who fought a lifelong battle between flesh and spirit, between intellect and labour. The book was written abroad, with Dostoevsky pinning for Russia, gambling himself into destitution and feeling increasingly ill  due to his epilepsy. He was by that point married to his second wife, Anna Grigoryevna, with whom he had a daughter that died before Dostoevsky finished the book. This state of mind inevitably shaped the tortured and on occasion torturous work. In the book, explains Bird, Dostoevsky hoped to portray a “positively beautiful individual,” resembling the spirit of the Sistine Madonna, a man endowed with all the qualities that Dostoevsky considered godly: love, humanity, faith. All the qualities he wished in himself, but felt he struggled to find. “You think I’m one of those people who save hearts, resolve souls and dispel grief?” Dostoevsky asked in reply to a  fan’s letter, “Many write such things to me but I know for sure that I am more capable of inciting disappointment and disgust.” It would be easy to assume that this earnestness was part of some perverse affectation, but it is more likely that Dostoevsky genuinely believed himself more capable of the latter than the former. “Even in his final repose,” Bird says, “Dostoevsky was unable to maintain the solemn dignity he so craved.” His funeral was a large scale public spectacle, almost farcical in scope and grandeur. “A student records,”  Bird cites, “that one passer-by asked who was being buried with such pomp: he was given the puzzling answer: A convict.” A sinner. A neurotic. A moralist. But a creative artist, above all.

Publisher: Reaktion Books
Publication Date: March 2012
Paperback: 240 pages
ISBN: 9781861899002

Lisa Gee on William Hayley

I sit and watch my host, writer and journalist, Lisa Gee whiz around her bright, spacious kitchen – presently in a bit of disarray due to its owner’s hectic working schedule (and the fact that she is congenitally messy) – as she prepares lunch, making it seem effortless in the process, and tells me about the perilous circumstances of William Hayley’s early life. Hayley, the minor 18th century English poet, amateur doctor and arts patron, lost his father and his brother as an infant and escaped death himself several times before the age of 13. He has now been largely forgotten. There are two reasons for this Lisa says as we talk over lunch in her open plan dining room, filled with books, wall-art and knickknacks. Above the mahogany piano hang two paintings by Czech artist Ales Lamr and several postcards from the RCA Secret exhibition. Two varicoloured longhair cats – Alejandro and Kooky – saunter in and out of the room while we natter. “[William] Blake’s biographers were really horrible about him,” Lisa says indignantly, “and Blake became such a towering figure that Hayley got completely written out of literary history.”  Hayley thought Blake a genius and tried to kick-start his career. It was, in fact, upon Hayley’s insistence that Blake moved to West Sussex in 1800, where he spent almost three years. “Hayley looked after him,” Lisa explains, “found a cottage for him and took him under his wing, which at first Blake was delighted with but in time Hayley drove him absolutely nuts”. Why was Blake so frustrated by Hayley, I wonder. “Because Hayley was very nice and kind but very interfering and would tell Blake what to write and what to draw,” my host sighs, “Blake had nothing and Hayley tried to help him but not in a way that suited Blake. His vision was fierce, internal and elemental and he was un-biddable, really.”  It is at this point that Lisa’s husband Laurie, a soft-spoken fair haired man who joins us for lunch, suggests the whole scenario sounds “a bit like Andrew Lloyd Webber trying to get Johnny Rotten to write musicals,” which we all agree seems like a very fitting analogy.

While enjoying Lisa’s very tasty take on kedgeree we can hear her daughter Dora upstairs clearing out her bedroom, for a Halloween party I later learn. “She’s getting rid of all her books,” Laurie cries, loud enough for Dora to heed the grumble, which the precocious 12 year-old dismisses swiftly and unceremoniously. The family dynamic is relaxed and fun and makes one at ease almost instantly. “Hayley saved Blake’s life, probably, too,” Lisa returns to the topic at hand, “he certainly paid part of the bail for him for sedition – an offense punishable by death in those days.” He also hired a lawyer and stood as a character witness for Blake, who had allegedly said “some rude things about soldiers and the king during a brawl with a drunken soldier”. He was tried and acquitted of the charge as a result of Hayley’s efforts. Hayley’s generosity and goodwill also extended to other troubled luminaries, including English poet and hymnodist William Cowper and painter George Romney. “Hayley was a great admirer of Cowper, who was a far better poet,“ Lisa tells me, “and Hayley did what he usually did with people he admired, which was to write them a long letter of introduction with an accompanying sonnet and invite them to stay with him at Eartham [country estate].” This was not uncommon in the 18th century, Lisa says, and it’s how Hayley made a lot of his friends. But it was his friendship with Cowper, who was “a fabulous poet” but one afflicted with severe mental health issues that was particularly important and dear to Hayley. “The two men adored each other and were great friends” Lisa pauses for a second, “but my feeling is that Hayley may have been bisexual – that’s pure speculation because at the time there was a big fashion for passionate male friendship so it could have just been that.”

Hayley was married twice. But like everything else in his life his romantic relationships were tortuous and very complicated. He first fell in love “proper 18th century style” with a girl called Fanny Page, who fainted in his arms during a thunderstorm. The couple corresponded secretly but the relationship didn’t materialise and on the rebound Hayley married his pupil Eliza Ball, whose mother had serious mental health problems and who was “very, very neurotic” herself. Eventually they separated because “Hayley liked peace and quiet and she couldn’t bear it”. He did, however, look after her for the rest of her life. He also had a son, Thomas Alphonso, allegedly by his nursemaid’s daughter. Thomas Alphonso was a boy of great promise, and was educated very early to a very high degree but died aged 20.  Hayley’s second marriage was thought a folly of a middle age man, who married a woman almost 40 years his junior. The couple divorced three years later; very little is known about his second wife. “Undoubtedly, he had relationships with women, undoubtedly he was an outrageous flirt,” Lisa says still contemplating Hayley’s sexuality, “but his really passionate relationships were with men, and his real passion was Cowper and that’s what Hayley wanted to be remembered for but of course he isn’t. He’s mostly remembered for being slagged-off by Blake and Byron.” Certainly, Byron’s highly influential and unfortunately damning opinion of Hayley didn‘t help his popularity. Lisa reads out a stanza Byron wrote on Hayley, in English Bards and Scottish Reviewers, deeming his style “tame” and “feeble” and every one of his successive works more disastrous than the previous. Hayley really was a terrible poet and Lisa is the first to admit it but she is also quick to point out that Hayley was a very important figure in literary history and “should be remembered for his influence”. He dedicated his life to championing struggling artists and painters, including Blake, Cowper, Romney, John Flaxman and Edward Gibbon. He also published the first translation of Dante, wrote several seminal biographies (Cowper/John Milton) and a manual on how to attract and keep a husband. The Triumphs of Temper was very highly praised by Emma Hamilton who deemed it solely responsible for the success of her marriage to Lord Hamilton, Lisa smiles as she tells me.

