Category Archives: Biography

Hemingway at War

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Hemingway at War –
Ernest Hemingway’s Adventures as a World War II Correspondent
By Terry Mort
Pegasus Books/W.W. Norton 

Money can be easy to come by, especially and obviously when it’s inherited; integrity is not.

This is a terrific book.

Apart from being very readable and very honest – not to mention flawlessly written – its fifteen chapters take the reader on a perilous journey through wartime Europe, as brought to bear by that equally perilous and utmost of seemingly blokey characters, Ernest Hemingway. Yet even if you’re not into Hemingway, which admittedly I am, it’s the sort of book that’ll have you turning the pages with all the great haste regularity of a curious gazelle.

There again, we are talking about Ernest Hemingway; who not only led one of the most interesting and colourful lives this side of Oliver Reed and Keith Moon, but is perhaps someone, many would consider as among the first rock’n’roll writers of his generation. He was after all, married four times, was something of a rebel rouser (to put it mildly) and enjoyed a pint. All of which is painfully, yet marvellously captured throughout Hemingway at War – Ernest Hemingway’s Adventures as a World War II Correspondent.

Indeed, so far as Hemingway’s spell as a most reticent reporter during the Second World War is concerned, Terry Mort (whose previous books include The Hemingway Patrols, The Wrath of Cochise and The Monet Murders) has herein left no stone unturned.

The author has unearthed his subject with as much truth, daring and research as is surely possible.

For instance, as the outset of chapter two, Mort touches on Men at War – which Hemingway spent much of 1942 editing and to which he also contributed three selections from his own novels – which, in and of itself, could well trigger an abundance of debate among Hemingway aficionados: ””This book will not tell you how to die.” That is Hemingway being Hemingway, but not the best of him […]. And in what surely is an unintentional visitation of irony, he writes that Mussolini’s bluster and military posing were designed to cover up the fact that he had been fearful, even terrified, during World War I. Surely Hemingway would be enraged to know today that that is almost exactly the criticism that was, and is, levelled at him, in some quarters. Worse, that same criticism is also used to question his sexual identity – does a hairy chest conceal some different needs! He would not have liked that, either. And in fairness, that sort of analysis – the defence mechanism argument – is facile and in some cases has a whiff of agenda-driven criticism. But if you, meaning Hemingway, are going to use it, you cannot be surprised when others do it to you.”

Suffice to say, the above is loaded with what many could well assume to be high-octane ambiguity; especially from the stand-point of ”Mussolini’s bluster” and Hemingway’s chest quite possibly concealing ”some different needs.”

It’s all relative conjecture of course; although in historically literal terms, there is needless to say, no smoke without fire. Or in this particular instance, no cover up without the most boisterous need to both subvert and divert.

Assorted light is further shed on such thinking in chapter eleven, by which time, Hemingway, who was involved in the Liberation of Paris, was staying at the Ritz Hotel. Mort writes of Hemingway having initiated a reunion with his old friend and occasional benefactor, Sylvia Beach. Quoting from her memoir: ””There was still a lot of shooting going on, and we were getting tired of it, when one day a string of jeeps came up the street and stopped in front of my house […]. I flew downstairs; we met with a crash; he picked me up and swung me around and kissed me while the people in the street cheered.

We went up to Adrienne’s apartment and sat down. He was in battle dress, grimy and bloody. A machine gun clanked on the floor. He asked Adrienne for a piece of soap, and she gave him her last cake […].”

The author then goes on to (perhaps clarify?) by writing: ”Beach’s account of the meeting suggests strongly that it took place as Hemingway was entering the city. His ”bloody” and ”grimy” appearance does not suggest the appearance of a man who had just spent the night at the Ritz. And you would think he would not need a bar of soap – surely the could Ritz provide that. (Although there were shortages of everything after four years of occupation and rationing).”

The mere fact that Terry Mort writes of such open ended conundrum, is just one aspect of what accounts for Hemingway at War being such a valuable and weighty, if not quasi-inflammatory read.

Naturally, not all of the 263 pages (excluding Introduction, Endnotes, Bibliography and Index) lean toward such supposition, as the following direct Hemingway quotation from a 1958 edition of the Paris Review – one among many – surely substantiates: ”All you can be sure about in a political-minded writer is that if his work should last, you will have to skip the politics when you read it.”

