RICHARD HOLMES belongs to a small tribe of tourists, a distinct and articulate minority, that tends to journey not so much for the pleasure of the road as for the pleasure of pursuit. He is a relentless biographer-vagabond, who having been attracted to some gifted writer of the past -- a Stevenson or a Shelley -- commits himself to the subject's itineraries.
He calls himself a "romantic biographer" I suppose because he has followed the footsteps of the romantics, and in their romantic way -- hence his title. He is a seeker of the spirit of place, the deja vu of literary history, the exquisite poetry of a fairly remote past. In that role he is also a bit of a private eye who tends at times to embroider the past by observing his own countenance in the subject's mirrors. His embroidery is delicate and even subtle; and he has a summary style: it is lucid, candid and almost quietly innocent. He resembles the kind of writer who recently chased Flaubert's parrot; or someone like myself, at the time I walked the intricate paths of Henry James in the old cities and palazzos of Italy. Encountering him in these pages, I feel I have met an old friend.
Holmes' biographical outlook belongs to the psychology of "transference," which I have elsewhere discussed as the core problem of lifewriting: the biographer's love affair with the subject, and the need to fall out of love, or acquire a modest neutrality, before the life can be written. The biographical chapters in this book belong to the earlier stage, the period of deep involvement, the desire to create a bond of intimacy in a one- sided friendship. This has drawn Holmes into composing a mix of pleasurable fact-finding and romantic speculation. He isn't content with mere visiting, taking snapshots, glancing at a scene or landscape and then marching on. He needs to feel himself inside the skin of his love object. In doing this, however, he avoids adulation by enchanting his readers -- as when he describes how he took up the exact position of Shelley amid the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, sitting "in the crumbling brickwork while whole afternoons seemed to drift by in absolute, autumnal solitude." Here he reads Shelley's poems and letters on the sites where the poet wrote them. The idea is charming; in fantasy he is in Shelley's present -- he lifts himself out of his own present into the past.
Holmes is skillful enough to make us feel the enchantment: his problem is to disengage himself from this double identity. It is a kind of reverie or fantasy on things lost and gone, but without the romantic melancholy -- instead there is a kind of euphoria of participation, even though he seems on the verge of the elegiac in a country churchyard -- or in this instance a Roman bath.
IN THIS NECROMANCY Holmes takes us through Stevenson's early travels with a donkey in the Cevennes; the fascinating moments when that early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft went to France and was present during the Terror of the French Revolution; the curious and ingeniously documented affair Shelley had with his wife's half-sister, Claire Clairmont, who had earlier had an affair with Byron and borne his child.
His vagabondage itself is a romance, and the dividing line between personal adventure and literary history is often erased, given the special circumstances of each itinerary. The Stevenson, Wollstonecraft and Shelley portions of this book are highly successful, especially the passages devoted to Shelley, no doubt the spin-off from Holmes' Shelley: The Pursuit, published in 1974. I think his one failed quest is for the root-sources of Gerard de Nerval, the French symbolist poet, whose hallucinatory writings make him seem very modern. Holmes, I suspect, was unable to fall in love with a subject so morbid and pathological. He reminds us that T.S. Eliot at the end of "The Waste Land" borrowed one of Nerval's mystical and haunting lines -- Le Prince d'Aquitaine a la tour abolie -- the shattered symbol of the tower's shattered masonry suiting Eliot's own mood. Nerval's malady was not unlike Virginia Woolf's, and like her he finally committed suicide.
We can document Woolf's childhood and her development, where Nerval remains a mystery: we have no details of his childhood after he was dumped on some cousins in the Valais by his parents, at a tender age, a time when loss, rejection, desolation, and chronic depression must have engendered the sources for his remarkable writings. He remains too enigmatic, Tarot cards and all, and too obscure in spite of his prose and verse. He wrote a volume of promenades -- perhaps this gave him appeal to Holmes the promeneur. Holmes recounts his failed sleuthing and confesses that these footsteps yielded a 400-page book which "wisely no publisher touched." My personal hunch is that the work is salvageable if Holmes allows himself the uses of modern psychology for a careful reconstruction.
To readers of biographies and life-writers, Holmes' book has much to offer even when one wants to scribble over all its margins. There is a lightness of touch, a sense of wit and whimsicality, a feeling for the charm and mystique of places that have come down to us unchanged; and the charm of the footloose traveler himself, so sentient and inquiring and friendly, traveling with the simple luggage of a backpack, unworried about hotels, sleeping on a sandy beach or in a rocky corner, or finding succor in a monastery when the pangs of hunger have gone too long unanswered. The vagabond department of literary biography has needed exploration and Holmes' book is full of the sense of adventure and the deep affection out of which a biographer can write a life, given the precautions necessary to return to reality -- as Holmes found when he climbed a roof in Paris to do some Nervalian star-gazing and crashed through a skylight,unharmed, but certainly shaken up. "Oh," said his landlord, "how swiftly you climb down from your contemplations!"
Holmes is now immersed in a biography of high contemplation -- a life of Coleridge, which I am sure will be awaited with considerable excitement.