Friday, 19 August 2011

Mind the Gap

Lytton Strachey: A Biography, Michael Holroyd
The great problem with biographies of writers is that it’s likely that the biographer will write less well than the biographee. The better the latter, the likelier this is and more the former’s flaws will stand out by contrast. Strachey was very good indeed, so Holroyd’s flaws stand out a lot. Some are venal, but some aren’t excusable in a supposed littérateur. He proves once again that an interest in literature does not necessarily go with an interest in language. In fact, one could almost imagine at times that they’re mutually exclusive. Michael Holroyd was born in 1935 and attended Eton, where one would suppose he received an excellent education. From passages like this, it appears that one would suppose wrong:
On leaving Cambridge, Lytton’s rooms were rather violently redecorated in apple-green and taken over by his younger brother, James. (Part II, Sec. 6, “Post-Graduate”, Sub-Sec. 2, “The Limbo of Unintimacy”)
Participles are suspended like that throughout the book, or at least throughout those parts of the book I’ve managed to examine. It’s 1,144 pages long in my Penguin edition, after all, and that’s another glaring contrast with Strachey. If brevity is the soul of wit, Strachey both wrote and lived wittily, and one feels rather as though Holyroyd is setting an electron microscope to work on a soufflé. Strachey wrote in his introduction to Eminent Victorians, where he captured four very active and sometimes very long lives in just under 100,000 words, that to “preserve a becoming brevity ― a brevity which excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant ― that, surely, is the first duty of the biographer.”
If so, then Holroyd not merely neglects his first duty but tramples on it in hobnailed boots, then steamrollers the remains. There are some excellent anecdotes and some good writing, but it’s characteristic that the two often do not come directly from Holyroyd himself:
“Now and then,” recalled [Lady Ottoline] Morrell, “Lytton Strachey exquisitely stepped out with his brother James and his sister Marjorie, in a delicate and courtly minuet of his own making, his thin long legs and arms gracefully keeping perfect time to Mozart ― the vision of this exquisite dance always haunts me with its half-serious, half-mocking, yet beautiful quality.” (Part II, Sec. 11, “The Lacket”, Sub-Sec. 4, “Business as Usual”)
On one occasion the two of them [Lady Ottoline and Nijinsky] were sitting together in a tiny inner room when Lytton entered the house [at
Bedford Square
]. As he advanced towards the drawing-room he overheard Ottoline’s husky voice, with its infinitely modulated intonations, utter the words, “Quand vous dansez, vous n’êtes pas un homme ― vous êtes une idée. C’est ça, n’est ce pas, qui est l’Art?... Vous avez lu Platon, sans doubte?” ― The reply was a grunt. (“The Lacket”, Sub. Sec. 2, “Scenes from Post-Edwardian England”)
Yes, Holroyd offers his readers all they ever might have wanted to know about Lytton Strachey, but many of them, like me, will not have the patience to dig through the slagheaps of dross to find all the nuggets concealed herein. That is the image suggested by the book; the relationship of author and subject suggests another. The gap between their literary talent isn’t the only jarring thing: Strachey was very close to being a genius, studying both literature and mathematics at university, and Holroyd’s much weaker mind flutters around his rather like a moth beating on a powerful bulb, ever attracted, ever unable to reach the core of that dazzling brilliance.

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