Basil Street Blues

by Michael Holroyd
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1887

Michael Holroyd has been called the most accomplished biographer of his generation. Although he has worked in other genres, Holroyd has built a career as a writer of biographies.

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He was initially attracted to the lives of other biographers. He began inauspiciously by writing the life of a forgotten biographer in Hugh Kingsmill: A Critical Biography (1964). He hit pay dirt withLytton Strachey: A Critical Biography (1968). This two-volume treatment of Strachey, himself a popular biographer, helped fan the fire of the revival of interest in Bloomsbury in the 1970’s. Holroyd showed the gifts of a great biographer: an easy mastery of details, a lucid style, generous sympathies, and the ability to tell a story. In Lytton Strachey, Holroyd took advantage of the new freedom from censorship in the 1960’s to paint an intimate and sensational picture of the shifting sexual liaisons of Strachey and his friends. Lytton Strachey was a popular success, and many critics rank it with the greatest biographies in English.

Holroyd followed that success with another, the two-volume Augustus John: A Biography (1974, 1975), about the gifted painter whose life was also scandalous by usual British standards. Holroyd then was tapped to undertake the greatest biographical work of the century, the life in four volumes of Bernard Shaw (1988, 1989, 1991). This immense task dominated his life for more than a decade. His documents so filled his London house that when he married the novelist Margaret Drabble, she could not move in with him for several years. Although the documents were eventually removed and Drabble moved in, many rooms were then dominated by paintings by John and Strachey’s friend Dora Carrington, and by oversized busts of both John and Shaw. By the standards of Holroyd’s previous subjects, Shaw’s life was not scandalous and lasted a long time. As a result, some readers find that the later volumes of the Shaw biography lack the zest of Holroyd’s earlier work.

Basil Street Blues is Holroyd’s first major work since Shaw, and it is immediately clear that he enjoys working on a smaller scale. What the book is, though, is hard to pin down. The dust jacket of the American edition identifies it as “a memoir,” a fashionable word that should attract reading groups, while the British dust jacket calls it “a family story.” As the American label implies, the book is based on Holroyd’s personal experience, but both titles are ambiguous: Is Holroyd writing his autobiography or is he telling his family’s story?

Perhaps it is an autobiography. Readers learn about Holroyd’s lonely childhood. Because his mother and father could not get along, he was brought up by his grandparents in a household marked by ill temper, disagreements, and shouting. Although his school days brought him some success, he tried to become as invisible as possible, and he succeeded most of the time. When the family ran out of money, he was articled to a solicitor before going into the army. His military career was haphazard. Its high point occurred when, having missed the departure of his regiment for points abroad, he was briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London. (He and Rudolf Hess may have been the last two persons imprisoned there.) He then turned to writing biography, a career that helped him continue to be invisible: He could disappear into his subject’s life. Holroyd remarks that he still likes biography because there he also finds the coherent narrative lines that have been missing from his own life.

Yet the story of Holroyd’s family is usually in the foreground. Although he mentions some moderately illustrious ancestors from the distant past, the trajectory of the more or less chronological story of Basil Street Blues is that of his grandparents and parents. The beginning of their sad story is told amusingly and is full of the peculiarly British eccentricities so many people love to read about. (After his aunt got books from the public library, she roasted them to kill any germs.) Later on, though, Holroyd deepens his tone. His parents become more brave and pathetic, and many turns of events are as sensational in their small way as those in the most electrifying parts of Lytton Strachey.

It is an unusual story. Conventional biographies are usually written about people who succeed, people whose lives can be graphed with an ascending arrow, though with a glitch for “the wilderness years.” With the exception of Michael, the Holroyd family arrow descends. Holroyd himself calls them “a species of distressed, not-so-gentle folk, downwardly mobile, indeed charging downhill, led nobly by my grandfather.”

The portraits of Holroyd’s parents Ulla and Basil are memorable. Ulla’s is the less arresting, for she often fits into a category familiar in fiction and nonfiction. She was Swedish and beautiful, and unsuited to domestic life. After she left Basil, she consorted with many men and married a rich one. She lived for the moment, and until late in life she was the source of infectious gaiety. One of Michael’s girlfriends associated everything Ulla did with champagne.

As they traveled by taxi toward Sloane Square, Ulla once told her young son that he was conceived in a room at the Basil Street Hotel, located just behind Harrods in southwest London. That remark explains the title of this book, though “Basil” and “Basil Street” appear everywhere, usually in connection with other unfortunate enterprises. Most of the book’s failed business ventures (some located on Basil Street) involved Michael’s father, and Holroyd’s portrait of him is detailed and arresting. Basil was a failure at everything he did, though his ideas were always plausible and some enterprises took longer than others to go belly-up. He was expansive and talkative, but often boring. He was also ambitious, and formed new businesses out of the ashes of old ones. These businesses usually had to do with construction or home decoration (the family brought Lalique crystal to England). Basil was a publisher, too, and a writer. He completed a number of novels (unpublished) and wrote with Michael a history of the world in hexameters. He envied his son’s success. However, despite his failures, he was always sure his next business would succeed. Holroyd’s portraits of both Basil and Ulla show the affection that he had for them but found difficult to express in real life.

