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Review: 'Basil Street Blues: A Memoir'
BY MICHAEL HOLROYD
W.W. NORTON & CO.
(Salon) -- Michael Holroyd's massive four-volume biography of
Bernard Shaw was published between 1988 and 1992; following his
equally distinguished lives of Lytton Strachey and the painter
Augustus John, it confirmed his reputation as the consummate British
biographer, seamlessly weaving narrative from the utterances of his
subjects. His literary reputation established, it seems it's now time for a little self-indulgence. Holroyd calls "Basil Street Blues" a "vicarious autobiography." Starting with his parents and tracing his family back
into the 19th century, he tries to explain who he is by turning the
biographer's art on his own people. Despite the abundance of oddities
in the Holroyd attic, though, what should be an elegant exercise --
part memoir, part "behind the scenes with the biographer" -- fails to
transcend the glittering bits of the past that Holroyd has collected.
In the late '70s, Holroyd asked his parents -- long divorced and
repeatedly remarried -- to write accounts of their early lives. After their
deaths nearly a decade later, he "began to feel the need to fill the
space they left with a story." The writer so skilled at shaping the
messy lives of his famous subjects needed to discover the shape of
his own narrative. But there was no one left to answer his questions,
just his parents' handwritten pages along with some yellowing family
papers and the bare-bones data filed at public-record offices.
The Holroyds appear to be the kind of family
capable of keeping several biographers busy.
Michael's Scottish great-grandmother's death
certificate reports "suicide by carbolic acid." The
family fortune was founded on shares in the
Rajmai Tea Co., a legacy of his
great-grandfather's career in India. His
grandfather married the second youngest of 11
charismatic Irish sisters and pinned his
entrepreneurial hopes on Lalique art glass, for which he became the
sole London agent in the late '20s, selling fanciful, fragile trinkets in
the face of an increasingly grim world climate.
For a rather buttoned-down, Eton-and-Oxbridge sort of family, there
was also plenty of sexual subterfuge. That same grandfather, after 25
years of marriage, suddenly abandoned his family for a voluptuous
younger woman with a veiled past, setting her up in a Piccadilly flat.
Holroyd's Swedish maternal grandmother made the scene in
Stockholm, trailing bohemian artists in her wake. His own conception
precipitated his parents' secret marriage, the bride a teenage ingenue
just off the boat from Sweden. Most of this information is gleaned
from family detective work, and though there's plenty of color between
the lines of what Holroyd finds, he never quite manages to lift the
story off the dusty facts.
Once his younger self enters the narrative, the arc of the story begins
to descend; the Holroyds as Michael knew them were a family locked
in slow, sad decline. "As a child I had the double experience of my
parents' marriage that had unhappily broken up, and my
grandparents' marriage that had been unhappily kept going," he
writes, describing an increasingly impoverished home life saturated
with "extraordinary anguish and venom." But the menagerie of
relatives he lived with -- defeated grandfather, senile grandmother,
disillusioned spinster aunt -- is just a collection of unfinished outlines
here. In contrast, when Holroyd quotes from his early autobiographical
novel, "A Dog's Life," the fictional versions of his family members pop
up from the page. If only the biographer had allowed himself a little
more novelistic brio.
Biography, in fact, seems to get in the way. Holroyd professes a sort
of self-conscious angst as he mines certain family documents: "For if
I read them am I not trespassing?" It's the kind of question most
memoirists answer before they start writing -- what are we readers
supposed to do with it? Holroyd worries that he has become what
James Joyce called a "biografiend," but a true biografiend would write
first and ask questions later.
Subsequent sections of the book move away from the extended
family and settle more squarely on Holroyd himself: his Eton days, his
apprenticeship at a law firm, his misadventures in the military. During
these years "I perfected the art of being overlooked," he writes. "I
was losing my identity, fading from notice, and feeling all the better
for it." Doesn't sound like the voice of a man who would want to
present himself to the world in print, and that's a central problem with
this book. A biographer by definition injects as little as possible of
himself into the lives of his subjects; unfortunately, even when his
subject is himself, Holroyd maintains too much of this reserve. We
observe the genesis of Holroyd the writer but never actually meet
Holroyd the man.
He finally circles back to his parents, elderly and gradually running
down like clocks. Their endings are a blur of therapies and cataract
surgeries and home health aides, a depressing litany delivered with
less art or insight than other writers have brought to the same theme.
Though it's always uncomfortable to criticize a life, it's not out of line
to question why it is being offered for public consumption. "Basil
Street Blues," despite moments of thoughtfulness, never silences that