- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 14, 2004


By Michael Holroyd

W.W. Norton, $24.95, 288 pages, illus.


The biographer is — and should be — a shadowy figure, for his personality is rightly overshadowed by the character whose life story he is writing.

The good biographer works unobtrusively behind the scenes, wading through mountains of dusty research, chasing down rumors and missing documents, fussing over maddening discrepancies, accumulating countless minute bits of information, then laboring mightily but silently to shape this mass of material into a coherent portrait.

There are surely worse ways of earning a living. Biographies sell reasonably well, biographers are respected, the work is absorbing: both challenging and satisfying. But it certainly involves a lot more prosaic legwork than writing one’s memoirs or a work of fiction. So, what motivates a person to become a biographer?

Who better to ponder this question than Michael Holroyd, who has written monumental and definitive lives of Lytton Strachey, Augustus John, and George Bernard Shaw, among others.

Any responsible biographer strives for objectivity, but clearly there must be a more subjective factor that impels him to investigate a particular figure in the first place: “All good biographies are intensely personal,” Mr. Holroyd admits, “since they are really accounts of the relationship between a writer and the subject. But biographers also hide themselves behind their subjects, inhabiting those invisible spaces between the lines of print.”

A biographer, Mr. Holroyd suggests, is someone who feels more comfortable when focusing his attention on someone other than himself: “I remember, a few years ago, the uncomfortableness of having my portrait painted. A cocoon of tiredness seemed to shut off the oxygen as the artist’s concentration encircled me.

“When I work I lose myself by concentrating on others, and afterwards I feel revived. But, although I am doing nothing but sit in a chair as an artist’s model, it is an oddly exhausting experience, as if the current of energy is travelling in the wrong direction.”

Having been charged with cannily concealing himself while vigorously investigating others (he famously “outed” economist Maynard Keynes as a lover of Lytton Strachey), Mr. Holroyd began turning his attention closer to home in his family memoir “Basil Street Blues.”

But here again, it was members of his family and not himself that became the focus of his investigation. “Had I hidden myself behind my parents and grandparents too, while trying to fix my identity through family echoes and associations?”

Now again, in “Mosaic: A Family Memoir Revisited,” Mr. Holroyd returns to this tricky terrain, employing the same indirect method of attempting to understand himself by scrutinizing others. Or perhaps he isn’t even interested in portraying himself, and has brought himself into the mix merely in order to placate critics who’ve charged him with “hiding” behind his subjects.

Whatever the case, let us grant that Mr. Holroyd — or any biographer — is entitled to be reticent if he likes and is equally entitled to delight in ferreting out other people’s secrets. The question is, what kind of book is “Mosaic” and what does it do for the reader?

As its title suggests, “Mosaic” is a book of fragments. Included in it are Mr. Holroyd’s reflections on the biographer’s craft, a number of engaging personal anecdotes, a mildly humorous attempt at self-analysis, some of the responses he received from people who read “Basil Street Blues,” and an informal snapshot of his marriage to critic and novelist Margaret Drabble.

There is also a deeply interesting and poignant portrait of his former lover, the late Philippa Pullar, herself the author of a biography of Oscar Wilde’s notoriously heterosexual friend Frank (“My Life and Loves”) Harris and of “Consuming Passions,” a delectably freewheeling and erudite disquisition on matters comestible.

But not all of the bits that make up this “Mosaic” are equally good: In fact, two very substantial chunks — the latter of which also serves as the book’s conclusion — are, not to put too fine a point on it, boring beyond one’s wildest imagination.

The first, “Quiet Consummation,” provides a tedious and off-putting chronicle of Mr. Holroyd’s efforts to cope with various financial, legal, and funereal arrangements in the wake of the death of his aunt Yolande, a likeable lady who figured prominently in “Basil Street Blues.”

This is the sort of saga that has the potential to be funny in a Kafkaesque sort of way. But apart from one brief moment — when Mr. Holroyd’s wife, frustrated by a “deeply unhelpful letter from her publisher,” exclaims, “‘I wish I were dead,’” provoking him to cry out “‘For God’s sake, don’t say that — I couldn’t cope with the paperwork!’” — funny it isn’t.

Worse still is the book’s final chapter, “The Search,” a mind-numbingly detailed, meticulous, and ultimately pointless account of the author’s quest for information about his grandfather’s mysterious mistress, Agnes May Bickerstaff Lisle Babb Beaumont-Thomas.

If Mr. Holroyd’s Aunt Yolande embodied some of the qualities of an Anita Brookner heroine, “limited by cultural conditioning, perhaps also by loss of nerve or an excess of sensitivity, disappointed in her romantic expectations,” the many-times-married Agnes May struck him as having had “the makings of a twentieth-century Becky Sharp.”

His rationale for applying the tools of the biographer’s trade to non-famous, ordinary folks is that their lives can show us something about the times in which they lived.

Mr. Holroyd’s account of how difficult it was to track down and piece together the facts of Agnes May’s complicated, but not very interesting life enhances one’s respect for his doggedness and hard work. But what makes Becky Sharp (or any fictional heroine) so fascinating is not the simple story of her life — the names, dates, addresses, the roster of men she charms and weds — but the genius of the novelist in portraying character, consciousness, and society.

Agnes May never comes to life: She remains nothing more than a name (albeit an ever-changing one). Mr. Holroyd’s reverence for facts is entirely commendable. But there is more to the making of a mosaic than the endless accumulation of countless bits of information. It may be true that many ordinary persons can be more interesting than famous luminaries, but not all of them necessarily merit a biography.

It calls to mind the song from “The Gondoliers”: “If everyone’s a somebody, then no one’s anybody.” Having read “Mosaic,” one certainly comes away feeling that there may be a limit, after all, to how much we need or want to know about anyone and everyone.

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic living in Pasadena, Calif.

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