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Bringing the Dead Back to Life

SIDETRACKS Explorations of a Romantic Biographer By Richard Holmes; Pantheon: 420 pp., $30

March 25, 2001|RICHARD RAYNER | Richard Rayner is the author, most recently, of "The Cloud Sketcher: A Novel."

I first encountered the writing of Richard Holmes when, as a student in the late 1970s, I picked up a copy of his first book, "Shelley: The Pursuit," and was thrilled. Here was a picture of Shelley different from all my previous ideas of him, which at the time were largely derived from "Ariel" by Andre Maurois-the first book ever published by Penguin, by the way, back in the 1930s, and thus one of the very first mass-market paperbacks of any sort (a biography of a poet-are we talking different times or what?), a swooning portrait that shaped the fantasies of several generations of English girls, not to mention those of the boys who twigged to the idea that verse might be useful for reasons other than literary.

Holmes' Shelley is altogether more substantial, a robust, capable and indeed almost terrible figure, a determined and professional literary man who mastered several languages so he could better ply his trade, a visionary and very political poet who perhaps had more in common with his beleaguered predecessor William Blake than his glamorous friend Lord Byron, a man who abhorred violence and who, by the turmoil of his living, left behind a stream of dead lovers and dead babies, victims who came back to haunt him with nightmare visions of his own doom.

A poet maudit indeed, and yet Holmes made me wish I'd been around him, to feel his electricity and inspiration and, on finishing the book, I didn't feel that Shelley had been debunked, far from it. It was as though he'd been restored by an act of scholarship as impassioned and thrilling as the events described, as though Holmes had rendered the tragic gesture of the life complete and whole for the first time and not without emotional cost to himself.

Intellectually, the book redressed a balance. On the page, the prose tingled with excitement. As only the best writing does, it put you there: for instance, evoking Shelley's death by drowning with cool dread: "The exposed flesh of Shelley's arm and face had been entirely eaten away, but he was identifiable by the nankeen trousers, the white silk socks beneath the boots and Hunts' copy of Keats's poems doubled back in the jacket pocket."

"Shelley: The Pursuit" was published in 1974, when Holmes was still only in his late 20s. Since then, each of his full-length studies, and there haven't been many-two long and splendid books on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a less successful shorter one on Samuel Johnson's relationship with the poet and murderer Richard Savage-has been marked by the same intense yet objective identification and by an exhilarating style that acts as airy, uplifting counterpoint to the interpretative depth.

Holmes has established himself as one of the finest of literary biographers, but biography isn't just his metier, it's his subject too. In two further books, "Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer" (1985) and now "Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer," he meditates on the nature of his craft and the increasingly primary importance of biography as a form.

Why are we fascinated by other people's lives? Why do we reach for the latest magazine with Russell Crowe on the cover, hoping that we'll get the dish on Meg Ryan and the kidnapping plot? And is this the same prurient, gossipy impulse that makes us want to read about Keats? In what way, exactly, is Walter Jackson Bate better and more useful than Vanity Fair, if indeed he is? And why is it that certain biographies-Bob Woodward's rummage through the credit card receipts of John Belushi in "Wired," for instance, or the more recent "Joe DiMaggio" by Richard Ben Cramer-entertain us and yet fill us with mistrust?

"Sidetracks," evoking plenty of questions like this, collects 20 or so essays and-perhaps even more curious-plays and short stories, written over a 30-year span, and weaves autobiographical notes among them. The result amounts to much more than the mere attractive repackaging of old stuff, even if there is a slightly dusted-off air, as if the book retained the not-unpleasant aroma of the trunk from which these old cuttings were disinterred before being heaved to the Xerox machine.

But that's easily forgiven: Holmes is so good, and "Sidetracks" is funny and bracing, full of wonderful stories and suggestive plums, beginning with how he made his own start.

There's a familiar pattern to the traditional English literary career. First step is the move from the provinces or the university (and it still helps if it's Oxford or Cambridge) to the big city, where sex is pursued, liquor and mind-altering substances are consumed and loneliness and depression are encountered. Somehow in the midst of the fret, writing happens and professional advancement is secured-or not. It's the well-trod and perilous path whose pleasures and disappointments have been scurrilously recorded and whose tricky curves are littered with wrecks and smeared with road-kill. Book life isn't race car driving, but it isn't dentistry either.

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