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Footsteps : Adventures of a Romantic Biographer : by Richard Holmes (Elisabeth Sifton/Viking: $18.95; 275 pp., ill ustrated)

January 19, 1986|P. D. Sheats | Sheats teaches romantic literature at UCLA. and

Biography may lack the glamour of its younger cousin, the novel, but it has usually seemed more reliable. Biography promises fact, not fiction; it holds up lives actually lived by real people, and gives us, as Samuel Johnson said, "what comes near to ourselves, what we can turn to use." Biography offers a practicable guide to the business of living.

Or does it? Richard Holmes' "Footsteps" is, among other things, an extended meditation on the impossibility of objective biography, in which the skepticism of much contemporary literary theory is transformed into personal drama. An English journalist and critic, and the author of a controversial biography of the poet Shelley, Holmes here recounts his biographical pursuits of four people. He begins, as a student of 19, by retracing Robert Louis Stevenson's "Travels With a Donkey" through the mountains of the Devennes in southern France. Four years later in Paris, during the student riots of 1968, he investigates the group of English expatriates who weathered the French Revolution, especially Mary Wollstonecraft, feminist and reformer, and her lover, the American adventurer Gilbert Imlay. Holmes next follows Shelley and his wife Mary, Wollstonecraft's daughter, through Italy, ending at their last home, the Casa Magni on the Gulf of La Spezia. His final subject is Gerard de Nerval, the gifted poet and travel writer who hanged himself in a Parisian alley in 1855.

What ties these disparate lives together is their common relationship to Holmes, whose heroic attempts to "reach" them form the true subject of the book. He hunts them down in places dear to them, photographs the view from their windows, quotes their impressions and probes their psyches. Gradually he slips into an imaginary intimacy with them, a "continuous living dialogue" with the dead that Holmes considers the stuff of authentic biography.

If that sounds bizarre, it is. Holmes' subjects become his friends and, as he grows older, his demons. He plunges into depression at the sight of a ruined bridge in the Cevennes, which symbolizes his inability to "bridge" the century that separates him from Stevenson. When the journey ends, he feels suddenly alone: "Stevenson had departed." After being "possessed" by the Shelleys, Holmes slips into a "perilous identification with (his) lunatic subject," the schizoid Nerval. A series of psychic adventures leave him unable to separate self from subject, imagination from history. As the book ends, he closes his notebook, struggles free of Nerval's haunting presence, and takes up his own life: "I was 30, and it was time to consider the way I should go myself."

It would be a mistake to call what Holmes is doing here "biography." For all his meditations on that art, he seldom inquires seriously into the weight and value of particular lives. He is bent on telling his own story, and he casts his four subjects in supporting roles. He acknowledges virtually none of his sources, and when he cites previous work, it is to explain why he ignores it. The reader is frequently as much at sea as the author; neither can part fact from imagination.

Biography may indeed be something of a pretext. The book's strength lies in its vivid descriptions, its feel for places, things and images--chats with passers-by on the Cevennes trail, the look of Nerval's Bohemian Paris. It is best regarded, perhaps, as a literary travelogue, in the style of Stevenson or Nerval, or one of those dashing wanderers of the 1920s who recited Byron as the sun sank beneath the battlements of Chillon.

Holmes casts himself as a "romantic," but, in fact, he speaks for only one limited strain of romanticism. His favorite adjective is "wild," and he prizes the imaginary, the sensational, the intense. His romance tends toward the gothic and, at times, the harlequin. It testifies to the continuing power of "wild" romanticism to attract students, and then to transform them into practitioners.

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