Tight squeeze

Siegfried Sassoon: a biography

Max Egremont <em>Picador, 639pp, £25</em>

ISBN 0330375261

''Why add to an already crowded field?" Max Egremont asks in his preface, thus high-lighting that this book has been overtaken by events. By the time Egremont replaced Sassoon's original "official" biographer, Jon Stallworthy, in the late 1990s, John Stuart Roberts had already received the blessing of Sassoon's literary executor for his single-volume life and I had been authorised by Sassoon's son, George, to write a two-volume work. By 2003 both biographies had appeared, making Egremont's the third in just a few years.

Egremont's attempts to justify this, while understandable, are grossly overstated. Sassoon's diary after 1926, far from being "unseen" by previous biog-raphers, is quoted extensively by both Roberts and myself. Egremont's other "extraordinary source", the unpublished diary of Sassoon's lover Stephen Tennant, is quoted and acknowledged in my second volume. Egremont's only new material of any consequence is the notes to some prose works, and a number of unpublished war poems. Had he chosen - or been equipped - to evaluate these, there would have been every reason to welcome this retelling of an already familiar story.

Instead, Egremont has chosen to approach the unpublished poems in a remorselessly "biographical" manner. Rather than placing them in the context of Sassoon's development as a writer, he simply lists most of them with a brief synopsis. None is quoted in full. Four previously unknown poems are polished off perfunctorily: "Then come the tritely pastoral 'January' and the processional 'Druids', perhaps inspired by his new regimental Welshness. In 'The Silver Stem' he has, while writing, premonitions of an 'age-long peace' and in 'Glory' a young figure rides like the Arthurian Sir Galahad." Much of this reads like a dutiful catalogue resume. There is no prolonged attempt at serious analysis, and the few insights Egremont offers are mostly borrowed, without acknowledgement, from previous critics.

Egremont is clearly not at ease with Sassoon's poetry, and is only slightly less uncomfortable with his prose works, where he can at least relate the story, list the main themes and give a brief summary of critical opinion. Most readers will not be looking for the latest critical jargon or the newest theories, but they will surely tire of hearing Sassoon's work described as "sweet", "enchanting", "superb", "wonderful" or "exquisite" and his friends as "electrifying" or "brilliant".

Having written more novels than biog-raphies, Egremont is most at home creating atmosphere and setting a scene, and in Siegfried Sassoon he concentrates on his subject's life. He finds Tennant particularly irresistible, and gives full details of his sex life with Sassoon, even down to the coy remark that "there seems [my italics] to have been little anal sex".

But this comes at a price. Despite its massive appearance, this book is actually not much longer than Roberts's modest 160,000 words: a tight squeeze for an eventful, 80-year life. With almost one-fifth of it devoted to Tennant - who occupied barely six years of Sassoon's life - a great deal has been sacrificed. Lifelong friends such as Edmund Blunden and Glen Byam Shaw are dealt with briskly; Sassoon's remarkable family background is given short shrift; and significant minor players are disposed of in a few lines, especially if they are female or not of high social standing.

Egremont bases his narrative around Sassoon's diaries. While this allows us to see how Sassoon viewed himself, it rarely lets us see how he was viewed by others. Diaries, unlike letters, can be edited - and in Sassoon's case often were. Even when he appears to be commenting dispassionately, Egremont's assumptions are dangerously close to his subject's: Sassoon did not take a working-class lover but preferred the aristocratic Tennant, he tells us, because he was "fastidious". The "much time" Egremont boasts of having spent with Sassoon's son and his fourth wife also appears to have had a constraining effect. He is noticeably reticent about such topics as George's parents' sex life, which seriously hampers his attempts to explain the breakdown of Sassoon's marriage.

Egremont is much more in his element when dealing with the historical background. His handling of Sassoon's anti-war protest, for instance, is neatly executed. However, it also anticipates perhaps the greatest problem with this book: that it is written by someone of establishment (dare I say revisionist?) views, who believes that Sassoon's "version" of the Great War was little more than a comforting myth, "something quite different from historical truth". Egremont's valiant attempts to square Sassoon's opinion of the conflict with his own view of the First World War as a glorious success make entertaining reading; Sassoon's experiences, he argues, were restricted to "inauspicious times" such as the Battles of the Somme and Arras ("missing completely", it seems, the good bits!), and that the "bloody, bad end to the Somme" was only "apparently" so, ditto Passchendaele. Given that Egremont believes Sassoon's importance to be mainly historical, such a conclusion makes a nonsense of this book.

Jean Moorcroft Wilson is the author of the two-volume biography Siegfried Sassoon (Duckworth)

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2005 issue of the New Statesman, The next holocaust