13 DECEMBER 1963, Page 26

Artists and Entertainers AUTOBIOGRAPHY can be awfully disillusioning. One of

the biggest disappointments of growing up is the discovery, through a perusal of their autobiographies, that sportsmen are not the in- disputable gods they had seemed in one's child- hood, that generals who won great battles often exhibit petty-mindedness, that actors who spoke the highest poetry with such instinctive know- ledge of language's potential for communicating feelings are themselves so inarticulate that they need hacks to write their lives for them. Auto- biography can be boring, frustrating, bewilder- ing, exasperating. And yet, it's fun. Not quite a genre of literary significance, it tries hard to be one: making one's life into a sociological document or an exercise in atmosphere-creation, autobiography can only be pseudo-literature. Art is somehow reluctant to accommodate the events of a single life unless they are tempered by a synthesising imagination—and most autobio- graphers are too self-absorbed to have that. At best, they regress to a charmingly naive inno- cence, remembering kitchen smells and other traumatic experiences: autobiography is one way of returning to mum. While biography aspires to the state of history, and therefore can be of more consequence, autobiography can only hope to entertain.

As an entertainer, Compton Mackenzie has been a school, a movement and an tndustry all by himself. But, alas, he begins to bore; his wit, gone stale, gives way to a narration of mirthful anecdotes to which one must indulgently force a smile. The second volume of his My Life and Times (Chatto and Windus, 30s.) is a compound of the minutim of childhood, impressive name- dropping, insignificance, a serious and an over- lengthy treatment of trivial incidents, all of which read like a railway time-table. We are told, for example, that his school cap was dark blue with a Maltese cross of silver wire on its front; that his father had three slices of toast for his tea and either Beech's strawberry jam or Keiller's Dundee marmalade. So what? The accumulation of such facts is not to be confounded with realism : no more is mincemeat a cow. Child- hood is a gift like a no-ball off which any writer should score a boundary; one can see Sir Compton's mighty heave, but he has missed the ball altogether, for he fails to make that con- nection between language and imagination with- out which an autobiography must remain lifeless.

For a truly living autobiography, Gavin Maxwell's The Rocks Remain (Longmans, 30s.) would.be hard to surpass. His book may well be called 'Maxwell's Miscellany,' for his themes are many; synonymous though his name has become with otters, he writes about North Africa, Majorca and Camusfearna, his home on the coast of the West Highlands, as well as the otters. Not a conventional autobiography, Mr. Maxwell's book succeeds by its tone; where it could have been so easy to be pretentious, he writes with so con- vincing an honesty that one shares his own emotional involvement with his otters. Moving and humane, comic and tragic, the book com- pels one to share Mr. Maxwell's sympathies.

James Kirkup has a similarly humane spirit and his Tropic Temper (Collins, 30s.) combines travel and autobiography, to give an account of his stay in Malaya. Travel writing tends to follow a routine description of the dress, customs, etc., of a people, and surely this is a hangover of an age when the absence of jets and television lent enchantment to distance. If it must still be done, it must be done well, and Mr. Kirkup is not quite up to it; it's no use, for example, describing an architectural masterpiece as 'one of the most graceful examples of .

Travel writers, Mr. Kirkup included, often s, it as their duty to comment on a country politics; it's too easy to express a humane con cern or righteous indignation : people an places, however, are more eternal than poltt What's disappointing about Tropic Temper is that Mr. Kirkup does not sustain the superb quality of his writing with which he begins. Tru he declares that he no longer wishes to be con sidered a poet (a statement which will not unwelcome in certain circles), but a loose la guage can only spoil a discursive narrative. Whe he describes his meeting with D. J. Enright, on recalls ironically how much more powerful an to the point are some of Mr. Enright's poett which have come from the same sort of pt occupation with the East as Mr. Kirkup's.

It would be irreverent to expect a faithfU and a chronological narrative from a pionee Dadaist, and Man Ray's Self Portrait (And Deutsch, 45s.) gains from its very looseness Written in a humourless monotone, the book I nevertheless absorbing; his affair with Kiki o Montparnasse is movingly described and the odd remark—e.g., he was in Paris for ten yea before he visited the Louvre—is revealing. I would perhaps be unfair to expect revelatior19 about the painters and writers inhabiting Pari between the wars, impressive though DuchamP Picasso, Picabia and several others are. The bo is, after all, a self portrait. No pronouncemen are made, though one is tempted to think thg Dadaism offered Man Ray an escape route b which he tried to reach the junction where 11 art and photography could confront each oth without embarrassment.

Angus Wilson's The Wild Garden (Seeker an Warburg, 16s.) does make pronouncements. Th subtitle, 'Speaking of Writing,' clearly indicat Mr. Wilson's project, and his book describes hold many of the themes of his fiction derive from his own life. Illuminating without being pompous, and moving, too, when he describes how his 'emotional ad hoc plan of living had brokeil down,' this is an important book.

Ilya Ehrenburg's Eve of War: 1933-41, trans' lated by Tatiana Shebunina in collaboration with tr Yvonne Kapp (MacGibbon and Kee, 42s.), is also important; the fourth volume of his memoirs, this book brings him to Europe as a war r correspondent. