Archive for the 'Biography' Category

the siege in the room

September 25, 2006

I finally finished reading Anthony Cronin’s biography of Samuel Beckett about three books ago. I’ve not had a chance, in the meantime, to put my thoughts together into a coherent post. Partly this is because of the demands of life but also because reading and finishing this book turned out to be an emotional experience.

I’m sure you know the feeling, on finishing a book you’ve been closely involved with, of not really wanting to start anything else right away. And in many ways, this, to me, is the sign of a truly excellent book; a book so good that it precludes the desire to read again or to read another. Of course, generally, we get over this feeling in more time or less, and we pick up another book and off we go.

And indeed, this is exactly what I have done. First I picked up the seventh volume of James Blish’s adaptations of the original Star Trek series episodes. I had hoped I’d be able to get on with something quite different to a literary biography. But no. So I spent some time sitting on the study floor, gazing at the book shelves and the pile of books against the floor, trying to decide what to read next. I picked some books up, flipped through them, put them down again. My lovely wife joined me in the study, sitting, as you do beside a hospital bed when someone is ill, with me silently, supporting me in my efforts to choose the next book. After a time, she made some suggestions and offered me a cup of tea. We discussed – again – how to store all the books: airtight containers in th garage, sell them on ebay, give them to Oxfam, etc. Eventually she left me to it and went to bed.

I chose Umberto Eco’s latest – The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana – and for a time I got on well enough with it. I am now fed up with it but I’ll finish it. No more about that.

This small drama was directed, from the behind the scenes, by the character of Samuel Beckett, still so present in mind, who had been so clearly evoked by Cronin. I’ve not read many biographies, and I’ve not read much Beckett, but I think in this one I struck gold. It is a sensitive and well-written life of a great but private and, in turn, sensitive writer. The Beckett I have read includes:

  • Watt
  • Waiting for Godot
  • Endgame
  • Stirrings Still

This is not a lot, although they are some of the key works. I will read more. In fact, one of the books I held for longest on the study floor is the Beckett trilogy of novels, published in a single edition: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable. After reading the first 5 pages, I realised it was too soon to be taking on Beckett’s masterpieces, his great novels.

This biography was such a satisfying read, I think, because it offered many intermingled streams of information: facts about Beckett’s life, such as where he grew up and what he did in the periods of his life; contextual and historical information that gives a better picture of how Beckett lived, and shows how his writing fits into the larger endeavour of modernism; the saga of finding a publisher for his work, before he became famous, and what it illustrates about how he approached personal and business relationships; detailed textual analysis and likewise detailed accounts of the staging of his plays and his role in the performances; and more.

What this all adds up to is the golden biography I described earlier. As I read about him, I came to realise how my single concept of Beckett, based on what I’d read and the steely black and white photographs of him that are so striking, was of a hard, spare, fiercely intelligent man. And to some extent, this notion of the man is probably not inaccurate but what Cronin offers is another concept of Beckett: a private, painfully polite and deeply gentle man.

projecting Mercator

September 4, 2006

Have finished reading Mercator by Nicholas Crane.

I have already mentioned that Crane:

  1. Presents more history than biography. No insight is offered as to where Mercator most liked to have a drink, or how he felt about any of his siblings (or anything of that sort). I don’t fundamentally disapprove, as I enjoyed the history of mapmaking that the book presents, but I was a bit surprised as I thought this was a biography and hoped to learn more about the man himself, not just his work. It would be bleak indeed if our work is mostly what defines us.
  2. Elicits a connection between the physcial world of Mercator (and his colleagues) and their discoveries in the world of mathematics and mapmaking. At the beginning of the book you learn that triangulation was an easy concept to absorb in a flat land with straight roads where you could see before you what you were marking down on paper. Likewise, near the end of the book, Crane offers the insight that the course of Mercator’s life – the external pressures he was subjected to – equipped him to make the conceptual breakthrough of making maps that were stripped of silly decoration (big fish etc.) and instead displayed physical reality with abstract relationship overlaid. For example, maps including political boundaries, dominant religion by area, population density etc. All of the types of map we are accustomed to now were devised by a man whose life had been subject to these abstract relationships to physical reality. Mercator and his family had had to migrate across northern Europe in search of work, or religious tolerance, or to escape imprisonment, etc.

Mercator’s projection has outlived its creator and shows no signs of dying out. Apparenly a recent map of Mars used the Mercator projection. Mercator was also the man who coined the term ‘atlas’ to denote a book of maps. A few people had collected maps into a book before him, but Mercator’s was the first to include space for the overlapping of sheets and a consistent grid for aligning multiple sheets.

You can turn the pages of Mercator’s atlas on the British Library site.

Another strong theme of this book (that reinforces its coincidence with Brecht’s The Life of Galileo in my mind) is the entanglement of religion and science (and art, literature, government and so on) at this time. Mercator, in executing and publishing his projection and his atlas must support his scientific and mathematical findings with a detailed account of creation. Likewise, any newly created or redrawn political aspects of a map had to be prefaced by a description of the approach taken, justifying the map maker’s choices.

I enjoyed this book very much. It builds a convincing portrait of the man behind the maps. Crane sometimes hurls 16th century names at one with a reckless disregard for a potential lack of interest in these passing figures. Also, he strikes a somewhat hagiographic note more than once, leading one to question his objectivity: when I read the brief introduction to Mercator’s atlas on the British Library site, I had to chuckle as Crane had made it sound like a divinely inspired work of purest passion, and the Library notes dryly record that it was a commissioned work. But despite these small weaknesses, this is a very readable book that explains some key mathematical and historical concepts with ease and an engaging style.

beautiful brechts

August 22, 2006

On Friday night last, MLW and I went to see a play at the National Theatre called The Life of Galileo. Written by Bertolt Brecht, about Galileo Galilei, directed by David Hare, and starring Simon Russell Beale (last seen by us in the revival of Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers).

The play has three acts, beginning with Galileo‘s ‘invention’ of the telescope and his discovery that Jupiter’s moons orbit it and are not merely suspended in the heavens. This leads him into conflict with the Catholic church authorities and eventually he is subjected to inquisition. In act three, Galileo recants his findings.

The play was excellent in a number of ways. The acting was clear and engaging, and Beale was a very meaty Galileo. Brecht’s Galileo is a man of the flesh, who thinks best on a full stomach, and Beale has the right profile for this part. But Galileo is also a genius and a revolutionary: passionate, intelligent, and quick to anger.

In my ignorance, I’d expected Brecht to be a sort of German Ibsen, producing similarly grey theatrical goo. But, Brecht is beautiful! Humourous, accessible and entertaining. There was even a song at the beginning of act two.

<Wordpress will not insert a line break here, so I must resort to putting in some text expressing my frustration.>

Full marks go to the director and designer and stage crew (and whoever else was involved), as the stage craft was of the highest order. There was a circular, revolving stage that enabled them to easily switch between indoor and outdoor scenes. Likewise, rooms could be configured differently by arranging four pieces of wall on wheels. What I liked most is that the stage craft was used to enhance what the actors were saying and doing. For example, when Galileo looks through his telescope and watches Jupiter, and enormous image of the stormy planet was projected on the back wall of the theatre, helping us to imagine the impact for Galileo of seeing the planet closer up than ever before. Likewise, when Galileo is first under attack from the church, he sits against a wall (arranged across the diameter of the stage), and a young monk arrives to confront him. The monk begins to argue that it is evil, in affirming Copernicus’s heliocentric cosmology, to disrupt the assumptions of the common man who only understands what the church tells him. Galileo counters that the common man is comforted when what he is told is the truth corresponds to what he can prove for himself, in this case by looking through a telescope. They argue, and as they do, Galileo doesn’t move but the young monk advances along the wall with each shift in his argument, physically moving closer to G. as he comes to understand his thinking. As if G. is the sun, and the monk a body in his orbit. There are more examples of this sort of intelligent direction, and I would recommend you see the play just for this aspect of its success. But the acting and story are great too.

Coincidentally, G. is pitching up in my train book, Mercator: The Man Who Mapped the Planet, by Nicholas Crane. This book is a bit of a hybrid: part history of the development of cartography and part biography of the man, Gerard Mercator. There’s been more history than biography by page 84, which is not what I expected, but I’m enjoying it nonetheless. Things are hotting up in Holland, cartographically speaking, because a bloke called Gemma has solved the longitude problem (i.e. take a clock with you) but people have not really noticed that yet, and he’s invented triangulation. Turns out that Holland was the ideal place to invent traingulation because the flat land enabled the genius cartographer to more easily relate what he was seeing to how he was representing it on paper. Also, triangulation requires a reliable baseline, and the roads in Holland were dead straight because when you set out from your home town you could already see your destination.

Seeing maps as a tracing of reality was one of the perceptive warps that would help Gemma’s generation of earth-modellers to break free from the imaginary worlds of the Middle Ages. (p64)

Crane explains how university students were made to learn the imaginings of the ancients by rote, and to question them was to break the law of the university and the church. In The Life of Galileo there is a brilliant scene where G. challenges his fellow scientists to look through his telescope but they won’t, and instead they ramble about Ptolemy’s mathematics and Aristotle’s imaginings of celestial spheres and crystal orbs. The markings on the stage – circles within circles and multi-coloured dots – I took to be clever decoration, echoing the themes of the play, like the projection of planets on wall. They have drawn a celestial map on the floor of Galileo’s world, I thought. During the first interval, MLW explained that these are stage markings so that the scene changers know where to put things for the next scene!

more beckett

July 16, 2006

I continue to chip away at Anthony Cronin’s excellent biography of Samuel Beckett. I am 236 pages in, and Sam has completed the manuscript of Murphy and it has begun what Cronin describes as its long journey of rejection.

I decided on this Beckett biography, rather than another released at a similar time, based on this review of both in the NYRB by John Banville, which is sadly not freely available on the NYRB site anymore (here is the full text provided by another site).

On completing university, Beckett was encouraged to pursue a career in academia, and a first step towards this was to take up an exchange lectureship in Paris for a year.

In Paris Beckett met James Joyce and the two men developed a friendship, much in the model of master and apprentice.

When Beckett and Joyce were alone together, however, mutual silences were often one of their principal methods of communication – silences, as Beckett put it, ‘directed towards each other’. Joyce usually sat in the attitude familiar from photographs, legs crossed, the toe of the crossed-over foot pointing downwards in its tight, patent leather shoe, or twined round (sic) the calf of the other leg. Beckett adopted a similar posture, the faithfulness and humility of the imitation being emphasised by the fact that he has also begun to wear similar footwear, even though such natty shoes did not suit his feet and he suffered accordingly. (p100)

Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, formed a romantic attachment to Beckett that would become most awkward in the years when her eventual madness was developing but she was not yet institutionalised. Lucia is a sad character and I intend to read more about her in due course; she seems to have been a figure with the same sort of genius as her father but with a madness as well.

Cronin handles the similarities and differences of these two Irish literary masters very well in exploring their early relationship. One of the things he points to is the fate they both suffered, of their writings being taken more seriously than they had perhaps intended:

[Beckett] also remembered the master saying he thought that Ulysses was perhaps ‘over constructed’. But Joyce was also puzzled that even sympathetic critics had missed the humour of the book. ‘Why does nobody ever say how funny it is?’ he asked. (p101)

Cronin is sensitive to the emotional tax involved in moving between home and another place, and on the person who experiences a kind of happiness away from home that cannot be had at home. In Beckett’s case, his home is Ireland, but as I read I find myself relating some passages back to the experience of leaving home in South Africa. Leaving also involves returning:

In the Irish lexicon there ought to be a word for the despair of returning, particularly in youth (returning later on can be a different experience). And if it were a compound word it should include an indication of the particular despair of a forced return for economic reasons, with perhaps a longer word again for the even more acute malaise of a return because of economic and familial reasons. As the years go by and Ireland becomes a more liberal and pleasant place, both in itself and by comparison with the rest of the world, people perhaps feel this less; but between the 1920s and 1950s a return to the old, obsessive, dull, puritanical, provincial Ireland often created a special sickness in the returning heart. (p124)

