Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Walter Mason's favourite literary memoirs

 Book Club co-host Walter Mason turns to other writers' lives to reinvigorate his own.

I am struggling with writing at the moment and in such times I like nothing better to read about the fabulous lives of other writers. I revel in the stories of their creative ease; the speed and swiftness with which the words flow from them, the great quantities of reviews they garner and the never-ending flow of cheques... Well, truth be told even the most famous writers rarely tell these kinds of stories. Mostly it's a series of endless grumbles and slightly gossipy tales about other people more famous than them.

Nonetheless, the literary memoir remains one of my favoured forms of entertainment. I never tire of comparing myself to others and trying to get a little insight into just how people manage to make a success of the writing life. Here are a few that I turn to again and again:

Conversation With Max by S. N Behrman - An enchanting account of the twilight years of the Victorian belletrist and caricaturist Max Beerbohm. Long out of print, of course, it is utterly charming and well worth hunting down. The diminutive Beerbohm, half-brother to the great Victorian actor Beerbohm Tree, was much more famous for his affability and friendliness than he ever was for his writing. He was everyone'spal, including, as a very young man, Oscar Wilde's. This exquisitely slight book is nothing but anecdote and gossip, all gleaned from the writer's cocktails with Beerbohm and his young German companion Miss Jungmann on the terrace of his villa in Rapallo. A gorgeous insight into the literary world of the late-Victorian era.

Love is Where it Falls by Simon Callow - Subtitled "The story of a passionate friendship," this is an account of acclaimed actor Simon Callow's intimate relationship with his manager, the theatrical impresario Margaret Ramsay. Her being 72 years old and he being an avowed homosexual doesn't muddy the waters at all. Indeed, it makes things considerably easier, allowing them to be devotedly but chastely in love with one another in the very best tradition of platonic relationships. The world's most unlikely love story, it is sprinkled with theatrical and literary gossip, and many people are still unaware of the fact that Callow is a brilliant writer.

Sir Vidia's Shadow by Paul Theroux - Charts the disintegration of a long friendship between two of the 20th century's most celebrated authors. Theroux writes a stinging account of his ex-friends failings, but you can't help but feel a grudging respect for the irascible elitism of Naipaul and even Theroux remains an acolyte of his old friend's self-declared genius. This book is utterly fascinating because it records the dissolution of a friendship, something rarely discussed in books and in our culture, and yet something that has happened to almost everyone in their adulthood.

Frederick Rolfe, Baron Corvo

The Quest for Corvo by A. J. A. Symons - An account of literary obsession, this is the tale of an antiquarian’s detective work searching for manuscripts by Frederick Rolfe, one of the most repugnant figures in literary history. Symons finds himself suddenly immersed in the world of Corvophiles, slightly OCD men who delight in trumping each other with even more terrible tales of Rolfe's nastiness. It is a book about being in love with books, and about the special thrill of discovering a cultish author who you can, almost, make your own.

Son of Oscar Wilde by Vyvyan Holland - The title says it all really. What is most thrilling about this fascinating and incredibly touching book is the realisation that perhaps literary talent is passed down through the generations. Never having properly known his father, Holland attempts to tell the story of his strangely-protected life, one where he was only half-aware that his father was one of the most reviled figures of 19th century history. He tells a wonderful story of reading, for the first time, The Ballad of Reading Gaol which he discovers on a friend's bookshelf. A truly unique story of a child coming to terms with the fame and infamy of the most important man in his life.

Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson

Hugh by A. C. Benson - A true literary rarity (good luck with finding a copy), fans of the Benson family might be surprised that I pick this book above all the memoir written by that most productive family. When he wrote the book A. C. Benson was one of the most beloved Edwardian writers, and he was memorialising his brother, Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, celebrated Catholic convert and himself a popular writer. Hugh had been, in his day, quite a scandalous figure, populating the fringes of Oscar Wilde's circle and being a rather unwilling friend of the aforementioned Frederick Rolfe. Being the son of a prominent Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Monsignor Benson was much beloved in the Catholic world, and he endlessly wrote works of popular piety and stories for Catholic boys. Once a well-known name amongst English-speaking Catholics, his fame on a par with people like G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, R. H. Benson's star has mostly faded now. This makes this book all the more t ouching and fascinating, and it is a lovely introduction to the gentle prose of A. C. Benson, a man also largely forgotten.

You can find an e-copy of Sir Vidia's Shadow here. And please try our bookstore links above right. Or share your finds and sources via comments below. We love to hear from you.

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