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Michael Holroyd's Basil Street Blues begins with a confession: Although he's made a career out of penning biographies of prominent writers, including George Bernard Shaw and Lytton Strachey, he had no interest in writing about his own family until now. He claims this ''probably arose from my need to escape from family involvements and immerse myself in other people's lives.''
Holroyd grew up in England during World War II, in a family full of eccentrics whose lives, despite a promising start, devolved into debts, regret, and sadness. He was raised by his father's parents and an unmarried aunt, with whom he shared a growing interest in books.
The family squabbled bitterly in the house they shared after being forced to sell their much larger estate. But the way he tells their story, revealing the humor in their personalities and habits while not ignoring the anguish of their predicament, does not allow the reader to feel sorry for them. If anything, Holroyd identifies with their human failings and thereby makes them real.
Holroyd sets out to write about his family out of a need to integrate them and their role in his early life with the outcome of his later years. It's an ambitious as well as ambiguous goal. He gathered material for this book, which he describes as a ''vicarious autobiography,'' by asking his parents to write their life stories and send the chapters to him in the form of letters.
His parents married secretly when very young and his mother was already pregnant. Almost as hastily they divorced, and the result for him was shuffling between the separate sets of his extended family. Holroyd describes his father as an ambitious man who was bewildered by his own inability to turn his ideas for advancement into actual advancement; he died completely broke. His mother, a vivacious Swede in love with love and the high life, married repeatedly - and more unhappily, it seems, every time.
Clearly in some ways they failed him, but he does not blame or pity them. Instead he concentrates on their motivations and circumstances and tries to see them more objectively. It's his willingness to look at them just as struggling, striving people, apart from their roles as his parents, that makes them come to life.
Holroyd does not shy away from describing moments when he failed the people close to him. In this way his self-deprecation and modesty are strikingly English, but not at all affected.
His years at boarding school and later in the military are other subjects of this story, and the beauty of the many intertwining elements can be seen partly in the way he holds back a little, giving away only enough details to activate the imagination. His housemaster at Eton is one of many characters he captures: ''For a man of his bulk, he spoke in a curiously soft voice muffled by continuous catarrh. In the evenings, like some amphibious monster, he would glide quietly along the perspiring corridors, occasionally stopping, entering a room at random and lugubriously passing the time of day.''
Holroyd's insight into the women of his family is keen. He looks closely at his aunt's one great romance that failed to bloom into marriage, and the result, that ''the little hammers of duty boarded Yolande up, first at Brocket [the family's first home] and finally in Norhurst.'' Through biographical sleuthing he discovers that his father's aunt's life ended unhappily, and that his great-grandmother committed suicide when her children were very young. This is one mystery he cannot fully solve, but his speculations are informed and interesting.
Through these discoveries, Holroyd may have gained renewed appreciation of his own means of escape. Alone in a house full of unhappy adults, he discovered books and writing. ''Being a solitary child, books soon became my friends and the means by which, from the privacy of my bedroom, I travelled all over the world,'' he reflects.
Holroyd's confession of apathy toward his family turns out to be only partly true, for he tried to combine his interest in writing and his fascination with them earlier in his life. His only novel, A Dog's Life, so closely matched family members' personalities that his father fought to stop him from publishing it, which turns out to be a painful story in its own right.
Basil Street Blues may be an attempt to do what his novel could not: to search out the facts of his family members' lives and let them tell their own stories. Through the lens of a mature biographer who knew them as a child, they are vivid.
— Boston Globe