cover image Basil Street Blues

Basil Street Blues

Michael Holroyd. W. W. Norton & Company, $24.95 (306pp) ISBN 978-0-393-04850-6

Affectionate and wry, Holroyd's memoir of his dysfunctional family contrasts sharply with his lives of Lytton Strachey, Augustus John and Bernard Shaw, which have earned him a major reputation as a biographer. His parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles are largely what Shaw would have called ""downstarts""--people crumbling from comfort and even affluence into pinched existences. Apparently of no serious consequence or achievement, they are nonetheless worth reading about because they have escaped ordinariness through Holroyd's ability to capture their extravagances. Holroyd prides himself on achieving ""a good walk-on part in one's own autobiography,"" and while he succeeds in that, the tale's charm emerges from his mother and father, Swedish and British, respectively: their meeting onboard a ship; their secret marriage; Holroyd's childhood with assorted adults, including grandparents and stepparents; his parents' separation and subsequent episodes in their lives. Among the delightfully recounted anecdotes is one about Holroyd, as a young man, drafting a letter for his mother explaining why she was deserting his stepfather to go to South America; at his stepfather's request (""`You're a writer,' he said""), Holroyd then penned a reply to his mother, which began ""what, for eighteen months or so, was to be an elaborate international correspondence with myself."" As he weaves his own life lightly in and out of his family's vagaries, he leaves behind the handicaps of impecuniosity, shyness and miseducation and finds himself among helpful literati, becoming one of them. Although this title is what writers refer to as a between-books book (Holroyd is researching a new biography), it rises artfully above that class. (Mar.)