Richard Holmes, Nerval, madness and a book not written

Have I mentioned to you that I really very much enjoy Richard Holmes’ work? I think I may have, once or twice.

You might be wondering why I am so enamoured of Richard Holmes at the moment.  I have not particularly characterized my own work as biography- in fact I think that I have consciously resisted the idea of writing biography.  Yes, I am looking at my judge, but I’m even more interested in the reaction to him in the societies in which he operated, the hot-buttons he pushed, and what that suggests about that colony.

And yet I find myself identifying with much of what Holmes says about the biographer’s relationship with the subject.  My family rolls its collective eye and  I often laugh at my ability to play Six Degrees of Separation between any possible event or person and Judge Willis.  I read court reports in the newspaper and wonder “What Would Judge Willis Do?”.  I seem to be able to find some connection, however tenuous, between Willis and practically anyone in Port Phillip in the 1840s.  I walk around Melbourne and I try to “see” it with 1840s eyes.

It was rather reassuring to find that Richard Holmes does this too. In talking about his four-year passion in writing about Shelley, he writes:

The pursuit became so intense, so demanding of my own emotions that it continuously threatened to get out of hand.  When I traveled alone I craved after intimacy with my subject, knowing all the time that I must maintain an objective and judicial stance.  I came often to feel excluded, left behind, shut out from the magic circle of his family… I was often in a peculiar state, like a displaced person, which was obviously touched off by some imbalance, or lack of hardened identity, in my own character… Indeed I came to suspect that there is something frequently comic about the trailing figure of the biographer: a sort of tramp permanently knocking at the kitchen window and secretly hoping he might be invited in for supper.  (Footsteps p. 143-4)

He talks about the biographer becoming gradually more confident about his/her subject’s character.  This is something that I’ve only recently been able to say about myself.  Just recently, I mentioned to a fellow-student something that I felt about my judge, just on the gut-feeling that, knowing what I do about him, I think he would act this way.  I was right, and even though I often bemoan that “I just do not get this man”, I think perhaps I do more than I admit.  Holmes writes:

Yet a biographer does become slowly convinced about his subjects’ characters.  After studying them and living with them for several years he finds that they become one of the most important of all human truths; and I think perhaps the most reliable….   [The subject might act ‘out of character’] Yet the biographer views and witnesses these daily human affairs in a special and privileged perspective.  He gains a special kind of intimacy, but quite different from the subjective intimacy that I had first so passionately sought.  He sees no act in isolation; nor does he see it from a single viewpoint.  Even the familiarity of a close friend or spouse of many years suffers from this limitation.  The biographer sees every act as part of a constantly unfolding pattern: he sees the before and the afterwards, both cause and consequence.  Above all he sees repetition and the emergence of significant behaviour over an entire lifetime.  As a result I have convinced of the integrity of  human character. Even a man’s failings, sudden lapses, contradictory reactions, sudden caprices, seem in the long run to fall within a pattern of character.  One could say, paradoxically, that people even act out of character in a certain way: there is always, so to speak, meaning in their madness, provided one has full knowledge of the circumstances.  (Footsteps p. 173,4)

But Gerard de Nerval nearly brought him undone.  In his book Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, he writes of his obsession- and it truly became that- with the writer Gerard de Nerval, a French journalist and writer who was himself floridly insane and ended up committing suicide.

Gerard de Nerval

The biographical problems in writing about Nerval were daunting.  What to even call the man? (given that this was an assumed name).  How much to trust Nerval’s unverifiable telling of own childhood, given that it was written in the grip of madness?  How to write about the madness when it was at the centre of his self?  How to write about a person when Nerval himself often saw himself as two people?

All the logical and traditional structures that I had learned so painstakingly- the chronology, the development of character, the structure of friendships, the sense of trust and the subject’s inner identity- began to twist and dissolve.  It was becoming more and more difficult to tell, or to account for, Nerval’s life in the ordinary narrative, linear way. (p. 249)… As my months went by in Paris, I became more and more convinced that was exactly what could not be done, and that I had reached the limits of the biographical form, as a method of investigation.  Instead, I found myself slipping further and further into a peculiar and perilous identification with my lunatic subject, as if somehow I could diagnose Nerval by becoming him.  As if self-identification- the first crime in biography- had become my last and only resort. (Footsteps p. 264)

Holmes experimented with different techniques.  Could he write a biographical group portrait of the people who surrounded Nerval, using “a central but relatively neutral or unfamiliar figure to tell the story of a famous group of circle”? (p. 208) But the danger is that the “neutral” figure becomes the focus.  Should he abandon any pretence of objective documentation, evidence or chronology and write it as a novel instead? (p.265).  Could he use the Tarot cards that Nerval placed such credence upon as an organizing device for a life that defied chronological and developmental unity? [Personally, I think that this could have worked really well.]

In the end, his major work on Nerval remained unpublished- a book not written, so to say, – or at least, a book not read, although he did contribute an essay to a translation of Nerval’s work in 1985.   Until- voila!- Nerval reappears in  Holmes’ 2000 book Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer,  in the form of a radio documentary called “Inside the Tower” – or as he describes it “a radio drama based on the life of the poet Gerard de Nerval.  All Nerval’s speeches are drawn from his own essays, letters and journals.”  It was broadcast in 1977 by Radio Three, with Timothy West as the voice of Gautier.

Holmes noted:

The discovery of radio, as a vehicle for biographical story-telling, moving effortlessly inside and outside its characters’ minds, shifting with magical ease between different times and locations, was a revelation and an inspiration to me. (Sidetracks, p. 55)

And even moreso now, I would say, with podcasts that can give a program a life beyond its initial airing.  This genre solved so many problems:  he could capture the multiple perspectives of Nerval’s friends by writing commentaries for them as bit-players, so that they contribute to our understanding of Nerval without having to take centre stage themselves.  He could use Nerval’s own words- great screeds of them- to capture Nerval’s own voice, and what an acute and lyrical one it is too!  He starts with the suicide,  in the form of a police report, with eyewitnesses, mortuary assistant, police commissioner; then broadens out to include his friends, his doctors- then finally Nerval himself.  Holmes himself speaks as biographer, but he doesn’t dominate the stage.  Instead, it is Nerval’s voice, unadulterated, honoured.  Brilliant, brilliant stuff.


Richard Holmes Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (1985)

Richard Holmes Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer (2000)


One response to “Richard Holmes, Nerval, madness and a book not written

  1. Pingback: ‘Sidetracks’ by Richard Holmes « The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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