The Endless Bookshelf : simply messing about in books

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February 2007
Buchnarr, 1494. Ware! Ware! Ware the Book-Fool!

  27 February 2007

 
 

The Biographer as Unreliable Narrator

Follow My Dust ! A Biography of Arthur Upfield  by Jessica Hawke (Heinemann, 1957) is a very curious and slippery book. I have read few biographies whose factual content is to be measured in counted syllables. I suppose that I should have been alerted when I noticed the photographs in the book include Australian fauna and desolate landscapes rather than the author at different ages. It’s a readable, interesting picture of Australia in the first half of the twentieth century, with lots of vivid landscape, quirky characters, and unusual incident — not unlike an Arthur Upfield novel — but it is decidedly thin on concrete chronology and just plain fact. But it succeeds in conveying the fact that Upfield only became himself by leaving the rigidity of expectations of Edwardian England. The account appears to stop about 1939 and then crams the next dozen years into about five scant paragraphs.  A typed slip in my copy states that the author was Upfield’s de facto wife for many years and that the book was mostly written by Upfield.  The University of Melbourne Library holds his Papers and there is a detailed description of the contents of the collection, with a brief, objective biographical note that confirms Upfield’s authorship of Follow My Dust ! 

The only other biographical work of comparable evasiveness that I have read is Without Stopping  by Paul Bowles — was it William Burroughs who referred to it as Without Telling  ?  — but with Bowles that is only to be expected.