Lisa’s enthusiasm for Hayley is infectious, which is why her biography of the man would make a brilliant read. Not only that, Hayley had a very interesting – lucky and unlucky – life and was for a while a celebrated public figure who at the height of his popularity was offered laureateship which he refused. He was also a very enigmatic man with a very different public and private persona.  Due to the nature of his poetry, which was very much of its time and determined greatly by the Culture of Sensibility, Hayley was thought quite effete,  “a powder puff of a man, ” as John Keats’ friend James Henry Leigh Hunt once described him. In reality, Lisa says, Hayley was recklessly intrepid. “One of the most interesting things about him was that he was an absolutely fearless horseman, “she tells me, “and he would ride really spirited horses. He would apparently always wear military spurs, he also had this problem with his hip, which was a bit lame, and for his eyes, which were very sensitive, he would always carry an umbrella. He used to be watched by his friends –Ms Harriet Poole of Lavant and sometime Blake – through a telescope, inevitably falling off his horse all over the South Downs.” To highlight this rather comical aspect of Hayley’s personality Lisa has made an animation. (See below).  But there really was a dual image of him, which he himself no doubt propagated. “He was perceived as this very camp and feminine creature,” Lisa gesticulates farcically, “but he was actually very robust and fearless in real life, which is, I suspect, partly a result of having cheated death so many times in his youth.” The creation of different personas is a thing we associated with the internet age, Lisa suggests, but it must have been much easier back then because one had complete control of the image one projected. This is something she is keen to explore in her biography of Hayley, which is in the process of being crowd-funded through Unbound.

“I just think he was an extraordinary person,” Lisa says very frankly when I ask her why she‘s picked Hayley as her subject. She also tells me that she came upon him completely by chance while doing an MA in Literature and Politics (1776-1832) in the mid-1990s. “It was the second tutorial and we were doing this wonderful poem called Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart,” Lisa beams, “which Smart wrote while he was in Bedlam, but which wasn’t published until 1936. It prefigures a lot of Blake and Blake may have seen it because apparently his friend this guy Hayley had the manuscript… So I went and looked up Hayley and have been largely obsessed ever since. ” And it’s easy to see why; Hayley’s life is riveting.  “All we know about are these big iconic figures, Byron, Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge” Lisa says, “but the 18th century, with its  Culture of Sensibility and so on, was a great time of intellectual, cultural and emotional ferment. People and society were changing, women writers were emerging…It was a time of flux which produced all these compelling characters.” When I ask Lisa about herself she gets a little bit coy but is overcome with excitement again when she tells me about the feature she is currently working on for BBC Radio 3. She doesn’t want to give too much away, however, thus promptly returns to the subject of Hayley. “One of the things I really like about him is that he was incredibly self-aware,” she says, “he knew he wasn’t a great poet, he knew that he didn‘t spend enough time editing his work, he knew he was a bit of a dilettante and a bit flippant, he knew he‘d fallen out of fashion AND he just accepted it.” He certainly does sound interesting and it certainly does sound like a great story – the poetry, the famous friends, the manic equestrian pastime, the mad wife. “The drama is there, the comedy is there, the tragedy is there,” Lisa says resolutely, “he’s just a fascinating character and it‘s just a fantastic story and that‘s why I want to write it.” And I sincerely hope she does.

Unbound: Hayleyworld by Lisa Gee

David Stephen Calonne: A biographer of skill, humour and insight

“There is absolutely no plan to it,” Charles Bukowski once claimed speaking about the process of writing, “it’s just me, the typewriter and the chair”. In reality, this was not strictly true says David Stephen Calonne in his new critical study. “Writing was for him,” explains Calonne, “a kind of ritual accompanied by four necessary accessories; alcohol, classical music, the sound of the typewriter, tobacco.” Toward the end of Bukowski’s life the list was extended by the addition of cats – the “smart/spontaneous, self-/absorbed, naturally poised and awesomely/beautiful” creatures – who not only lay at his feet while he wrote but also often made into the writing. They teach us humans, Bukowski observed in a poem called Exactly Right, a “grand lesson in persevering”. A worthy lesson indeed but one Bukowski didn’t need tutelage-in having spent years at his typewriter trying to make it. And when he did finally make it, he made it all the way to the prestigious Huntington Library in San Marino, California, where his literary archive is now kept alongside William Shakespeare, Galileo, Geoffrey Chaucer, Langston Hughes, Jack London et al. “To many it is a matter of some pleasurable amusement,” says Calonne at the end of the book, “that Bukowski’s literary legacy is now housed in this cathedral of culture which is located not far from his own preferred temple – the San Anita race track where he spent so many happy days and evenings.” This would no doubt be a source of some amusement to Bukowski himself, who has also recently made it to the literary (web) pages of The Daily Telegraph.

