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Book Review : The Ambivalence of Fitzgerald Friends

April 17, 1985|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

With Friends Possessed: A Life of Edward Fitzgerald by Robert Bernard Martin (Atheneum: $17.95)

Thackeray, Tennyson and Carlyle all had great affection for him and were cheered immensely by his company. And all three, in one fashion or another, made sure that they did not enjoy that company too often. "He makes me too idle," Thackeray complained.

A rich amateur of arts and letters, an intellectual mayfly, a generous and touchy eccentric, Edward Fitzgerald was the bane of the busy. Purposes wilted in his affectionate and unpredictable presence. He was an eager host, but his guests would have to bring cheese and oysters along in the absence of anything very organized to eat; not because he was parsimonious but because he hated to plan. As a guest, he could be counted upon to walk cross-grained athwart any arrangements made for him.

A younger son in an immensely wealthy Anglo-Irish family, Fitzgerald had a dominating and flamboyant mother and a father so literally retiring that he was known, when dressing for dinner, to put on his pajamas and go to bed. Much of the family hovered in the environs of looniness; Edward, not exceeding great oddity, was a flutter of talents and passions lacking any principal of organization.

Only once did he catch fire, and that was when a friend introduced him to the quatrains of an Epicurean Persian poet named Omar Khayyam. Fitzgerald's lush and lilting translation--published anonymously--was a raging success in his lifetime, and much read ever since.

His other abiding talent was for letter writing; his correspondence was copious and possessed a singular charm and spirit. It was his monument to friendship which, despite the peculiar and often counterproductive way he exercised it, was undoubtedly his central passion.

Translation and correspondence, both of them faculties depending on something outside oneself. It is not easy to write a biography of a man lacking a center. It is Robert Martin's achievement to have captured so much of such an elusive personage, to have conveyed the winning quality that led his friends to put up with a great deal of silliness, to have found something memorable in a minor and diffuse life.

Fitzgerald was a gentleman and was not expected to work. He was too skeptical to make a clergyman, too vagrant to become a scholar. He made desultory efforts to manage a part of his family's estates. But mostly he drifted, read, wrote letters, collected paintings--which he would cut up or re-touch to improve them--and saw his friends.

He had gone to Cambridge as a young man and, in a sense, never left it. Nothing in the outside world could match its languorous afternoons, the endless conversation, the rambling. Afterward, he kept his lodgings there, and frequently returned for a visit. His various households in the Suffolk countryside were shabby and neglected and run like students' digs.

Settled near the town of Woodbridge, he presided over a salon of provincial wits and eccentrics. There was the Rev. George Crabbe, a source of affection and theological thunderbolts; and Thomas Churchyard, a lawyer who preferred painting.

His marriage to Lucy Barton, prompted by some misunderstood offer of support after her father's death, was doomed from the start. He wrote about it with advance foreboding. He refused to change his clothes for the ceremony. At the wedding breakfast, he sulked, and when blancmange was served, he complained that it looked like "congealed bridesmaid." Both he and Lucy were 46; he referred to her as "The Contemporary" and sometimes as "Lucretia Borgia." They separated after a year.

Parts of Martin's biography seemed to strain after relatively little, which is almost inevitable. The discussion of Fitzgerald's small body of original work and of his less successful translations doesn't seem to matter much. On the other hand, there is relatively little said about the Rubaiyat itself, although quite a bit about how it was written and how it became popular. More seriously--the Rubaiyat is familiar, after all--the author praises the charm and vivacity of Fitzgerald's correspondence without doing much to convey that quality to us.

What he has done, though, is to convey the unquiet charm of Fitzgerald himself; a charm that lights up his considerable futility so that it beguiles and touches us.

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