hope against hope (2)
I have called this book an extravagant biography, using extravagant in its obsolete sense of vagrant, wandering out of bounds (62).
I had high hopes for Mirrlees’s A Fly in Amber, being an extravagant biography of the romantic antiquary Sir Robert Bruce Cotton,1 but I haven’t been able to finish it in a timely manner. Partially this is the fault of summer – it isn’t a book or a subject that suits warm weather and out-of-doors living; partially, too, it’s the fault of the book being due soon without the option to renew; mostly, though, the fault is the book’s. A biography can do many things, but if I am to read it through, I expect it to do at least one of the following:
- inform me about its subject;
- inform me about the subject’s milieu, or more generally the historical moment at which he or she lived;
- give me an unambiguous sense of the the author’s personality or style;2
- amuse me.
A fly in amber does none of these things; I was more perplexed and less interested on page 110 than I was on page one, and a quick perusal of the remainder did nothing to lift my spirits. Scattered gems (more carbuncle than ruby) I doubted not of finding, but I hadn’t and haven’t the will to search them out. A different mood might have found me more favorable, but we cannot always choose the humor in which we approach our reading, nor are we always willing to grope among the cobwebs for the shadow of a shade:
… although a man of prodigious learning whose mind was a fine well-tempered instrument, he was not a genius – nor was he an eccentric. Therefore his step is light, his voice faint, and his features hard to discern as he moves through the penumbra of the past (63).3
- Published by Faber and Faber in 1962.
- Ambiguity, of course, can be the sense given – the overall force should be unambiguous, even if it points unambiguously to ambiguity.
- This passage continues on to compare writing a biography of Cotton to a detective novel; if so, it must be a rather new-fangled arty detective novel, with no crime, no criminal, a great deal of furniture, and constant intrusion from the irrelevant detective, Would Surely.