Flawed Lives

By Block, Ed | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Winter 1988 | Go to article overview

Flawed Lives


Block, Ed, Nineteenth-Century Prose


Karl Beckson. Arthur Symons: A Life. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987. 402 pp.

Karl Beckson's biography of Arthur Symons will surely take its place with the handful of other attempts to comprehend the complex nature of the popularizer of Symbolism and the celebrant of Decadence in England. But it is also tempting to say that Symon's fragmented life begets flawed biographies and flawed critical studies. Roger Lhombreaud's biography is weak; John Munro's Twayne series biography--perhaps necessarily--thin. Beckson's biography, which attempts more than either of the earlier works, often falls short as well.

Critics of the genre distinguish biographies as public or private lives. Leon Edel once classified literary biographies as chronicle-compendia, organic lives, and literary portraits. He thought the organic life in the ascendancy, but that because of increased information about individuals, it required greater selectivity in the writing. He also noted that the organic life requires a narrative gift in the teller. Beckson's life seems to strive to be something between the chronicle-compendium and the organic life. His focus is at once public and, because of his inclination to psychoanalyze Symons, intensely private. Because Beckson lacks the narrative gift, the would-be organic effect is sometimes disappointing. Lhombreaud possessed the gift--or was possessed by it--but his biography sometimes suffers the faults of its gift. Because of the kinds of documents he uses, Beckson's psychoanalytic focus has some serious flaws.

To be just, Beckson accomplishes much; a great deal more than in any previous full-length biography of Symons. He has worked for almost ten years, since his publication of Symons's Memoirs in 1977. But perhaps even this perseverance has taken its toll. This is the problem: Symon's life falls naturally, or unnaturally, into two parts; the time before his 1908 nervous breakdown in Italy, and the time after. Exacerbating the problem of two "lives" is the fact that before his breakdown Symons was a major critic and conduit of literary ideas, a familiar of most major names in the late Victorian period. After his breakdown he was increasingly a shell of a man, re-living and embellishing--as he pillaged and republished works from--his earlier life. Having published the Memoirs (written form the 1920s to the mid-1940s), Beckson is quite naturally inclined to give greater emphasis to 1910-1945. The proportioning of Lhombreaud's "organic" life compared to Beckson's is instructive. In "selecting" relevant material, as Edel tells us the organic biographer must, Lhombreaud gave thirty-six pages to 1910-1945; Beckson gives the same period sixty-two pages. This is not merely the result of Beckson's attempt to be more compendious. Beckson's book is, overall, only about seventy pages longer. Otherwise the proportions devoted to different parts of Symon's life are about the same, Beckson surpassing Lhombreaud in factual detail, and Lhombreaud surpassing Beckson in narrative polish.

But Beckson's emphasis on 1910-1945 is more pervasive than this one comparison suggests. Everywhere in Beckson's work the reflections and judgments of 1910-1945 are allowed to color the picture of 1865-1908. Acknowledging as he does in the Memoirs and the biography that Symons after 1908 is obsessed with sin and given to incoherencies, I find it difficult not to fault this biography's treatment of certain issues. One is tempted to recommend that only those documents from pre-1908 be trusted in assessing Beckson's "theory" of Symons' divided life. In aggregate, then, there is much to recommend this volume, but almost equally much to criticize or to disappoint.

On the positive side, Beckson's biography organizes a mass of details relating to Symons' early life, family experiences and early academic career; however, on the negative side, the mass of details is sometimes handled in the most pedestrian of fashions. …

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