OSBERT SITWELL

By Philip Ziegler

Knopf. 444 pp. $30

Reviewed by Adam Kirsch

A suspicion of futility clings to Osbert Sitwell, as it did to Osbert Sitwell. Philip Ziegler, an accomplished biographer of British notables (King Edward VIII, Diana Cooper), himself acknowledges, on the last page of his new study, the doubt that must come to any reader's mind: "Is Osbert Sitwell therefore worth a book?" The answer is not clear, even though the book Ziegler has written is in many respects a model biography: meticulous, intelligent, fair, succinct and sympathe-tic to its subject even when his actions and opinions are distasteful.

For Sitwell cannot escape, 30 years after his death, the doubt that haunted and infuriated him during his successful career: Was he an artist, a real writer, or just a wealthy dilettante? Is his place with the luminaries of Modernism with whom he competed and corresponded -- T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf -- or with the assorted nobles and society swells in whose company his birth and wealth placed him? Even after Ziegler decides that "Osbert is worth a book," he says this is "not so much for what he did as for what he was."

Sitwell himself would have bitterly resented this judgment, but Ziegler shows that it is more or less correct. Almost none of Sitwell's poetry, novels, plays, essays or travel writings is still read; but his life, as recounted in his multi-volume autobiography, Left Hand, Right Hand!, and in Ziegler's more objective account, was full of interest.

Sitwell was born in 1892, the second child and first son of a rich, eccentric and tyrannical baronet. In their heyday, just after World War I, Osbert's name was inseparable from his siblings' -- Edith, a better but still not great poet, and Sacheverell, the youngest of the three. As the Sitwells -- "that delightful but deleterious trio," as Edmund Gosse called them -- they became identified in the public mind with the nascent Modernist movement. It was not just their work that made them seem so modern -- as Ziegler justly remarks, much of Osbert's own poetry was just as tame as the Georgian-pastoral verse he attacked -- but their public image: With the insouciance of born aristocrats, they loudly attacked a philistine public, satirized its tastes and set themselves up as defenders of the new. For the young Evelyn Waugh, they "radiated an aura of high spirits, elegance, impudence . . . They declared war on dullness."

Ziegler has a low opinion of his subject's writings -- and even Sitwell once admitted that "he was not really an imaginative or creative writer" -- but the man himself was never dull. As the heir to a wealthy coal-producing estate, Renishaw, he had the leisure to make his life into a comedy or a tragedy, and it was both by turns. He was a great wit, with a fondness for pranks: As an officer in the Great War, he cut short a march through London by commandeering a city bus. (His superiors didn't punish him, for fear that publicizing the deed would give other officers ideas.) He also had a taste for feuds, which litter this volume. He once unnerved Wyndham Lewis by sending to 500 of Lewis's friends a postcard of two men who looked just like the painter-writer, with the cryptic message: "So there are two of you." When traveling to Greece, where his then-enemy Cyril Connolly was staying, he sent Connolly a letter on Greek official stationery ordering him to leave Athens, to avoid offending "a party of distinguished visitors to whom your appearance and mentality are equally repulsive." Sitwell's life offers a window onto the absurd world of the English aristocracy on the wane, displaced by war and the welfare state. It is at once poignant and funny to find Sitwell and the Duchess of Beaufort plotting, in the impoverished year 1944, to give each other items that they could then exchange as gifts at Queen Mary's Christmas party.

There was also tragedy, though less perhaps than in most lives. Along with the blessing of wealth, Sitwell had to bear its curse, namely, the constant squabbling for money among all his relatives and friends. The record is depressing: He was at war with his father until the latter's death, then with his poorer siblings, finally with a series of scheming lovers and hangers-on. (Sitwell was homosexual, but love and sex seem from Ziegler's account to have played little role in his life.) Worst of all, his health, never very good, declined rapidly in the 1950s as Parkinson's disease stripped him of basic motor skills, including the ability to write. The spectacle of this gourmet reduced to banging his plate with his fork, this famous talker muttering incoherently, is the most affecting part of the book.

Reading about Osbert Sitwell's joys and sorrows will never be as interesting as reading about those of a great writer -- there simply is not the intense concern that we can feel for an artist whose work we love. And Ziegler seems conscious of this limitation, writing about his subject with tolerant understanding rather than passionate sympathy. But within these boundaries he has written a fine book -- a fitting tribute from posterity to a man with at least some claim on its regard.

Adam Kirsch is a writer living in New York.