War biographies round-up: Talent tempered in the fire of war

Lesley McDowell offers a guide to the best of this summer’s literary biographies

Lesley McDowell
Friday 22 August 2014 13:31 BST

Perhaps it’s the effect of this year’s commemoration of the start of the First World War, but it’s hard not to be struck by how many of this summer’s biographies feature the impact of war on an individual. Perhaps James Booth’s Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love (Bloomsbury, £25) is the exception here, the student Larkin spending the Second World War writing racy girls’ school stories and trying his hand as a novelist instead. But for Ian Fleming and JD Salinger, that war had a profound and similar effect, making them flee the worlds they had grown up in. They were damaged men as a result, if stronger writers.

The First World War has its most obvious impact on the poet and translator, CK Scott Moncrieff, whose short life – he died of stomach cancer in 1930 when only 40 – is celebrated in Jean Findlay’s respectful and sympathetic account of her great-great uncle, Chasing Lost Time: The Life of CK Moncrieff Soldier, Spy and Translator (Chatto and Windus, £25). Oscar Wilde’s unhappy fate at the end of the 19th century was hardly encouraging to young homosexual men going public, and so only a few of Moncrieff’s close friends knew about his sexuality. Findlay surmises that a life of secrecy also made him a good spy after the First World War, but he could be rash, idolising Wilfred Owen and making his feelings plain, much to the glamorous young soldier’s horror: Moncrieff after the war was a broken down man, prematurely aged.

But his double life would have been relished, surely, by Fleming, who scooted off to Jamaica after his first visit in 1943 and never returned to live in England after the war. Matthew Parker’s Goldeneye: Where Bond was Born, Ian Fleming’s Jamaica (Hutchinson, £20) is relentlessly glamorous – Fleming becomes neighbour to Errol Flynn and Noël Coward – but it also emphasises Fleming’s inability to accept a changing world after the war, especially a changing Britain. If anything, the war exacerbated his conservative side, and in Jamaica, among other ex-pats, he could preserve that instinct. If Bond seems to us now like an anachronism, that’s because he was from the moment he was created, reflecting the anachronisms of his creator.

The need to hold a moment in time seems to develop out of wartime experience, and this is dwelt upon most in David Shields and Shane Salerno’s extraordinary and experimental biography of JD Salinger (Salinger, Simon and Schuster, £9.99). Related through a series of interviews and conversations, this book establishes the impact of D-Day on Salinger, as well as his experience of “liberating” concentration camp Kaufering IV. War made him want to hold childhood in aspic, explaining possibly the impulse behind his greatest success, The Catcher in the Rye, and also his uncomfortable tendency to fall for young girls.

And whilst Philip Larkin didn’t fight in that war, it is post-war Britain we associate him with the most, the Britain that Fleming escaped geographically but never emotionally. And it’s post-war Britain that affected Larkin when it came to his relationships with women. Booth’s biography focuses on that aspect of the poet’s life fruitfully, if he is a little too bent on reclaiming his reputation from the hands of other recent biographers, who have exposed Larkin’s occasional racism and misogyny.

The impact of war continues, of course, in Alexander Larman’s Blazing Star: The Life and Times of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (Head of Zeus, £25), a robust and rousting account of the 17th-century poet, damaged by the civil war which robbed him of his father, and in Helen Rappaport’s moving Four Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses (Macmillan, £20), but now the focus moves to children. Rappaport does a superb job of individualising the four girls and their little brother, murdered by the Bolsheviks during the revolution. A counter-argument would of course ask, what about the lives of ordinary Russian children who died of starvation whilst the Tsar and his family ensconced themselves in their beautiful home, but Rappaport is sensitive to this, and stresses the girls’ efforts as nurses during the First World War, creating sympathy out of their general isolation.

Similarly, Robert Sackville-West’s The Disinherited: A Story of Family, Love and Betrayal concentrates on the children, this time those of West’s own great-uncle, Lionel, the second Lord Sackville, who fathered five children with a Spanish professional dancer, known as Pepita. Were those children illegitimate or not? Some claimed he had gone through a marriage ceremony with Pepita; this mattered in terms of inheritance, but it also broke the five siblings apart. Eldest daughter Victoria married her cousin, Lionel, who became the third Lord Sackville, the parents of Vita Sackville-West, but Lionel’s claim to the title was disputed by youngest son Henry, who eventual killed himself. It’s a deliciously gossipy tale of family secrets and lies, but it’s also a sad story of children at war with one another.

Lyndall Gordon’s account of her relationship with her mother in Divided Lives: Dreams of a Mother and Daughter (Virago, £20) is also a story of secrets: her mother’s epilepsy, which wasn’t revealed to her by doctors until later in life, and her own experience with depression. Emotional damage, families and writing are, as ever, intertwined somehow in various combinations in all of these accounts.

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