Basil Street Blues is unusual too in that Holroyd shows the reader how it was written. He says he used the research techniques he learned in writing his massive biographies. He needed them, for—surprisingly for the writer of a near-autobiography—he says that he remembers almost nothing of his early life. Perhaps scenes were blotted from his memory by the trauma he suffered in his grandparents’ home.

Holroyd relies on documents, and part of the fascination of this book is the way he uses them. Like any good biographer, he tracks down public records of births, marriages, divorces (and grounds for), and deaths (and causes of); he discovers that one great-grandmother killed herself by swallowing carbolic acid. He asks for letters from school chums, an army buddy, his former girlfriends, and former associates of his father. They reply and are quoted. A few years before they died, he asked Ulla and Basil to write autobiographical essays; although neither essay was completed, in their substance and their wildly differing styles they provided essential material for the early chapters.

Holroyd’s most intriguing sources come from fiction. When his career was beginning to take off, Holroyd wrote a novel, “A Dog’s Life,” based on the Holroyd family and their terrible home. After reading the typescript, Ulla did not object, but Basil did. Holroyd assured his father that names and many circumstances had been changed, but Basil claimed that the novel ridiculed the family. He threatened legal action, and the novel was not published. (Without telling his father, Holroyd authorized publication in the United States.)

After reading the passages from “A Dog’s Life” embedded in Basil Street Blues, a reader may sympathize with Basil, for Holroyd uses the quotations as descriptions of reality. Holroyd has two other sources as well. In his letters about “A Dog’s Life,” Basil comments on its accuracy or inaccuracy—comments that provide more material for Basil Street Blues. In addition, passages from Basil’s unpublished novel “The Directors” are sometimes cannibalized to explain real events, especially details of Ulla’s first infidelity. The ingenuity with which Holroyd deploys these sources produces an odd pleasure: Not many works delight readers by the way in which they use documents.

His parents are dead. Basil cannot object. Holroyd’s career has come to this: He can now write as truth what he once tried to write as fiction—the story of his family. Now he can also write more openly and intimately about himself. Holroyd casts himself in a subsidiary role in Basil StreetBlues, telling how at almost every stage of his life he has tried to be invisible. (His entry inContemporary Authors corroborates this attempt; he lists his avocations as “listening to stories” and “watching people dance.”) Still, in Basil Street Blues he is there anyway. The reader is always conscious of his presence as a famous writer. His presence is attractive—modest and informative. His tone is marvelously varied: He moves from amusement and satire to anger and pathos with a great ease of modulation.

He is revealing as well about his emotional life. He has been not only invisible but also distant. He reached a kind of manly and diffident truce with Basil. With women it has been only somewhat different. He remarks appreciatively of his women friends, “In these women’s eyes I recovered my visibility though . . . I remain invisible to myself.” When he sits beside his dying mother: “I could not touch her. . . . I must write this again. I could not touch her.” Even then he is removed, not touching, in a sense still invisible. Holroyd’s invisibility describes his lack of a sense of identity and his consequent failure to connect with other people. He implies that his career as a biographer came naturally to a man of this temperament, a man who desired to avoid real intimacy and to lose himself in the intimacies of others. Perhaps this book was written to help him become more visible to himself.

Basil Street Blues is hard to classify because it is a new sort of biographical work. Readers can still find the usual lives of important people, full of genealogical charts and exhaustive indexes (neither of which appear in this book). However, as John Bayley did in Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch (1998), Holroyd provides a biographical and autobiographical memoir of great intimacy. Although Iris Murdoch was famous and the Holroyd family members were ordinary people, inBasil Street Blues Holroyd makes the claim that their lives are worth writing as well. Readers will agree—as long as those lives are written as wonderfully as Holroyd has done.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 96 (March 1, 2000): 1192.

Library Journal 125 (April 1, 2000): 102.

London Review of Books 21 (October 28, 1999): 15

New Statesman 128 (November, 1999): 78.

The New York Times, March 14, 2000, p. E7.

The New York Times Book Review 105 (March 26, 2000): 6.

The New Yorker 76 (March 13, 2000): 97.

The Observer, September 12, 1999, p. 11.

Publishers Weekly 247 (January 24, 2000): 300.

The Spectator 283 (September 25, 1999): 55.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 17, 1999, p. 30.

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