It’s not often a book will have one reading on the edge of one’s seat – but hey, this Hemingway. Replete with bluster and braggadocio.

David Marx

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Ali – A Life

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Ali – A Life
By Jonathan Eig
Simon & Schuster – £25.00

     To be great you must suffer, you must pay the price.

                                                                             (‘No Quarrel’)

     I am America. I am the part you won’t recognise. But get used to me. Black, confident,           cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.

                                                                             (Preface)

    I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.

                                                                             (‘No Quarrel’)

     The image he fashioned was both romantic and thrilling: a young man who believed             that if he worked hard enough he could become the world’s heavyweight champ, that             he could have it all.

                                                                             (‘It’s Show Business’)

Reading this altogether terrific book on the life of Muhammad Ali by Jonathan Eig, really is something of a literary, topsy-turvy ride through the wide-open, abstract abeyance of nigh everything potentially great about the United States. As well as perhaps everything not so great. Like Elvis Presley, that other American icon whose life and work traversed both language and time, Muhammad Ali was, and will continue to remain an acute, if not infinite representation of America’s (current) seething, troubled, political waters.

A man mired in suave solipsism, along with a sporting prowess like no other, he who did indeed float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, was many things – for which read: many a contentious soul – to many people. An idiosyncratic, if not inflammatory issue, Eig has fundamentally brought to bear at the end of the chapter which gleans its title from the very same, notorious dictum which the boxer himself oft asserted: ””For when Cassius Clay declares, ‘I am the greatest,’ he is not just thinking about boxing,” wrote Alex Poinsett in Ebony. ”Lingering behind those words is the bitter sarcasm of Dick Gregory, the shrill defiance of Miles Davis, the utter contempt of Malcolm X. He smiles easily, but, behind it all…is a blast furnace of race pride” (Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee’).

”A blast furnace of race pride” is surely something of a colossal understatement, that among other things, Ali – A Life makes abundantly clear throughout.

As although these 539 pages (excluding Preface, Acknowledgements, Notes, Appendix and Index) are compartmentalized into three distinct parts, the underlying and not so much subliminal thread remains the fact that Ali was black.
And America was at war with itself. Still is.

At war with/over the current, contentious, high-octane yet persistently pertinent issue of race. Or, to put it a little more bluntly, racism.

In relation to the impending fight between (Ali’s so-called slave-name) Clay and Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston in the book’s tenth chapter ‘It’s Show Business’ for instance, the author writes: ”Writing in the Chicago Defender, the nation’s most influential black newspaper, columnist Al Monroe tried to rally support for Liston, saying that the prejudice of white reporters contributed to the champs reputation as a menace to society. Monroe offered examples of Liston’s sharp wit and intelligent answers to questions […].

”What fans want is a champion they can look up to,” wrote Monroe.”Will Cassius Clay prove to be such a man outside the ring?” Clay’s taunting of Liston was ”most unbecoming of a champion,” Monroe continued. ”Would Clay hold the title with dignity or would he be merely a king’s jester and not a crowned head with the sovereignty that the position calls for?”

That the author – by way of Monroe – has the overt pertinacity to shed light on what is or isn’t ”becoming of a champion,” does, in and of itself, trigger an array of predominant US social and ideological questioning. The sometimes dark density of which, Jonathan Eig himself goes on to succinctly yet wholeheartedly regale.

A quality which further substantiates this book’s more than anchored political gravitas. So much of which is underlined by the subject’s ever increasing politicism during the early to mid-sixties; as so sanguinarily fought through the gloves of Clay becoming the Ali becoming ”the greatest.”

Most notably, that of the then Civil Rights Movement, which throughout these fifty-six chapters, the contributing writer to The Wall Street Journal most rightfully brings to the fore on numerous occasions: ”All over America black activists were organizing voter-registration drives, marches, and sit-ins to improve living conditions and promote equality. The unemployment rate for black men was double the rate for whites, these activists reminded people. School integration was still being impeded in many southern states. In the fall of 1962, James Meredith needed a force of 320 federal marshalls to reach his dormitory as he enrolled as the first black student at the University of Mississippi. President Kennedy called for calm but didn’t get much as armed mobs attacked the federal troops in what historian C. Vann Woodward called ”an insurrectionary assault on officers and soldiers of the United States government and the most serious challenge to the union since the Civil War.”

