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.
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,...
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