Sunday, January 09, 2011

Byron: The Last Journey

Our book today is Harold Nicolson's quietly stunning 1924 work Byron: The Last Journey, chronicling that strangest of strange biographical stories, the decision Lord Byron made in 1823 to pack up from Italy and go to Greece, to Missolonghi, in order to throw his support, his money, and if need be his physical valor into the cause of Greek independence. It's in every way an exaggerated, outsized story, as crammed with doomed heroism and tattered romanticism as Byron could make it - even if we read an account of it with all the names taken out, we'd know we were reading, somehow, the last adventure of the author of "Childe Harold." Indeed, I sometimes think the foremost tragedy of Byron's pathetic mission to Greece is that he himself didn't live to record it in the beautiful-silly verse of which he was the greatest master since Ariosto.

The story Nicolson tells will be familiar in its bare outlines to anybody who's ever taken a college poetry class. After years of self-imposed exile in Italy, Byron was finally restless enough to extract himself from his vari0us enervating routines and move himself and a limited entourage to Greece, where he hoped his advocacy would lend prestige to the cause of independence - and where he very quickly became frustrated, bored, and then dead.

To his credit, Nicolson tells the story as if it weren't so familiar to his readers - it's this freshness that makes the book so eminently readable, and its a strong force in most of Nicolson's two dozen or so books. He was a hack in the best sense of the word, a literary taxi for hire, someone who would undertake the requisite research and turn out a damn readable book on virtually any subject if a publisher promised money for the job. Such writers are a dime a dozen in this age of Wiki-experts, but at the time this book was written, such a lack of scholarly provenance could tell against an author with the august critics in the TLS and other such tribunals. There's nothing a dabbler hates worse than being called a dabbler.

I think that's why Nicolson is at pains all throughout his book to emphasize that some point he's about to make derives from an original document he has in his possession - a bill of sale, a private notation of an autopsy report, or even a treasured volume:
I have in my possession the actual copy of Moore's "Life of Byron" which belonged to John Cam Hobhouse, the most intimate and the most truthful of all Byron's friends. In the wide margins of these two quarto volumes Hobhouse has pencilled a running commentary - approving, at moments, of Moore's flashy conclusions, supplementing them at moments from his own store of reminiscences, but in general contradicting them with the conviction, and sometimes with the asperity, of more intimate and exclusive knowledge. "Admirable," he has scribbled against certain paragraphs; "excellent but too fanciful," he comments at another place; "very possible," he annotates occasionally, or again, "This is the very man." Such confirmatory rubrics are, however, the exception; in most cases and invariably when Moore has allowed himself the luxury of a too romantic representation, Hobhouse's comments are trenchant and negative: "Most unlikely," he pencils; "I do not believe it;" "This is a lie;" "My dear T. M., you know nothing whatsoever of the true facts;" "Oh, no, Mr. Moore!" And sometimes merely "Oh, no!"

The tour through stalwart Hobhouse's comments is of course hugely entertaining, but that "I have in my possession" crops up throughout the book and speaks of a certain insecurity, as though Nicolson knows he's trespassing on well-trod scholarly ground and needs some stronger passport than his own interest (or the aforementioned promise of pay), when really his best safe conduct is his own marvellous ability to breathe life into his subjects. He stresses that he's got an invaluable primary document right in front of him, but as fascinating as that document is, it's outdone by his own summaries:
He knew that his friend was irresponsible and kind; that he was humourous and childish; that he was infinitely muddle-headed and unspeakably perverse; that he was irritable sometimes, and generally lazy, and a little mad perhaps, but then so sincere, affectionate, gentle; and of course appallingly weak; but then "always so very funny." Hobhouse could never quite get over how very funny Byron was. "Of all the peculiarities of B.," he has scribbled at the end of Moore's biography, "his laugh is that of which I have the most distinct recollection."