Hmm, sounds like (relatively) recent events in Charlottsville.
Lest President Donald Trump equate ratings with the inexorable ideology of Burn Baby Burn.
Surely not?

Surely the handsome and ferociously witty, intelligent, Ali, would’ve made an out and out mockery of the unspeakably odious Trump? After all, he did once declare: ”I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”

Now there’s a pugilist philosophy made in satirical heaven; which, given the conclusion of the above quote with regards the Civil Rights Movement – ”They said white America would never give up power unless black America made them do it – does kind of make one think. Especially in light of the degree to which Ali evoked ”a sense of merriment and mystery, an irresistible combination for the media […].”

Exceedingly readable, this almost un-put-downable book packs one hell of a powerful punch, right unto the beige face of many of its mediocre contemporaries. As the American filmmaker, Ken Burns, has said: ”Finally after so many works focusing on this fight or that, the whole, is presented here.”

To be sure, this rather exemplary book will do Ali’s memory (and everything he stood for) proud. There again, we are talking about a best selling author whose previous books include Luckiest Man and Opening Day. While subject wise, we are talking about one of the sharpest and most charismatic of total, total talents, to have ever walked the earth.

For Ali was the champ – and probably always will be.

David Marx

 

Kissinger

Kissinger

Kissinger -1923-1968: The Idealist
By Niall Ferguson
Penguin Books – £16.99

If you want to know who has influenced me the most, I’ll answer with the names of two philosophers: Spinoza and Kant. So it’s curious that you choose to associate me with Machiavelli. People rather associate me with the name of Metternich. Which is actually childish. On Metternich I’ve written only one book, which was to be the beginning of a long series of books on the construction and disintegration of the international order of the nineteenth century. It was a series that was to end with the First World War. That’s all. There can be nothing in common between me and Metternich.

                                                                                                          Henry Kissinger

This too famous, too important, too lucky man, whom they call Superman, Superstar, Superkraut, and who stitches together paradoxical alliances, reaches impossible agreements, keeps the world holding its breath as though the world were his students at Harvard. This incredible, inexplicable, unbearable personage, who meets Mao Tse-tung when he likes, enters the Kremlin when he feels like it, wakens the president of the United States and goes into his bedroom when he thinks it appropriate. This absurd character with horn-rimmed glasses beside whom James Bond becomes a flavourless creation. He does not shoot, nor use his fists, nor leap from speeding auto-mobiles like James Bond, but he advises on wars, ends wars, pretends to change our destiny, and does change it.

                                                                                                          Oriana Fallaci

I really cannot remember the last time I read such an all-engrossing, brilliant biography as Kissinger -1923-1968: The Idealist. According to The Independent’s Marcus Tanner, it’s ”definitive” and ”reveals his subject as nothing like the calculating cold fish of legend.”

To be sure, having read these 878 pages (excluding Preface, Acknowledgements, Notes, Sources, Illustration Credits and Index), he known throughout the planet as Henry Kissinger comes across as many things – although ye ”cold fish of legend” most certainly isn’t one of them.

Might this be the case, because this most absorbing and altogether outstanding book, delves into every crevice of the subject’s life? And I really do mean nigh every nuanced area; which, given the fact that this is Volume I and concludes in 1968 – at the height of what many might consider to be the nadir of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War – is quite something.

Quite something, simply because by this book’s end, we’re only half way through what is among other things, clearly, a worldly and politically, uber-jam-packed life. A life that never once, not even for a micro-second, ever teetered on the precipice of perhaps being a tad dull. There again, Niall Ferguson (whose previous books include Paper and Iron, The House of Rothschild, The Pity of War, The Ascent of Money and The Great Degeneration among others) has herein written a biography, that in and of itself, alters the occasionally perplexing parameters of biographical literature.

