A biographer's tale


Michael Holroyd <em>Little, Brown, 283pp, £17.99</em>

ISBN 0316725056

Biographers are born worriers, teasing out the significance of obscure details in a ceaseless quest for insights into their elusive subjects. In this sparkling piece of literary cloisonne, Michael Holroyd proves himself a worrier extraordinary. Not content with having given us Basil Street Blues, his family memoir published in 1999, he has written a companion volume that seeks to address inadvertent half-truths and omissions that have since come to light.

It begins with a reprise about his father, who featured in the earlier text as a dis-appointed man. Holroyd subsequently found a set of the old man's designs for the Lalique glass lights he once sold. These sketches showed a younger, more optimistic personality that his son felt he had failed to get into focus. He set about making amends.

Thus Holroyd introduces an important theme - the tenuousness of accounts of people's lives, whether by themselves or by others, particularly biographers. This resurfaces after the demise of his unmarried aunt Yolande. She had appeared in Basil Street Blues as a querulous individual, more interested in dogs than people. In death she becomes more sympathetic, as Holroyd is forced to reassess her uneventful life against the backdrop of his dealings with the bureaucracy of bereavement - the funeral, the civil registration and, appallingly, the bank that insists on calling him by the wrong name.

The details are often mundane, but these, Holroyd implies, are the building blocks of biography. Then he pores over his aunt's papers - a process with marked similarities to, and differences from, his usual business of reading a dead author's letters in, say, the British Library.

Aunt Yolande's great love in the 1930s was a military man called Haselhurst, who claimed to be an Old Etonian. Holroyd, meticulously employing the tricks of the biographer's trade, discovers that he was nothing of the sort. He was the son of a journeyman from Beverley and had been educated at Hull Municipal Technical College. And there was a similar dissimulation in the case of Agnes Babb, the Becky Sharp figure for whom Holroyd's grandfather left his family.

This is a subtle essay on the art of biog-raphy. While authors such as Andrew Motion have tried to vitalise the genre by fictionalising real lives, Holroyd is a traditionalist who seeks to combine sleuthing after the facts with passion. His approach is democratic in its basic premise that even the most ordinary lives incorporate interesting secrets. As he neatly points out, only a difference of imagination determines whether these facts and fantasies come out as history or fiction.

In the midst of all this comes Holroyd's fond evocation of his former lover, the author Philippa Pullar. She was beautiful, entrancing and intelligent, if rather theatrical - one of those characters carried away with the 1960s ethos of freedom, even after it had passed its sell-by date. Only the phases of the moon would prevent her from sleeping with trades-men if she needed odd jobs done. It seems sadly predictable that she was taken in by Sai Baba, one of the more dubious Indian gurus.

But she clearly had excellent points. She attracted devoted friends, and even won over Holroyd's wife, Margaret Drabble, who came to know her later in life.

Is this the last word on Pullar? Probably not, but it shows that biographers can find an honourable, artful and more or less truthful middle way between the two extremes that Holroyd says besets them - between "passionate involvement that lures them into sentimentality, and his-torical detachment with its arid wastes of information".

Andrew Lycett's most recent book is Dylan Thomas: a new life (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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