In this slight but expansive 170-odd page book Calonne covers every aspect and angle of Bukowski’s life, from his childhood to his old age, from his friendships to his relationships, from his work to his leisure,  providing a wonderfully complete overview of this enigmatic barroom-bard whose life, at least in theory, seems full of contradictions. Bukowski wanted literary success but hated fame; was brutish but frangible, forthright but guarded, sensitive but apodictically chauvinistic. And yet, toward the end when age had finally bestowed its wisdom and the bravado had dissipated somewhat, Bukowski unclenched revealing his “tender emotional nakedness,” which began to mark his work. To illustrate this ostensible shift Calonne quotes from Bluebird, a poem which very clearly bridges the gap between Bukowski’s “outer image and his wounded heart”. It is all there in the artless sincerity, when Bukowski says: “there’s a bluebird in my heart that/wants to get out/but I’m too tough for him/I say, stay in there, I’m not going/to let anybody see/you.” But – perhaps faced with his own mortality – Bukowski knew that he had to let us see him, this bluebird, which he had kept hidden for so long. Subsequently, his late style was defined by an “increased attention to death, to his literary heroes, to his cats, to a new metaphysical, stripped-down and often tender lyricism”. Calonne also notes that during this particular time Bukowski kept heed of world news and current affairs, commemorating events such as the 1992 LA riots in his work.

Never a political writer, however, Bukowski preferred to concentrate on what he knew best, drinking, women, the racetrack, love. In one of his two essays on poetry, Basic Training, he says he always endeavoured to hurl himself towards his “personal god: SIMPLICITY”. But it was sheer determinism that proved to be the sulphur in his blood, the superhuman resilience to incalculable personal and professional rejections. Bukowski would often say that it was, in fact, his father who made him a writer because he first became interested in literature as a means of escape from the harrowing reality of his early domestic life. “His literary style was forged in the crucible of his youthful anguish,” writes Calonne, “as he would learn to handle words as if they were fists, pounding back at the injustices he had endured.” This bravura would eventually evolve into “his characteristic sarcasm, tough guy persona and his combination of courtly style with rough house antics”. Calonne adds that Bukowski’s way of coping was by “rebelling, revolting against everything, with a bit of charming humour thrown into the mix.” Again, this would become a defining trait, running through his uberous canon, adding to it a touch of impertinence and wisecracking which is distinctly his own.

Bukowski started out with poetry, short fiction, essays and reviews but by the 1970s his champion and friend John Martin suggested he tackle a novel. “Bukowski took immediate action,” writes Calonne, “he sat before his typewriter each evening precisely at the time he used to begin work at the Post Office: 6:18”. A mere 19 days later he had finished a book, which was published on 8th February 1971. Post Office has been translated into over 15 languages and remains one of Bukowski’s most popular works. This is partly because it has wide-ranging themes, depicting everyday working class life in a distinctively “scatological, sexual and colloquial style,” which Bukowski fashioned after one of his literary heroes, Louis-Ferdinand Céline. It is also a work that clearly sprung from the vantage point of experience. “The book telescopes various periods of Bukowski’s life,” Calonne explains, “returning to the early 1950s, when he worked as a mail carrier; snarling dogs, sexual encounters with lonely women; the struggle to memorise postal codes.” It is not entirely clear, the biographer suggests, whether Martin approached Bukowski to write full time or vice versa but the leap toward a literary career came just at the right time as Bukowski’s absenteeism from work and association with underground newspapers had not gone unnoticed by his employers at the Post Office. In many respects, Bukowski’s writing was more auspicious or at least more constant than his personal life. Here too, Calonne has every angle covered, chronicling his subject’s romantic inconcinnities with objective sympathy.

Calonne’s book is meticulously researched and assembled from select excerpts of Bukowski’s saporous letters, poems, novels and other elements of autobiography he left behind. The biographer has extensive knowledge of his subject and beyond, which he uses to construct multiple interpretative frameworks to present Bukowski’s work, his dualistic German/American identity and his place in today’s literary landscape. Unrefined, voluble and ventripotent, with  “beer-maddened” breath, coarse canescent hair, speck-brown eyes and a face like a cribriform plate, due to severe adolescent acne, Bukowski was never a typical man of letters. But by his fortieth year, says Calonne, he “had found his genius and marked out his literary territory,” and thus “the terror of existence” became him subject Literature for Bukowski was always directly related to “his own experience of living” and in a way it led to his innovative and idiosyncratic style. “It is a miswriting of literary history, for example,” says Calonne, “that the ‘Confessional poets’ –  Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, Anne Sexton – are given sole credit for the invention of a new mode of self-revelation, which dealt with the most intimate, hidden and painful aspect of the psyche, when actually Bukowski was doing this form the outset.” Calonne is clearly passionate about his subject and it shows as the book comes wonderfully together to illustrate a man’s life through the biographer’s lens of skill, humour and insight.

Publisher: Reaktion Books 
Publication Date: August 2012
Paperback: 224 pages, 30 illustrations
ISBN: 9781780230238

Steve Finbow: Resolutely straight-shooting

Writing in Some Thoughts Concerning Education John Locke observed that the “little or almost insensible impressions on our tender infancies have important and lasting consequences”.  This axiom not only defined but also shaped Allen Ginsberg’s life; a life Steve Finbow examines in his astute new biography. “Madness, poetry, politics and a longing for love – important elements of Allan’s childhood,” writes Finbow, “obsessed him throughout his life and became the subject matter of his greatest poems, Howl and Kadish.”  The long line poems “challenging societal status quo” made the poet’s “private world public” which to Ginsberg meant the very pinnacle of creative achievement. But even for someone like him, someone who appeared so saliently a poet, it took several decades to find the courage to unveil his true voice. The biographer, in writing about these formative years, cites a number of Ginsberg’s early works to illustrate his restraint and reticence. Juxtaposed against his later poems they seem disparate, timorous and coy much like Ginsberg himself at the time. Finbow suggests that Ginsberg’s “ sexual passivity and masochism, his guilt about his mother’s lobotomy and his continuing incestuous fantasies and dreams about his father and his brother caused Allen to theorize that his homosexuality was a sign of insanity.” To counteract this anxiety Ginsberg sought therapy, attempted to become heterosexual and tried to abandon his fledgling literary ambitions, but his efforts to conform only made life more difficult.

