Biography 26.1 (2003) 147-151
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Critics of life writing can be divided nowadays into the special sense and the commonsense. Michael Holroyd is a practitioner of the second. In this selection of thirty-nine published essays about biography, he only once resorts to [End Page 147] a currently fashionable critical term, the non-intrusive "intertextuality" (35). He has become one of the most distinguished biographers in English through a combination of good fortune, excellent self-taught judgment, a superb capacity to absorb information, perseverance, intellectual courage, and the engaging, subtly ironic style of a champion Old Etonian squash player. Works on Paper, which at first seems simply the idiom of contemporary well-bred literary London, on second glance is remarkable for the premises that it does reveal—the centrality to biography of emotion, imagination, and narrative. Because his critical writing is so personal yet, like a squash player, so elusively covert, these essays, published between 1983 and 2002, are best understood through a look at the usually civilized but always competitive persona of Michael Holroyd the memoirist.
To find Holroyd's strength, one must compare the 1967 work that first propelled him into prominence, his two volume life of Lytton Strachey, a chronicle history, with the heavily re-written one-volume life of Strachey of 1994, a first-class biography. It expertly integrates personality and historical fact into an engaging narrative based on a lawyer's command of the documents. The evolution is truly remarkable, and illustrates not only the author's skill, but also his courage in revisiting a youthful effort after he had already become prominent in achievement, status (a C.B.E.), and solvency, marked by the £625,000 advance he received for the life of Shaw (Works on Paper 181).
Holroyd's underlying assumptions about biography are made clear in the elder autobiographical sibling, Basil Street Blues: A Memoir (1999). One passage from Basil Street Blues is the real foreword to Works on Paper:
This is what has attracted me to biography: the idea of an "intimacy between strangers", a closeness growing up during the acts of writing and reading between an author, the readers, and their subject, all unknown to one another before the book began coming into existence. For I do not think of biography as being an information-retrieval exercise: information, now the fruit of technology, has little fascination for me unless it takes root in my emotions and grows in my imagination into knowledge. While writing I forget myself, and when I return to my world I sense that I am someone slightly different . . . reborn the child of my writings. (13-14)
That's a return to fundamental common sense leading to uncommon invocations of creative imagination and emotion first warily espoused for biography by the late Leon Edel.
Basil Street Blues reveals other aspects of experience and outlook that bear on Holroyd's understanding of biography. He comes from a dysfunctional [End Page 148] family with a super-salesman father (the artistic aspect of salesmanship is shared by the son). Both his father and his Swedish mother succumbed to the Edwardian trait of marrying often but not well. Holroyd was National Junior squash champion of England while at Eton, and captain of his house. He was shoved into studying science at Eton, and mysteriously opted not to go to Cambridge. He was in the British Army, via the Eton ROTC, during the Suez crisis. He was an articled clerk at a law office in Maidenhead. All these experiences developed into a greatly dialogic and dialectical personality, characteristics that infiltrate his biographical criticism. Of them all, his being a squash champion best anticipates his biographical criticism. Squash is a game of skill, speed, and deception, yet fair because all contestants are locked in the same box. His Englishness is the box; his skill is his lithe ranging through the OED for satirical effect; his competitive emotion spills...