Now I’m *not* suggesting a direct analogy with the experience of some South Africans of my generation. What I am suggesting is that the feelings of departure and return could be likewise entered into a South African lexicon. Word 1: that one leaves to seek that proverbial broader horizon, each with your own private-public motivation. Word 2: and that one stays away for reasons known best to each person. Word 3: that returning, for however long, has its complications and compromises. Longer word 2 and 3: loving people and things about both places but needing to choose one. Word 4: that this cycle plays itself out again and again because it’s hard to know what’s best.
Like many many young South Africans today, Beckett came to London and lived for a while in a bedsit. Cronin’s description of Beckett’s bedsit living highlights the personality that is developing in Sam by p207 of the biography; a man who holds himself apart, watches and is silent, enjoys isolation but needs human interaction; a man who has talent and the desire to be a writer but has not found his subject or his voice yet; is breaking out of an undisciplined self.

Number 34 Gertrude Street was owned by a Mr and Mrs Frost, who, like many proprietors of boarding houses or houses with rooms to let, were retired servants, he having been a chauffeur and she a ladies’ maid. Mrs Frost was called Queeney and she came from Ireland, from Athlone. He thought she was like a mother on whom you could draw as a barman pulled beer – you pulled on the lever and tea, Sanatogen, hot water and various other manifestations of mothering came out. She was not at all dismayed when he presented her with some Lapsang Souchong, saying he preferred it to the Liptons tea she normally made.

He also like Mr Frost and Fred Frost junior, a dental mechanic who had a great deal of mechanical aptitude and fixed him up a reading lamp. He ate most of his meals in the kitchen, which he found preferable to cooking on a gas ring in his room, and while he found the Frost’s company reassuring, they soon grew used to his silences. At night he could hear Mr Frost snoring next door. Upstairs were a young couple, he a waiter in the Cadogan Hotel and she a maid in an aristocratic house in Hans Crescent. They made nocturnal noises too, occasionally waking up for a bit of quick love-making. He did not object to these evidences of human presence, finding them indeed, like the time he spent in the kitchen, a defence against panic… His own room was large, with linoleum a but like a Braque seen from far away and plenty of room to pace up and down while he was writing. To add to the human and circumstantial advantages of 34 Gertrude Street there was a piano in the front drawing room. Some notes on this were silent, but he liked to play it all the same. (p207-8).

One final South African connection (more factual than imagined this time), that I’d not known about, is that in 1937 Beckett applied for an Italian lectureship in Cape Town. He didn’t get, or, seemingly, want, the post, applying only because of pressure from his mother and brother to get a job. What an intriguing idea though – Samuel Beckett meets Athol Fugard on a Sunday afternoon, somewhere near Paarl. How would literature have been different?

medici money

June 29, 2006

Having holidayed in Florence and seen the Medici palaces and treasures, MLW quickly read Tim Parks’ run down on the history of Medici banking and power in Florence. Then she handed it on to me.

Being a somewhat critical soul, I have some things to say about the book. My main gripes are that Parks adopts an arrogant tone, and that he constantly relates the banking and political history he’s recounting to contemporary homosexual figures. Usually with little relevance, and that’s my gripe. Write a book about Florentine banking, or one about Florentine homosexuality, but don’t force the two together.

Anyway, moving on to the interesting stuff… I wanted to highlight three things I’ve learned from the book so far.

The key thing about operating a bank in Catholic Italy in the 15th century was that usury (charging interest on money lent) was classed as a sin by the Church. So, one of the ways the bank made money was through exchanges across Europe. For example, 1000 florins borrowed in Florence to be paid out in England was lent at 40p to the florin (40 000p). It was then assumed that the period of lending was the accepted standard time it took to travel from Florence to England, three months. The merchant draws the pounds in England and uses them to buy wool. The banker in England then writes the replayment slip, assuming another three months until repayment in Florence, and the florins are now valued at 36p each. So, the merchant repays, in Florence, 40 000p/36 = 1111 florins. That’s 11% profit in six months for the Medici bank, and actually no money has physically moved between banks. Very neat. This system of exchanges was also part of how the bank as holding entity balanced its books between its various branches around Europe without having to physically move coin too often. The imbalance was created by so much money flowing into Rome as tithe, and so many goods flowing out of Italy into Northern Europe and netting cash when sold there.