As any good biographer, Finbow demystifies rather than promulgates romantic notions about his subject. In fact, he is resolutely straight-shooting about Ginsberg’s neuroses, his guilt over his mad mother, his suicidal tendencies, his petty jealousies and sexual perversities, mentions of which perforate the slender volume throughout, individually as well as in conjunction with Ginsberg’s literary contemporaries. Finbow describes the “jazz loving, poetry quoting” Beatniks as an insular clique riddled with professional backbiting, “soap opera” sexual dynamics and incestuous relationships. Albeit many of the Beats were heterosexual, most dabbled in homosexuality which goes some way to explain how Ginsberg frequently found himself in love with straight men. The worst of these disastrous affairs was with Neal Cassidy, a lubricious sadist and a liar who frequently drove Ginsberg to the brink of suicide. Although, Ginsberg’s suicidal tendencies were in full swing long before Cassidy came on the scene. “For Allen,” writes Finbow, “Nietzsche’s maxim ‘The thought of suicide is a powerful comfort,’ held true, and more so that ‘it helps one through many a dreadful night.” It was, in fact, a lifelong coping mechanism which aided Ginsberg thought chronic loneliness, reoccurring breakdowns, numerous bereavements and fruitless quests for love. All of these themes were later celebrated in Ginsberg’s poetry, combining autobiography, fantasy, psychosexuality and imagination – a complete bouleversement of poetic tradition.

Between spells of travelling, unrequited love, a nascent domestic life with Peter Orlovsky and his role as a makeshift agent for Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, Ginsberg hardly found time to write. But he was also short of inspiration, waiting for some divine afflatus, some booming muse, which eventually came in the form of his breakthrough, Howl.  Ginsberg performed it for the first time at the Six Gallery, on 7th October 1955, which “became a defining moment in Beat history” and “changed the public’s idea of poets and poetry, ignited discussion in universities, bars and newspapers”. Soon after, the work was published in Howl and Other Poems, then famously banned and has subsequently generated more analysis, speculation, outrage and conjecture than any other work of the twentieth century. In reaching this status, and the imprimatur of his peers, it partly achieved Ginsberg’s dream of being “known as the most brilliant man in America”. I say partly because despite finally finding his voice Ginsberg was largely unhappy. Finbow suggest that this perpetual darkness which hung over him may have been a result of manic depression. “Could Allen’s restlessness have been a sign of bipolar disorder?” the biographer asks, “the irritability and euphoria, the self-loathing and inflated self-esteem, the suicidal tendencies and the sexual energy all point to a positive diagnosis.” Whatever his condition, it was made worse by Ginsberg’s extensive experimentation with drugs, altered states of consciousness, compulsive travelling and recreant friends.

Finbow draws on secondary sources as well as first-hand knowledge of Ginsberg to evaluate the poet’s place in American letters. The biographer follows Ginsberg from childhood to college, from Mexico and India back to America, where he thrived and flourished as a poet and as an activist. In 1968, Ginsberg’s fame reached its pinnacle, that same year Cassidy died, Kerouac soon followed, marking the end of an era for the Beats. During this particular time Ginsberg embraced Buddhism, hoping to achieve some cosmic equilibrium but with “Cassidy and Kerouac dead, Orlovsky sliding into mania, Allen was alone, only the illusion of his fame for company”.  Ginsberg’s celebrity meant groupies, experience of which, prompted him to write lines such as: “ – met you in the street you carried my package/Put your hands down to my legs/Touch if it’s there, the prick shaft delicate/Hot in your rounded palm, soft thumb on cockhead”. He no longer had to resort to subterfuge or euphemism, boldly speaking his mind in print, galling the thin-skinned establishment he was eventually to woo.  Following in Walt Whitman’s tradition, Ginsberg fashioned himself into to a unique counterculture figure, a poet laureate of the disenfranchised. But this role was ultimately subsumed by the poet’s ego and his desire for fame. “His notoriety as a counterculture icon,” Finbow writes, “meant media exposure and his poetry reached a large audience. The American literary establishment recognised this influence and the mutual absorption began.”

Commenting on this phenomenon another critic, Charles Bronstein, said that Ginsberg’s success depended largely on “the authenticity of his way of life as much as his positions, a mode of authenticity that he takes, above all, from Whitman.” An authenticity that by the 1980s had become somewhat questionable, both in terms of his work and his personal life. After 25 turbulent years together with Orlovsky, writes Finbow, Allen maintained the pretence that they were a couple  in reality the relationship was “fake, poisonous and detrimental to the mental health (and happiness) of both men.” Finbow notes that for all his faults, Ginsberg was aware of his fraud and yet vanity and fame overshadowed this awareness. His poetry deteriorated as his public appearances increased. The last two chapters of the book read like a travel itinerary with Ginsberg darting all over the globe, giving talks and lectures and making television appearances. The biographer candidly but considerately documents how Ginsberg’s popularity and success facilitated his “slow fade into the system,” which was capped with the poet penning a letter to Bill Clinton “informing the president of his terminal cancer and asking for a medal or an award for services to poetry”. A big ask from someone who set out to champion the disenfranchised. Finbow’s uncompromisingly lucid and thoughtful book evinces great insight into this important cultural figure, whose private life still remains more interesting than his work.

Publisher: Reaktion Books
Publication Date: August 2012
Paperback: 239 pages, 30 illustrations
ISBN: 978178023017 7

Frederick Turner: Guaranteed to captivate Miller enthusiasts

Renegade: Henry Miller and the Making of Tropic of Cancer by Frederick Turner is engaging, erudite, fluent and succinct yet full of novel biographical paraphernalia, which is guaranteed to captivate most Miller enthusiasts. The pulchritudinous little hardback, published by Yale University Press, chronicles how Miller’s first published novel “has risen from smuggled dirty book to American classic”. Turner employs Yankee folklore to explain Miller’s savage abandon and fascination with an anarchically subversive way of life steeped in “murky fringe land between a strict fidelity to the law and actual illegality”. It’s a daring interpretative mode, psychoanalytical speculation always is, but it works. Turner pinpoints certain undeniable similarities between Miller and his folklore primogenitors,  the infamous Mississippi brawlers, gamblers, crooks and filibusterers, who like Miller lived on their wits, shape-shifting, altering occupations, addresses and personae as circumstances dictated. Following in the same line of thought, Turner positions Miller alongside Mark Twain and Walt Whitman –  both once considered on the literary sidelines for their scabrous argots and iconoclast subjects –  to show how Miller inherited a tradition of prose “in the outsized, colourful monologue mode” of the colloquial, and subsequently nurtured it into his very own brand of “rude hieroglyphics”.

