cover image Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer

Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer

Richard Holmes. Pantheon Books, $30 (432pp) ISBN 978-0-679-43846-5

These ""b-sides and rarities"" (stories that arrested Holmes's attention while he was investigating his principal subjects) of an eminent literary biographer, most recognized for his two-volume life of Coleridge, present an atypical mixture of autobiography, literary criticism and travel narrative recalling his 1985 Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer and spanning more than 30 years of a prolific career. Claiming ""to find your subject, you must in some sense lose yourself along the way,"" Holmes looks back on how the fickle connection between a biographer and his subject comes into existence by examining his own writing. Just as Wallace Stevens incessantly struggled to ""catch"" his imagination in the very act of imagining, this collection shows that Holmes has always tried to ""catch"" himself in the very act of writing about someone or something else. Whether writing about the relatively obscure poet Chatterton (a ""sidetrack"" to Keats) or about figures as well-known as F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (retracing the couple's last trip to Europe together), Holmes approaches biography as a kind of literary game, a puzzle whose pieces he puts together to tell readers why things happened as they did. The result is almost novelistic. A BBC radio play takes readers inside the minds of the poet Shelley and his wife, Mary. Though they lack an overall sense of unity, these pieces undeniably confirm why Holmes has been setting new and challenging standards for how biographers approach their subjects, and they make for glorious reading indeed. (Nov. 14)