The next thing I learned (and will give a sketchy recounting of here) is how the government of Florence was consitutited. This is actually quite complicated, and as with the exchange concept, Parks does a good job of leading one through it all and towards some dim light at the end of the tunnel. The most interesting thing to learn, though, I think, is that the governing council of Florence was drawn by lot (chits in leather bags representing the key guilds) every two months! So, every two months, you could be called to govern, which meant leaving your home and business and moving into the Palazzo del Signoria to wield absolute power for a short time. Crazy but brilliant, in its way. Of course, all sorts of machinations went on behind the scenes and the history of the Medici at this time is one of how they used their money made in banking to indirectly gain control of government.

Finally, this morning on the train I reached a point in the story where the second of five Medici’s Parks is interested in has lived his life and dies. He is Cosimo, son of Giovanni de Bicci, brother of Damiano (who died at birth), and father of Piero. He had built on the work of his father and the bank was flourishing, and he ruled Florence unofficially. Parks relates how Cosimo, who suffered from gout, spent most of his life expecting to die quite soon. This gave him great drive to see things completed before he expected to die, and because he kept not dying he completed a lot of things! But as he grew older the gout grew worse until he would weep when he had to be moved. Ruling a pan-European banking network that moved money and goods all over Europe, Cosimo struggled to move between rooms in his palazzo and had to be carried up stairs. He retreated to the windowless and frescoed chapel at the heart of his palazzo (which is like a fortress – we kept bumping into it in Florence), and dealt with the great men of his age in a dim religious light, the backdrop a fresco of the procession of the three Magi, featuring Cosimo and his son as two of them, with wild animals accompanying them. When he died, he was buried under the floor of San Lorenzo, the family church, in the very centre of the nave.


June 23, 2006

Some tidbits from Claire Tomalin’s Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self

This book opens with an electrifying description of a most terrible fight between Pepys and his wife, Elizabeth. Elizabeth wakes Samuel, ‘angry and tearful’:

What was really upsetting her, she said, was that she was lonely. She suffered so much from loneliness that she had written him a letter expressing her unhappiness, she reminded him, and handed it to him two months ago. But he had refused to read it and burnt it without even glancing at her carefully chosen words. (pxxxiii)

She reveals that she kept a copy that she begins to read out aloud to him. Pepys is alarmed by the idea of the contents of the letter getting out into the world. He demands she tear it up; she refuses. He leaps out of bed, snatches her papers and stuffs them into his breeches as he struggles into them. Half dressed, he begins to pull out the papers and tear them up, one by one. Eventually he destroys almost all her papers, burning the pieces in a rage, including all his love letters to Elizabeth (although he calmly spares documents such as a will and a deed). ‘We know all this because he described it himself’ in his Diary.

There is an excellent, blood curdling, description of the operation Pepys underwent to remove a stone in his bladder. He was made to follow a special diet in preparation, and before surgery began he ‘was offered a specially prescribed drink made of liquorice, marhmallow, cinnamon, milk, rosewater and the whites of fifteen eggs’. Then he was bound tightly to the operating table with linen straps and held down by four men – no anaesthetics or alcohol. The surgeon cleaned his scalpel with almond oil and then…

The surgeon got to work. First he inserted a thin silver instrument, the itinerarium, through the penis into the bladder to help position the stone. Then he made the incision, about three inches long and a finger’s breadth from the line running between scrotum and anus, and into the neck of the bladder, or just below it. The patient’s face was sponged as the incision was made. The stone was sought, found and grasped with pincers; the more speedily it could be got out the better. Once out, the wound was not stitched – it was thought best to let it drain and cicatrize itself – but simply washed and covered with a… plaster of egg yolk, rose vinegar and anointing oils… (p63-4)

Pepys survived, although the surgeon’s next four patients did not.