Miller had been jawing about becoming a writer long beforeTropic of Cancer, but for all his boorish braggadocio he had perilously little to show for it; or indeed his 30-odd years, except a divorce, a second falling marriage, chronic penury, a handful of literary rejection slips and a profound hatred of America, the unremitting “slaughterhouse” and “monstrous death machine,” as he called it. It is not clear when Miller’s fascination with Europe began, but Turner suggests it may have been inspired by his old school friend Emil Schnellock, with whom Miller corresponded extensively throughout his time in Paris and beyond.  Miller left for the French capital in February 1930, cajoled by his second wife June Mansfield Smith. He shipped out with a borrowed ten dollar note, two valises and a trunk. Turner explains: “In these he had some suits made by his tailor father; the drafts of two failed novels, and a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. But within him, buried within the accumulated detritus of a random and crudely assembled self-education, Miller was carrying a great deal more than these meagre effects.” Indeed.  He was in fact carrying a myriad of fantasises, which fuelled by his imminent experiences would eventually materialize into a book that now “belongs on a select shelf of works that best tell us who we are, for better or worse”.

While this may only be marginally true for humanity as a whole, it is certainly true for Miller. Tropic of Cancer tells us everything we need to know about its writer, “the gangster author,” who penned a literary deviant, which reads like a variegated autobiography of inescapable Americanism and an aspiration to European sensibility, a libidinous and comical picaresque of a sexual adventurer and a lovable knave, a daring exposition of an ironic moralist, a manual to the lifestyle of the bohemian deadbeat and a triumph of crude and creative splendour. Turner’s sympathetic and skilful evocation of Miller’s time in the US and in Paris,  spent mostly in depravation with a retinue of factotums, the work that followed and how it ought to fit into the American canon offers some interesting insights; but it never unequivocally states the fact that for all his raging and retreating from the establishment Miller actually yearned to be integrated into the high-end literary tradition. For as Turner himself notes, while talking about his subject’s impoverished background, Miller was “cut from different cloth…so Miller the failed Ivy Leaguer, the college dropout… refused to submit to his cultural and personal fate,” by means of a literary self-erudition, a fanatical interest in EVERYTHING (hamburger sandwiches, collar buttons, poodle dogs, slot machines, grey bowlers, typewriter ribbons, oranges sticks, free toilets, sanitary napkins, mint jujubes, billiard balls, chopped onions, crinkled doilies, manholes, chewing gum etc)  and a desperate desire for self-actualisation. In fact, he became a sort of microcosmic noosphere, bursting with ubiquitous knowledge on the page as well as in person.

But neither the writing nor the inspiration came easily, not until Miller met June – at the time the only person who “believed in his star”. Following the chance meeting in the summer of 1923, Miller – then a husband, a father and a man with a responsible job at the Western Union – quit his career, divorced his wife, married June and embarked on a quest to become a writer. With very little success. Turner records Miller’s life with June – the woman who led to his emotional labefaction – with great attention to detail, concluding that “for Miller, June in one way and another inspired his three finest works, the Tropics and Black Spring”. Though often disputed, this is certainly true, for long-after the two separated June remained a permanent fixture throughout Miller’s life, indelibly looming over the man and his work. But there was another force behind Miller’s drive.  Upon his arrival to Pairs, Miller had “apparently lost everything, nationality, job, wife, even his language” thus to stave off loneliness he hit the streets with a notebook and a pen “walking great distances and making notes on virtually anything he happened to see, from the life of the cafes to the carcasses of the newly slaughtered horseS hanging from the market stall hooks”. And  almost everything he did see made it into the book. It is precisely this, his observational deft and pyrotechnical delivery – albeit occasionally blemished by overindulgence in periphrasis and even unabashed flummery -that makes Tropic of Cancer remarkable, brilliant.

Renegade: Henry Miller and the Making of Tropic of Cancer is a considered and intriguing book, which aims to show how Miller’s “heroic confrontation” of his own failures eventually made him into a success. Turner treats his subject objectively but with great enthusiasm and at times with much-needed caution, knowing all too well that Miller was prone to casuistry and embellishment. The discerning biographer does well to outline most of Miller’s influences, friendships, struggles and aspirations, the main one of which was to write a  magnum opus for his wife (June), which earned him great admiration among certain circles and a “shadowy reputation as a writer of truly dirty books” among others. Turner remains the voice of reason throughout the narrative, only occasionally showing disdain for Miller’s callousness and dubious morality, when for example Miller refers to his aborted baby as the “seven month toothache” or neglects his duties as a husband and father. On the whole, Turned does well to pieces all the elements together to show how Tropic of Cancer materialised, even if he doesn’t place the book or its legacy into a greater political and socio-economic context. (Some reviewers have griped.)  Still, there is something he says which is on the money, namely that “writing with an increasingly naked candour about his life” Miller was bridging the gap between “autobiography and literature,”  and since many a great writer has followed the path that Miller bravely blazed.