Reason being, the author has probably delved deeper and researched unto the point that research was no longer possible. Thus, by default, raising the stakes by (perhaps) inadvertently raising the bench mark itself.

An exceedingly good example of this comes in the very first chapter ‘Heimat’ (the German word for homeland), where, apart from researching Kissinger’s family tree, Ferguson also goes some way in researching the Jewish induced history of the subject’s place of birth: ”There had been a Jewish community in Furth since 1528. Thirty years before, Nuremberg had followed the example of many other European cities and states by expelling Jews from its territory. But Furth offered a refuge. Indeed, by the late sixteenth century, Jews were being encouraged to settle there as a way of diverting trade away from Nuremberg. Already by the early 1600s, Furth had its own rabbi, a Talmudic academy, and its first synagogue, built in 1616-17 and modelled on the Pinkas synagogue in Prague.”

With this most informative background in mind, only a few pages later, Ferguson touches on the author, Jakob Wassermann, who, when ”asked by a foreigner, ”what is the reason for the German hatred of the Jews?… What do the Germans want? His reply was striking:

I should have replied: Hate…
I should have answered: They want a scapegoat…””

That these words were published in 1921 – a mere two years before the birth of Henry Kissinger himself – does much to trigger just some of the tonality of what’s to come. The undeniable thread of which is undeniably inter-laced with the idealism of Kissinger’s very own hypotheses of history and philosophy.

Or, an undiluted amalgamation thereof.

To be sure, Kissinger’s wartime mentor, Fritz Kraemer, once described his protege as being: ”musically attuned to history. This is not something you can learn, no matter how intelligent you are. It is a gift from God.”

Suffice to say, the manifestation of what said protege chose to do, and how to implement (t)his ”gift from God,” remains wide open to debate. A debate, that if nothing else, can and will no doubt, be further enhanced (if not exasperated) by what has been exceedingly well written within these twenty-two chapters.

That’s twenty-two chapters of the most readable and realistic, realpolitik. A literal quality, which in the final analysis, accounts for Kissinger – 1923-1968: The Idealist, being a veritable tour-de-force to be reckoned with.

David Marx

Cowboy Song

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Cowboy Song –
The Authorised Biography of Philip Lynott
By Graeme Thomson
Constable – £9.99

”A Scottish guy that was drinking too much and Phil shouting at him all the time because he was constantly out of tune – this did not make for a happy session. But Brian added a tremendous amount. It would never have happened, Jailbreak, without Brian Robertson. When he was on, he was great. Unfortunately that came with a price.”

The above is something of a revelatory insight; as having met both Thin Lizzy bad boys – Phil Lynott and Brian Robertson – one really wouldn’t have thought such a tempestuous undercurrent lie beneath the surface of the band’s terrific break-though album Jailbreak.

And what a timely, not to mention superlative piece of work it was and remains: all street-suss-savvy, thundering guitars and bolero-tongue in cheek lyrics. There again, Cowboy Song – The Authorised Biography of Philip Lynott, is a most thoroughly well-researched and quintessentially honest of rock’n’roll biographies.

Indeed, simply riddled with much acute, regal revelation, these 348 pages (excluding Acknowledgments, Notes and Index) are on occasion, perhaps a little discomforting to read.

Let alone take-in.

Lest we remind ourselves that the truth is quite often painful to read – of which the following from Part Three’s ‘Sun Goes Down’ perfectly illustrates: ”Depression. Boredom. Disappointment. All that downtime, from Inverness to Bremen. Nature abhors a vacuum. Heroin fills it with cotton wool. Lynott wasn’t the only one suffering. On 7 March 1982, in Porto, Scott Gorham went on stage unable to play and barely able to stand. He was unceremoniously bundled back to Britain the following morning to address his own addictions. Sean O’Connor filled in during his absence, playing out of sight behind the backline equipment to maintain the illusion that Thin Lizzy remained a functioning band.”

As a result of it’s raw and perhaps, rather loaded depiction (”It is a story with an unhappy ending. Lynott did not always behave well, nor did he always make the smartest choices. In later life his addictions and insecurities made him a difficult man to be around, and ultimately they overpowered him”), Graeme Thomson has herein written and compiled a book that is as compelling to read, as it is – in a literary car-crash waiting to happen sort of way – un-put-down-able.