Naturally, any account of Byron's last weeks must include a few hatchet-swipes at the deeply divisive figure of Edward Trelawny, the hard-drinking companion who was so distrusted by so many of Byron's friends, with the notable exception of Mary Shelley:
"Trelawny," records Mrs. Shelley in her diary five days subsequently, "is extravagant - partly natural, and partly, perhaps, put on, but it suits him well; and if his abrupt but not unpolished manners be assumed, they are nevertheless in unison with his Moorish face, (for he looks Oriental, yet not Asiatic), his dark hair, his Herculean form; and then there is an air of extreme good nature which pervades his whole countenance, especially when he smiles, which assures me that his heart is good."

Is she - who knew the man - allowed to have her say? Well, not quite:
In this Mrs. Shelley was mistaken: Trelawny had no heart at all; all that he possessed was a capacity, an excessive capacity, for egotistic enthusiasms. Besides, Trelawny was a liar and a cad.


But whether Nicolson's (and every other Byron biographer's) dislike of Trelawny springs in any part from jealousy (some time soon I'll have to do a post on the man - he's had some very enjoyable biographies/diatribes written about him in the last two centuries), the fact remains that the characterization, however biased, is magnificently vivid, as are the characterizations of everybody in this book. None more so than the star attraction himself, who Nicolson often approaches with a decidedly novelistic flair that only a very strong writer can pull off:

Byron for his part shared none of these illusions. To him the future loomed more nebulous and less convincing. Subjective and sceptical, he was solaced by none of the confident convictions of his assistant. He did not believe very much in the Crown and Anchor: he had known them all too intimately. He did not believe unduly in the immediate perfectibility of Hellenic character: here again his experience militated against his credulity. He believed least of all in the efficiency of Lord Byron: his irradicable and realistic modesty precluded so seductive a fallacy. For him it was just a wet afternoon like any other; perhaps it would clear by four o'clock, and he could have his ride after all; meanwhile he might fence with Gamba; no, Gamba was in disgrace for the moment, because he had muddled the accounts at Cephallonia, and bought all those yards of red cloth that no one wanted. He drummed again upon the streaming window. It was such a bore being thirty-six.

I came across a pretty paperback reprint of this book just recently (a friend very kindly made sure I saw it) and soaked it up all the more greedily for the fact that I'd just lamented to another friend that I feared I'd finally read all the biographies of Byron. I'd missed this one, and the discovery made an already sweet reading experience all the sweeter. I wouldn't recommend it as anybody's first Byron book, but if you've already got a biography of the man under your belt, find yourself a copy - you'll be well pleased!


JC said...

A note here, for the unwitting, about how Steve operates in a used bookstore. I was the friend who came upon this little book, and what I asked Steve was weather he knew and recommended it. Steve looked at me as if to say, "no, of course not." And so minus his thumb's up (he knows his Byron biographies) I returned it to the shelf. It was of course in Steve's hand when he checked out, all it's imagined faults forgiven. To most, this is dirty pool. To Steve, it's just another day at the office. The fiend.

Sam said...

Still, though he connivingly swipeth, he giveth back tenfold. The Stevereads offices once sent me Nicolson's Verlaine biography, which I read with much happiness.

PatD said...

[blockquote]the foremost tragedy of Byron’s pathetic mission to Greece is that he himself didn’t live to record it in the beautiful-silly verse of which he was the greatest master since Ariosto.[/blockquote]

Only those responsible for autobiography barbecue know for sure that he didn't.

Steve, have you read Benjamin Markovits' remarkable take on Byron's life ("Imposture," and "A Quiet Adjustment")? Could be the truest interpretation of his life... disguised as fiction. AQA is especially brilliant.

Steve Donoghue said...

Pat: I have indeed read Marovits' Byron books and loved them! I look for used copies all the time now, but nobody must be willing to give them up, because I never see them.

And John: which is more fiendish, I ask you - me making sure I end up with a book I immediately and passionately read and loved, or you ending up with yet another book that potentially interests you and sits gathering dust on a shelf in Connecticut for fifteen years because you hugely misjudged when you'd ever get around to reading it? Let's look at it this way: if you were that BOOK, which of us would you rather have gone home with?