Andy Merrifield: Engaging and insightful about finely textured humanism

Andy Merrifield’s study of John Berger offers an engaging and astute overview of the “white-haired novelist, playwright, film scriptwriter-poet” and “art critic-essayist”. And like Berger’s lengthy appellation Merrifield’s book contains an array of insights about the man, the artist, the “concerned citizen” and the “uneasy rider” aboard his Honda Blackbird. The motorbike, writes Merrifield, stood outside Berger’s Quincy farmhouse, isn’t just “a machine to confront walls; it is the ticket to ride towards a modern destination, a metaphor of modern politics, even of modern life”. Berger himself explains his passion for the open road in more fecund terms, saying aboard a motorbike “there’s nothing between you and the rest of the world. The air and the wind press directly on you. You are in the space through which you are travelling,” an experience which “bestows a sense of freedom”. Freedom, especially of the creative variety, is important to Berger, which is one of the reasons he felt inclined to leave England. “I didn’t really feel at home there,” he once explained, “So often I had the feeling when I was with people, when I spoke, that I embarrassed them. I think because they considered me indecently intense.”  Merrifield notes that it was also Berger’s empathy for the European intellectual and the European way of thinking that intensified his desire to leave and thereby be “unashamedly intellectual…unashamedly intense.”

Born in 1926 in Hackney, London, Berger moved to Geneva in 1962. He moved again in 1975 to Haute-Savoie and the sleepy village of Quincy, where he still resides. To escape, Merrifield suggests, “the society of the spectacle” and to enjoy the simple life among Europe’s peasants and migrant workers. The move from Geneva to Quincy signifies an important change in Berger’s personal and professional life. He left behind his old influences (Georg Lukács, Robert Musil), his own history of the novel and his partner at the time Anya Bostock. Thus the move gave rise to “a new chapter, to a different mode of expression, and ultimately to a new woman,” by the name of Beverly Bancroft. In Quincy, the couple, living among the locals would “share peasant habitat and habits, share with them the same duties of fatherhood and motherhood, and comparable standards of comfort (and discomfort); they would participate in village life, in village ceremonies, in births and marriages, in sickness and death.” Berger would also go on to write about these experiences and observations in order to inscribe this particular way of life in history, and in doing so would adopt new influences, including Karl Marx and Walter Benjamin, subsequently replacing his modernist voice (established in the likes of G.) for the artisanal craft of storytelling.

Merrifield explains that from about the same time animals began to figure heavily in Berger’s oeuvre, just as they did in his everyday rural life. Inspired by his quotidian tasks, and Marx’s theory about humans and animals as species-beings who resemble each other, Berger made Parting Shots from Animals, which Merrifield says is a documentary that would never get made today. It is “too sombre in mood, too ironical in tone, too ambiguous in meaning” the biographer explains. I expect he’s right. The idea that alienation between humans within the act of working is deeply bound up with the alienation of humans from animals, symbolising the loss of meaningful connection to nature and a double estrangement in which both lose something of themselves, is complicated at best. To explain, Merrifield  draws together a number of  interpretative frameworks making the book a little bit too theory-laden for a lay reader. The conscientious biographer does, however, surmise his subject rather accurately as a “finely textured humanist” with “a Blakeian impulse for mystical transcendence” and a love for animal and mineral Marxism. He also documents the complex trajectory of Berger’s professional life with great skill, showing how the modernist novelist, who had given the English novel an art-house Continental twist, has evolved into a craftsman storyteller. In tandem with Berger’s own philosophy, Merrifield conjoins different aspects of Berger, demystifying ostensible disparities and deriving new meaning from his art, his life and his politics.

Early on in the book, the biographer asserts that “in dealing with Berger’s art, in analysis and criticising it, in admiring and edging nearer and nearer to it, we will somehow discover, unveil, the man himself, and his times, our times”. Berger seems indeed omnipresent, installed in our cultural consciousness, perhaps due to the longevity of his career but more likely due to his intensity, lingering and engrossing. “People who read Berger, who love him and his words, are often searching for the like themselves,” Merrifield says “searching for a deeper, richer meaning to the world, to their world. That’s why his stripped-down prose, his increasingly mystical words, carefully chosen earthly (and earthy) words, always strike a chord, always grab you by the collar, force you to join in”. And join in we do whether to look at art or to explore the various facets of Marxism. Berger’s appeal is fortified by his engaging personality, by his uncompromising candour and intellectual rigor. His large and varied body of work offers the biographer an instant chronology of the writer’s ever-changing style and ideas, ordered neatly in Merrifield’s book.

All the key aspects of Berger’s life, which have dominated his long career, are explored here to provide a comprehensive overview of this fascinating cultural figure. Merrifield does well to contextualise Berger’s personal concerns, social insights, varied fiction, aesthetic theory and political commentary, in this concise but meticulously thought-out edition. At 86, Berger remains an unapologetically committed writer, critic and activist still campaigning about social injustices such as the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. He once said that he developed an aversion to power early on and that the feeling never left him.  It is therefore perhaps his “gut solidarity with those without power, with the underprivileged,” that makes him so humane and so likable. Or maybe it is his indecent intensity. Either way, Berger seems to have that rare quality that Søren Kierkegaard wrote about because he always manages to “catch the reader, not in the net of passion, nor by the artfulness of eloquence, but by the eternal truth of conviction”.

Publisher: Reaktion Books
Publication Date: April 2012
Paperback: 224 pages
ISBN: 978186189 9040

Peter Ackroyd: The temperate biographer

The Victorians were a peculiar lot and no one more so than Wilkie Collins. His globular head was too large for his frame, his legs a little too short, he liked to ride the omnibus, chronically complained of nervous maladies, always wore a “florid fur coat,” and a “rakishly tied Belcher scarf,” bickered with waiters over pourboires and disparaged what he called “the claptrap morality of the 19th century”. The latter is, perhaps, what distinguishes him most from his contemporaries as Peter Ackroyd points out in his biography of this most “sweetest tempered of all the Victorian novelists”. A progenitor of the “popular novel” Collins left a large and varied fictional output, upon which Ackroyd draws in order to show how the writer’s life is inexorably intertwined with his work. This line of narrative is both potentially lucrative and illuminating yet in this case derogated by the biographer’s deadpan reportage style. Collins’ most intimate relationships, apart from that with Charles Dickens, are largely unexplored and given little sustained appraisal. Certainly, his family and women make an appearance, but Dickens is almost always at the fore of the page whether he is lamenting Collins’ choice of mistress, his slatternly comportment or offering grudging praise.