As a journalist, I got to interview Philip Lynott shortly after he disbanded Thin Lizzy, and I have to confess, he didn’t appear in the best of health. Charming and chatty, he most definitely was; but I did get the uncomfortably distinct feeling that something was clearly awry. Six months later, he was dead.

As a result, I’ve often wondered how such a tremulous tragedy in waiting, would have and ought to have been approached and written. One of the many reasons being that Lynott’s life, has up until now (well for me at least), remained idiosyncratically inconclusive.

Thanks to Cowboy Song, such is no longer the case. As stated in the Irish Examiner: ”This is no eulogy, but an honest, often painful account of the price of star power.”

David Marx

Dante

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Dante – The Story of His Life
By Marco Santagata
Belknap/Harvard University Press – £25.00

Se tu segui tua stella
non puoi fallire a glorioso porto

If you follow your star,
you cannot fail to reach a glorious port

                                                                                   -Inf. xv 55-56

In the tenth and final chapter (‘Courtier (1316-1321)’) of a book simply strewn with overtly fraught Florentine discontentment, author Marco Santagata, hits home with such profound and informative effervescence, it’s enough to send any morally inclined reader running for the nearest hills of sanctified exacerbation: ”The allegorical interpretation, in effect, softened the prophetic and doctrinal aspects, which the Church authorities regarded as dangerous (in 1355 the provincial chapter of the Dominicans in Florence forbade monks to read Dante’s vernacular works).”

As such, by the time one has reached the nigh conclusion of Dante – The Story of His Life, one is, if nothing else, somewhat indebted to the supreme poet’s patient, and most perplexing of partisan philosophy.

Just one reason is accounted for by the mere fact that throughout Dante’s childhood and indeed, much of his adult life, his entire world was colorata in rosso/stained red (Inf.X 86) – due to the absurd and seemingly pointless inter-familial feuds of Ghibelline fugitives and Guelf reactionaries.

To be sure, reading the 302 pages of this book (excluding Appendix: Genealogical Tables, Abbreviations in Notes, Notes, Acknowledgements and Index) does unsurprisingly endear one into fully realising/comprehending: just how very little society has itself learnt from that of the ‘other.’

Niente.

In other words, anything which may appear slightly different or alien to that of our own social subscription and moral parameters, appears to have always been construed as reason enough to attack, victimise and ultimately desecrate. Santagata already makes as much clear in Dante’s very first chapter, ‘Childhood’: ”Defence and intimidation were both necessary operations in a city where quarrels between individual citizens and factions degenerated almost daily into violence and unrest […]. Spiralling hatred ended up dividing the largest family clans and even causing rifts in smaller ones. Coexistence in the city was precarious, marred by sudden outbursts of collective violence and individual coups de main, even during periods of relative calm when factions were attempting to work together.”

In response to and amid such upheaval, Santagata traces Dante’s attempts to establish himself in Florentine society, as a man of both letters and action. He also addresses the intriguing possibility that Dante translated an illness – believed by some to be epilepsy – into an intensely physical phenomenology of love in the Vita Nova.

Yet, perhaps most importantly, the author substantiates Dante Alighieri’s inexorable quest to forever readjust his own political standing.

His involvement with the aforementioned, pro-papacy Guelph faction being just one such example amid the many scattered throughout this more than comprehensive biography. A thoroughly well-researched biography at that, written from the premise of Dante being a father and courtier, as well as political partisan and philosopher.

Marco Santagata – who is a Professor of Italian Literature at the University of Pisa – has herein untangled many a complex web of family and political relationships for English readers; while in so doing, showing how the very composition of the Commedia was idiosyncratically influenced by local as well as regional politics.

But what one truly comes away with from having read this book of Two Parts (Florence and Exile), is Dante’s own (unwavering) high-octane belief in his own fate, wherein ”God had invested him with the prophetic mission of saving humanity.”

