Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Well Loved Stranger, presentation by Valerie Grove, reviewed by Jack Degree

When, recently, I attended a presentation by Valerie Grove, who was going to talk about her new biography of Laurie Lee, I overheard two other writers in conversation during the preceding hush. The first said that she had reinvigorated her career as an editor. The other, a poet, smiled remotely and wasn't at all surprised. 'In a sense,' he said, 'the act of writing is already an act of editing' - meaning that, before the world has a chance to besmear their texts, all writers' texts come as it were pre-sanified. Since then I have learnt that distant smile myself, and think I might even apply it in what I have to say about Grove and her Lee biography - for that in itself was a huge editorial task. The talk took place at the annual congress of the West Country Writers' Association, in Torquay.

Her whole undertaking was done in triplicate. First (or last) was the hour or so that Valerie Grove, who also writes for the Sunday Times, had been allotted to tell us about Laurie Lee. Of course, she had gone this way before (the second or middle edit), with her book The Well Loved Stranger. It's a tome that touches the scales at well over 500pp, so to what extent did she massage her voluminous material into a brief, one-hour talk?

With apparent ease, is the answer, conveying in one truncated noon the direction, character and ethos of her book, tracing the charmed life of the charming Laurie Lee, from the panache and magnetism of his youth, to the irascibility and slightly jaded view of human affairs in his middle and later years.

Cider with Rosie apart, the essence of his life and career - as a kind of indivisible whole - were the women or Muses in his life, his early rejection of civic norms (he was a troubadour, seven or eight hundred years after that heyday), and the sheer good fortune in the social connections he made (he a humble rural lad). He loved intensely. He crossed the Pyrenees and slept beneath the stars. He sang - or rather caressed his violin - for his supper. He saw Spain in the 1930s, and like so many disinterested Englishmen aligned himself to the Republican cause. Also he wrote poetry - and books, and plays, and turned out hackwork - his emphasis a crafted lyricism in an era of otherwise modish verism. Also he suffered from epilepsy, a physiological syntax he never quite edited out, though he did take steps to conceal it from those he most cared about. All this has been honestly rendered.

Yet there is, isn't there, something unearthly, something supernatural about the whole business of biography, a life like an established work of art as finished, objectified, sooner or later summarised. Anthony Burgess, somewhere at the outset of his own memoirs (vol. 1, Little Wilson and Big God), mused aloud that he had better write the account himself before somebody else did, so subjecting his life to his own choice of filters and interdict - all, as that poet from my opening paragraph might say, a question of editing himself. It raises the question, how does a biographer distil from that unstable and multifarious text - a person's life - the novel-size edition? In Valerie Grove's case, in dealing with the well loved Lee, there was a heap of correspondence, and the views of people who knew him, importantly an autobiographical oeuvre, and, more decisive perhaps than these (those filters and interdicts) the diaries of Lee himself - he the prime editor. Spawned, incidentally, is another set of choices, made by me in writing this, and the way I have sharpened my nib - the pressures and external weights scribing it to one final thought on this whole tricky area of authorial immortality: Is it not all just a fiction

Valerie Grove's Laurie Lee, the Well Loved Stranger was published by Viking in 1999.


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