For a while Collins was Dickens’ preferred companion, with the two men often socialising, holidaying and collaborating together. But by the end of Dickens’ life, Collins was so disenchanted with his former mentor he politely declined to attend his funeral. The cause of the fissures in their relationship is unknown or at least undocumented here. Yet once bound together by success, a mutually assiduous work ethic and a somewhat questionable reputation, the two men eventually parted ways. Ackroyd deliberates on this fact by stipulating that Collins may have taken offense to Dickens’ professional haughtiness, but one cannot be sure. What is well documented, however, is that Dickens once speaking of his friend in a literary capacity said: “Collins was a master of plot rather than of character.” Ackroyd elaborates further suggesting Collins was “an adult in craft and an adolescent in sentiment”.  But if so a rather rebellious one, who wrote about the breaking down of class barriers, the inequality of marriage laws and women who defied 19th century stereotypes. Collins was intent upon “exploring the female sensibility in ways foreign to other Victorian novelists, and he created heroines quite unlike those of his male contemporaries”. Something else he was largely unsurpassed in were his plots, the “perfectly calibrated mechanisms,” which both fascinated and beleaguered readers as they periodically agonized to find out what happens next.

Ackroyd’s work, unlike that of his subject, lacks precisely this quality. And, for all the book’s outward elegance and promise, its success is stymied by the narrative’s perfunctory haste and the dearth of dramatic action and climax. This is made particularly conspicuous because Collins’ highly-wrought personal life contained incident and intrigue in abundance. As an expert of clandestine relationships and cloaked identities in his work, he covered his own tracks with equal skill. Collins had two illegitimate lifelong affairs, with women he refused to marry, once describing the institution as a “ridiculous dilemma”. His maverick views made their way into every one of his books, which contain cogent and sustained repudiations of the status quo. And this is where Ackroyd thrives, in his devotion to show parallels between Collins’ life and his work as he points out that Basil, for example, “alludes to an unhappy love affair” based on Collins’ own reminiscences; The Woman in White is set in Hampstead Green where the young writer and his family lived in 1826; and Hide and Seek depicts the cheap delights of a town “suffused with glitter and gas…the chop-houses, the gin shops, the cookshops, the burlesque shows” which Collins knew quite intimately. Ackroyd excels at joining up the dots to show a comprehensive picture of how Collins’ life enriched his work, but fails to make it as extraordinary or as interesting as it really was.

Speaking of himself Collins once said that he was “averse to respectability in all its forms”. This was at great variance with the character of his father, the minor painter William Collins, who was said to be “the epitome of respectability and propriety”. His liberated attitude then had to have come from his mother, Harriet Geddes, who was a “woman of remarkable mental culture”. The writer did, however, like his father, “possess a painter’s eye” which, as Ackroyd points out, he later used in writing books that came to “resemble a series of pictures rather than a sequence of scenes” demonstrating great “sympathy between character and landscape”. Not only that, Collins had a knack for elaborate and ingenious story lines, which kept the public “reading, reading, reading”. In doing so, he established a new precedent, which saw the first edition of The Woman in White sell-out on publication day, quickly prompting merchandise lines and nation-wide fan clubs. It is now rather strange to think that the “novelist who invented sensation” was originally “consigned to a career in commerce,” stranger yet, that this once much loved and much admired writer is now seldom remembered.

There was a time when Collins was said to have had “the brightest future” of all his contemporaries, and yet today his legacy occupies a marginal place in English letters. Ackroyd’s biography doesn’t attempt to explain why that is, or why this fine writer, whose work was once  a “spring of the English detective mystery,” has been largely reduced to a second-rate scribe. Ackroyd does, however, suggests to the contrary saying Collins is “still a living presence in English literature,” which is debatable at best, even if his works remain “powerful and ingenious, striking and persuasive”.  William Wilkie Collins was born on 8th January 1834 in Marlybone, London. Soon after, the family moved to Hampstead Green and was enlarged by the arrival of Wilkie’s younger brother, Charles Allston Collins. By his own account, Collins’ childhood was unexceptional if  happy. Collins took to travelling around Europe from an early age, where he received much of his informal education through experiences “quite different from that of middle-class England”. Stimulated and transformed by these experiences he transferred them onto paper and “delighted in violating Victorian convention”. Sadly, one would never guess from the temperate biographical account on offer.

Ernest Hemingway: The self-righteous, no good and bastardly monarch of American literature

Ernest Hemingway was a sovereign of stalwart, muscular fiction whose “gentleness and understanding and probity was never far away from his most appalling behaviour”. And Hemingway could certainly be appalling, so much so that most of his life reads like a cautionary tale. Except every word in Paul Hendrickson’s new biography, Hemingway’s Boat, is based on archived documents from the JFK Presidential Library, the testimony of Hemingway’s family and friends, his corpus of work and studious ratiocination on behalf of the biographer. And yet there are gaps in Hemingway’s apocryphal legacy, which Hendrickson fills with caution on the side of temerity. There have been many books about Hemingway throughout the years, which helped compound the myth of his success as a turn of luck. Hendrickson dispels this popular notion early on by saying there’s no truth in the fact that Hemingway “sprung full-blown into the American consciousness as a serious writer” overnight. “What is true,” writes Hendrickson, “is that, for nearly his whole life, Hemingway had a genius, among his many geniuses, for gathering knowledge inside of him with astonishing… The statement can apply as much to the intricacies of big-game fishing as to the art of shaking daiquiris as to the craft of writing fiction: he simply found out, and lodged it inside him very fast. In so many instances, he seemed to mutate from eager novice to acknowledged expert with barely any larval stage in between.” This was also true of Hemingway when it came to sailing and angling, a penchant for which he developed as early as a “five-year-old-nightcrawler-fisherman” in Horton Bay, Michigan, and later resurrected with the purchase of Pilar, the boat which became a permanent fixture in the turbulent seas of his life.

