‘Basil Street Blues’ by Michael Holroyd

holroyd

1999, 306 p

I generally like reading  historians’ and biographers’ autobiographies.  Not that they are generally more intrinsically interesting than other peoples’ (in fact they’re usually not) but I like watching how, as writers, they turn their skills onto their own lives. I must confess that I’d never heard of Michael Holroyd, and haven’t read any of his biographies.  And I’ll also confess that had this not been a book group selection, I probably would have given up on it after the first fifty pages.

In fact, I was surprised that a professional and published biographer would allow the first chapters of his book to wallow around in genealogy, like an amateur family historian.  He made much of a short story written by Virginia Woolf that mentioned his ancestral family, but unless you had read the short story (which, only with the benefits of Google, I had) it really didn’t add much to his narrative.  For me, it was only once he himself walked into the story, rather than recounting earlier generations’ stories, that it became interesting. He is a good observer, but gives little of himself away.  I got to the end of the book and felt as if he had been deliberately deflecting attention away from himself.

What he did capture brilliantly, however, was the decline of a formerly upper-middle (if not upper class) family, complete with all the eccentricity and  emotional aridity of that type of upper-middle British reserve.

However I have since somewhat revised my lukewarm opinion of the book as biography once I realized that it is actually part of a trilogy (somehow the idea of a three-book autobiography seems rather pretentious). I had been rather bemused by his frequent quotations from his own novel, but now I learn that the novel had been unpublished, on account of his father’s opposition to publication ( so his quotation was a form of publication by stealth, perhaps?) It would seem that the other volumes are more forthcoming on an emotional level, but I don’t feel particularly inclined to follow up on them, or his other published biographies.

Source: CAE

Read because:  CAE bookgroup selections

My rating: 7

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