Pepys lived through some of the most interesting events in English history, including the regicide, Cromwell’s interregnum, the Restoration, London burning, and the plague.

Tomalin recounts how King Charles II asserted his authority after the Restoration, and took his father’s revenge:

And Pepys was horrified when he learnt that the bodies of Cromwell, Ireton and Bradshaw were to be dug up and hanged on a gallows on the anniversary of Charles I’s execution. In the Diary he called Cromwell ‘Oliver, as he had been known in the days of his protectorship, and deplored ‘that a man of so great courage as he was should have that dishonour’ – adding carefully, as if in fear of an eye over his shoulder, ‘though otherwise he might deserve it enough’. (p117)

Pepys the pragmatist. I’d not known that Cromwell’s body was exhumed. Tomalin goes on to describe howthe body was put on display (sixpence per person was charged for a close look), then beheaded and the head placed on a spike outside Westminster Hall. It stayed there throughout Charles II’s reign – 25 years – ‘as a warning against rebellion and republicanism’.

In one section of her recounting of the Diary, Tomalin picks out some excellent phrases that Pepys has noted.

And his brother Tom’s description of their Joyce cousins: ‘they are sometimes all honey one with another and then all turd’. (p261)

Finally, in case you ever mispronounced or misspelled Pepys’s name, don’t feel bad – it was subjected to a variety of treatments during his lifetime, including Peppiss.

what’s your smell?

June 19, 2006

Anthony Cronin quotes Samuel Beckett describing the powerful nostalgia of a scent present in the air in childhood, that links you, when smelled again, to your childhood memories:

the lemon verbena to whose scent he refers, a flower which, by the time Sam was a toddler, already grew in profusion round (sic) the hall door, giving forth 'a fragrance in which the least of his childish joys and sorrows were and would for ever be embalmed'.

For me, it's jasmine.

the beast is slain!

March 20, 2006

Finally, this last weekend, I finished reading Roger Lewis's biography of Anthony Burgess.

I was trying to summarise for my wife, who has suffered through bits and pieces of my interior monologue on the experience of reading this book, my assessment of it as a biography of Burgess.

The first point I made was that I have not read very much Burgess, and so am not in a position to refute Lewis's opinions and assertions about a number of the Burgess books. Burgess books I have read are (in this order):

  1. Inside Mr Enderby (circa 1988)
  2. A Clockwork Orange
  3. Earthly Powers
  4. A Dead Man in Deptford (not completed)
  5. Inside Mr Enderby (again in 2005)
  6. Enderby Outside
  7. The Clockwork Testament or Enderby's End
  8. Enderby's Dark lady

Also, without realising I was watching a Burgess adaptation, I remember being enthralled by Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth as a child.

So, although Lewis's tone is distasteful, I did find that at times I was persuaded of his critical faculty. What he has to say is not uninteresting but the way he says it is often repulsive. He sneers at Burgess and his alcoholic first wife Lynne. He squeezes out nasty thoughts about the possible truth behind what he claims are Burgess's lies lies lies. Emblazoned across the back cover of the book is this quote:

Question: On what occasions do you lie?
Burgess: When I write, when I speak, when I sleep.

Lewis chews on this idea throughout the book, and ultimately this destroys it. He's the biographer who came to hate his subject, and he's not professional enough to finish the job of writing the book without letting his bile leak onto the pages.

But, and this is what I was trying to express to my wife, I think his overall assessment of Burgess holds some interest. Lewis presents not evidence but rather an array of interpreted substance and supposition that draws a picture of a man who at some point lost his perspective on himself. Perhaps. John Wilson takes on the part of Anthony Burgess, but he never quite has the confidence to stop creating the character, and so he goes too far. Perhaps. His exaggerations, his larger-than-life gestures, become his lies, his dishonesty. Burgess's conceits are, for Lewis, his deceits.