David Marx

Havel – A Life

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Havel – A Life
By Michael Zantovsky
Atlantic books – £25.00

         All my life I have simply believed that what is once done can never be undone          and that, in fact, everything remains forever. In short, Being has a memory.            And thus even my insignificance – as a bourgeois child, a laboratory                            assistant, a soldier, a stagehand, a playwright, a dissident, a prisoner, a                      resident, a pensioner, a public phenomenon, and a hermit, an alleged hero              but secretly a bundle of nerves – will remain here forever, or rather not                    here, but somewhere. But not, however, elsewhere. Somewhere here.
                                                                                                                                           Vaclav Havel.

In Saturday’s edition of The Guardian (June 27th), there was a very short extract of the indisputably crucial book that is Havel: A Life. It touches on the former playwright’s questionably feisty relationship with former Russian President, Mikhail Gorbachev: ”He thanked Gorbachev for his kind reception and understanding, remarked on his equally warm reception in the US, mentioned the gift of a pipe from a Native American chief, and then… produced the object. ”Mr President,” he said, ”it occurred to me that I should bring this pipe to Moscow and the two of us should smoke it together as a pipe of peace.” Gorbachev looked at it as if it were a hand grenade with the fuse off and stuttered: ”But I…I don’t smoke.””

As is often the case, said dry, jocular quotation, is indeed, a mere tiny tip of a rather gargantuan, serious literary iceberg. A revealing read in which Michael Zantovsky, one of Havel’s closest friends, bequeaths the reader with a veritable onslaught of inherently intellectual, profound, and on occasion, poignant evaluation. The sort of well informed, studied analysis, which luckily, really doesn’t hold back in any way whatsoever (”the conclusion that the truth has to be personally guaranteed to be really true is one that Havel is going to make again and again”).

Thus making for the nigh perfect biography of one of the most joyous, morally paramount political leaders of recent times.

To quote Madeleine Albright: ”Zantovsky’s biography of Havel is written with great understanding, candour and love – and provides us with expert analysis of not only politics but also Havel’s plays to boot.”

To be sure, Havel shares – rather than reveals.
Alludes to – rather than defines.
Qualities, which in this day and rather tiresome age of celebrity’n’cleavage induced conversation; not to mention instant, myopic gratification by way of Facebook and yer Twitter tsunami – I find altogether revivifying to say the least.

A more than pertinent example (and there are many), is Zantovsky’s rather considered description of Havel’s regal relationship with the love of his life, at the very outset of chapter six: ”Vaclav Havel was not yet seventeen when he met the woman of his life. He would later fall in love with Dagmar Veskrnova and marry her after Olga’s death, he would be enamoured at least twice in the time between, he would pursue rather indiscriminately, and be pursued by, other women, but she was his ‘one certainty,’ his companion, his conscience, his first reader, his staunchest defender and his fiercest critic for fifty years. Their relationship, which survived his mother’s resentment, hardships, crises, infidelities, persecution and prison, eventually came to defy standard categories and became a category of its own. The influence Olga had on Havel (and he on her) was so pervasive that it is plausible to speculate that he would have hardly become what he became without her.”

The same might be said of most great men and women.
But so far as the forty-six chapters of this acutely impressive work is concerned, it is the ultimate depth of clarity that does much to separate Havel from a plethora of badly written biographies.

Along with a Prologue and a detailed list of illustrations, it’s as equally enlightening as it is engaging. As such, I’m hard pressed to think of a better biography being published this year. Admittedly, this may well have a lot to do with the subject itself, although Michael Zantovsky, who clearly subscribes to the ideology: ”the fundamental key to man does not lie in his brain, but in his heart,” really has done his friend proud.

David Marx

Young Eliot

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Young Eliot – From St Louis to The Waste Land
By Robert Crawford
Jonathan Cape – £25.00

          Repeatedly he felt he had dried up as a poet, and feared he had wasted his                 life. Not marmoreal, but wounded and sometimes wounding, young T. S.                 Eliot may be imposingly erudite, but is also conflictedly human.

Hardly marmoreal, said parameters of intrinsic, erudite infliction, ought hardly be surprising within the acute context of literary analysis. For as recently written and edited by Sandie Byrne in the ‘Early Work’ of the (overtly informative) The Poetry of Ted Hughes (Palgrave Macmillan): ”A man is not only conscious of his prison, but his consciousness forms the very bars of his cell.” While such was undoubtedly the case with regards the Poet Laureate, it was also unquestionably so with that other resolute, complex, and most enigmatic of poets, T.S. Eliot.