Hemingway was notoriously mercurial. He reviled his “chickenshit critics,” whom he execrated with vituperative epistles and his “turncoat” friends (Max Eastman, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edmund Wilson, Charles Scribner) for failing to bend to his will. Eventually, he earned himself a reputation as an antagonistic cockalorum, whose talent had gone to “malice and nonsense and self-praise” as the bite of fame chomped down on his ego. In a poem about his former friend Archibald MacLeish seconded this notion, saying: “What became of him? Fame became of him.” Few could keep up with Hemingway; fewer still could endure his boorishness or withstand his competitive sportsmanship, which cost him handsomely both in friendships and in reputation particularly after the publication of The Green Hills of Africa, which was universally panned. The critics were merciless. One of them, John Chamberlain, who was writing for the New York Times at the time, said the book was “divided between big game lore and salon controversy”.  Chamberlain went on: “Mr Hemingway has so simplified his method that all his characters talk the lingo perfected in The Sun Also Rises, whether these characters are British, Austrian, Arabian, Ethiopian or Kikuyu…Can it be that Hemingway has been writing pidgin English from the start?…to offer Green Hills of Africa as a profound philosophical experience is something else again. It is simply an overextended book about hunting, with a few incidental felicities and a number of literary wisecracks thrown in.” According to Hemingway, however, the book was misunderstood by reviewers, who failed to see his calling as a man of nature, an explorer in the throes of a daring adventure.

Hendrickson aims to succeed where Hemingway failed by depicting his subject first and foremost as an adventurer “catching 420 blue marlins” and sailing to foreign lands rather than a “monarch of American literature” famed for his “imagistic economical stroke”. And to a certain extent the biographer prospers, as reading the book one gets a distinct impression of Hemingway’s preternatural inclination for the outdoors. Hendrickson is also keen to outline his subject’s virtues saying “when it was good with Papa – the writing, the fishing, the drinking, the eating, the talking, the palling around” was in fact so good it made “few things seem better.” But his picture of Hemingway also aims to be a balanced one as he scrupulously documents Hemingway’s frequent bouts of anger, embarrassing public outbursts and pointed cruelty, especially toward his successive spouses. At one point Hendrickson posits that Hemingway “was always making things up from what he knew,” and this was no different when it came to his wives, who always made it into his books in one “unflattering way or another”. Not only that, Hendrickson suggests that Hemingway felt guilty for the break-up of his first marriage and in part could never fully devote himself to his subsequent wives. Certainly, they seemed to be secondary to his sporting life and to Pilar, for it was there that that he dreamed up new books and taught his sons “how to reel in something that feels like Moby Dick,” that he accidentally shot himself in both legs, fell drunk from the flying bridge, wrote “achy, generous, uplifting, poetic letters,” propositioned women, hunted German subs and saved guests and family members from shark attacks. Pilar was “intimately his, and he hers, for twenty-seven-years which were his final twenty-seven-years. She’d lasted through three wives, the Nobel Prize, and all his ruin.” Unfortunately, she may have also contributed to it.

Yet, as Hendrickson notes, it was mainly Hemingway that ruined himself as he continued to self-destruct and alienate people by “telling terrific lies about real people” in his work, which he believed “was somehow more truer than it had actually happened”.  Writing about Hemingway in his book, The True Gen, Denis Brian describes him as a “charming bully and artful sadist who sought to get you drunk in a bar and then take you out into the dark and sucker punch you.” Occasionally, Hemingway shared this opinion of himself once saying to a friend he was “self-righteous, no good and bastardly”. The “son of an old Oak Park doctor and a socially pretentious mother” from a “faith-heavy Midwestern family” got his tempter from his father “who had a propensity to erupt into red rage”. Hemingway’s own anger got worse with time. When his reputation was dwindling he hoped to ingratiate himself with the critics again with the publication of Across the Trees and into the River, a book he thought his best. “I have read it 206 times to try and make it better and to cut out any mistakes or injustices,” he wrote, “ and on the last reading I loved it very much and it broke my fucking heart for the 206th time”. But the press almost unanimously deemed it “embarrassing” and “held together by blind rage”.  Hemingway took out his anger on his fourth wife, Mary, periodically subjecting her to verbal abuse (“whore, bitch, liar, moron”), countless public infidelities and increasingly manic behaviour.  “At table his favourite and frequent means of protesting any word, glance, gesture or food he doesn’t like,” she wrote to his publisher, “is to put his full, freshly served plate on the floor.” By this point, Hemingway was in his early 50s and “not a well man”.  He suffered with “ringing ears, migraines, hypertension, diabetes, kidney problems, depression, and paranoia – and all these ailments, and others, were not only ageing him at what seemed a far faster rate than his chronological age, but each was prone to balloon up wildly and almost virally before subsiding again.” Years of hard living, as well as physical and cerebral exertion, left Hemingway a shell of a man he once was and he could no longer find solace in anything except Pilar, his wondrous “fishing machine” for which his love only deepened with age.

“I envy you like hell,” wrote Fitzgerald to Hemingway toward the end of his life without realising the irony of his words, for by this point the “twentieth century Byron,” as Hemingway was once described, was no longer the brilliant “voyager in literary modernism” but rather a bitter and ailing scrivener responsible for “egregiously bad” copy. Among the many snapshots of Hemingway offered by posterity, and an array of biographical paraphernalia, the most prevailing one remains that of him as a writer of perhaps fleeting but profound talent. Hendrickson’s work certainly provides another dimension to his legacy, but one which neither adds nor detracts from the place Hemingway had previously occupied. The book offers a cornucopia of information about Hemingway’s sporting passions, which defined most of his life and in a somewhat nebulous way gives a more complete picture of the writer who to a certain extent has been a casualty of his own popularity. But the last word lies with Hemingway, who after receiving the Nobel Prize in 1954 penned a letter to the Swedish Academy, saying: “Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writes, and in this sometimes he is fortunate; but eventually they are quite clear and by these and the degree of alchemy that he possesses he will endure or be forgotten.” And forgotten he will certainly never be.

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