Lewis, also, is not an unskilled writer. He weaves, gently and largely imperceptibly, a well- textured critical analysis of Burgess's authorial project. He admires – in a rare moment – the man's productivity and discipline. He consistently draws connections, sometimes elliptically, between Burgess's thought and the themes that preoccupy him: Joyce, language, Marlowe, espionage, exile, impotence, betrayal, violence. And at the end Lewis draws these threads together into a convincing (and well-turned) thesis:

Marlowe, the dead man in Deptford, and the subject of the final novel, is symbolic of talent attenuated; Burgess is representative of talent protracted. His career was a phantasmal, enigmatic enterprise… Yet, slippery and amorphous as he was, Burgess hated not to be grasped: 'I like understanding from those who read my books,' he once bellowed… Well he's had plenty of understanding from me, fair play. I can see for example that (a) he was a great writer who never wrote a great book: his talent was too widely dispersed; (b) his life was circumscribed by deaths: his mother, his sister, his first wife, his own first death sentence – and his real death sentence… and if it is true he wrote to live (and to make a living), he also worked to forget, to block out, rather than to remember. He did his best to disengage himself from his feelings; this is why there is no sensuality in his writing… There is a lack of positive, warm emotion… What does come through, in his best work, is a sense of doom. Empires collapsing; the end of the world.

To me, based on what I've read, this is persuasive stuff. I cannot, however, leave any sort of simple glow of recommendation smudged across Lewis and his book.

I dug up part of an email exchange I had about reading this book. Here is what I had to say when I first restarted it:

I have restarted, after a two year break, Roger Lewis's hatchet job biog of Anthony Burgess. I am determined to finish it despite the bitterness with which Lewis regards his subject. I find Burgess such an interesting character, but his writing is so dense and erudite that I find I can only properly absorb it with adequate recovery periods between books. In the five or so pages I have read (starting where I left off), Lewis has already implied that two men were having it off with Burgess's wife in a menage a trois and that Burgess was too dumb to realise – it is fascinating in itself to see the breakdown of the biographer. This is what happens when the biographer finds that the subject he began researching in a hazy glow of adoration is someone he now detests. Lewis definitely comes out of it looking like the creep though, not Burgess.

meet Guy Blunt

February 18, 2006

Isn’t it strange the way coincidence works? Here’s an example:

Easter 2003 my lovely lady gave me a copy of Anthony Burgess by Roger Lewis.

I commenced reading it. At first, I was delighted by such a dense and literary biography but soon my enthusiasm waned as it became clear that Lewis had published a hatchet job and that he had come to despise Burgess in the course of writing his biography. By the time Lewis was using four-letter words about Burgess in the footnotes, I decided to stop reading for a while.

January 2006 I decide to read The Untouchable by John Banville. This is a novel about the Cambridge spies, and the narrator is Victor Maskell, a thin cover for the real spy, Anthony Blunt. Reading around the novel on the internet, I learned about the Cambridge spy ring and another of the spies, Guy Burgess. (Perhaps, at this point, you can see where this is going.)

I finished reading that novel (v. good) and decided, for unrelated reasons, to restart reading Lewis’s biography. On pages 204-5, I read this passage:

Now, the one thing everybody knows about Burgess, once we’ve made it clear he wasn’t Anthony Blunt nor Guy Burgess, is that he loved word-play and linguistic showing-off… Yet Blunt (Anthony) and Burgess (Guy)? Just as names and words melt and mix together in Finnegans Wake, can it be possible that Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess should have nightmarishly fused to produce Anthony Burgess? He was not, I think, a traitor – for whom could he betray, not being at home in any place?

Lewis expands this idea in a footnote, giving examples of when Burgess had been confused with the eponymous spies, and his increasing touchiness:

Anthony Burgess was a pseudonym [his real name was John Wilson]… and anyone who has peeped into his work will see that it is all about double lives and deceit… My favourite example of the Burgess touchiness in this regard was his reaction to Jonathan Coe’s profile of him in the Guardian. Coe had dictated his copy down the phone and expatriate… was printed as ex-patriot… Coe was to meet up with Burgess later the same week at a literary event in Bristol. ‘I’ve got nothing to discuss with Jonathan,’ he told Bridget Sleddon, the publicity girl, shiftily. Turning to Coe, he then said, ‘You bastard, you bastard, you bastard.’