A poet, who in the Introduction of Young Eliot – From St Louis to The Waste Land, is described as: ”the most remarkable immigrant poet in the English language but also the most influential and resounding poetic voice of the twentieth century.”

It is, suffice to say, nigh impossible to argue with the continuing trajectory of Eliot’s enormous influence and sublime sway within the world of poetry; but upon reading this wonderfully written and unbelievably well researched tomb of a biography by Robert Crawford, there’s no doubting the degree to which the immigrant, American poet, was a caged-in prisoner of his own (self-devised) shortcomings. Whether or not this is how Eliot was perceived throughout his actual lifetime or, how he actually was, Crawford makes abundantly clear from the very outset that what we’re about to read, will perhaps challenge and unapologetically differ from that of previous biographies: ”Presenting him as shy. Sometimes naïve and vulnerable, Young Eliot aims to unsettle common assumptions about this poet’s perceived coldness.”

Indeed it does – and it does so very well; although might this be partially due to the very invitation into the quintessential personalisation of Eliot’s early life – a facet of the book’s writing which, it has to be said, the author has accomplished exceedingly well.

As the title alone suggests, Crawford has ventured into such kaleidoscopic detail of the poet’s early childhood, that one cannot help but subliminally want to embrace young Tom. Reason being, it sometimes reads as if he were a soul searching protagonist within all the terse, tense temerity, of a well written novel: ”For years Tom’s mother was secretary of the Mission Free School of the Church of the Messiah. In that church building, admired for its architectural design by Boston’s Peabody sand Stearns, and for us its memorial stained-glass windows by Scottish artist Daniel Cottier, Tom sat, sang, prayed, worshipped, fidgeted and looked around. Under the great exposed roof-beams he saw biblical stories turned into stained-glass art: Christ as the sower, the good Samaritan, the wise and foolish virgins […]. Among generations of Unitarian Eliots, Tom grew up to be the one that got away. Yet an interest in the ‘primitive’ roots of religion, and in tracing religion to its earliest stages […] would be a continuing preoccupation. Tom was not reading theology in his cradle, but certainly imbibed it from childhood […]. Issues of faith and doubt were as inescapable as his own Christian name; a fondness for church buildings was something he carried from his childhood to his old age. St Louis Unitarianism gave him much to come to terms with. Eventually he felt he had been brought up in ‘a strong atmosphere of the most Liberal theology,’ but concluded in adulthood that soulful ‘Unitarianism is a bad preparation for brass tacks like birth, copulation, death, hell, heaven and insanity”’ (‘Hi, Kid, Let’s Dance’).

It’s no surprise that Robert Crawford is Bishop Wardlaw Professor of Poetry at the University of St Andrews, as well as a Fellow of the British Academy and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. I feel compelled to mention this due to the veritable inspiration with which he has approached the writing of Young Eliot – the above quotation of which, is as assuredly pronounced as it is throughout much of this book’s 424 pages.

A fine example of this being the author’s all round compact, yet simultaneously dense assessment of Eliot’s idiosyncratically introspective approach to (and place within the gamut of) poetry in the eleventh chapter, ‘Observations’: […] Tom articulated a poetic credo. His work gave him a focus that let him go on when his private life was difficult: though the two could not be separated completely, he valued all the more the sense of shape, the mixture of intuition and form that dedication to verse might offer.”

Furthermore, the final chapter, ‘The Waste Land,’ sheds pertinent light on Eliot’s more than profound and trusting relationship with Ezra Pound: ”Accepting Pound’s brilliant suggestion, Tom remained the author and final shaper of his work. Pound’s editing was highly ethical: he cut material, leaving only Tom’s best words to stand, but did not interpolate words of his own. He was sharpening rather than inventing or adding. This editor of genius was vital to The Waste Land […].”

This altogether excellent overview of T. S. Eliot’s early years, addresses and tackles head on, the varied complexities of both the man himself and the majestic, powerful poetry that remains his legacy.

As such, what more could anyone ask for? An eye-opener of a great book.

David Marx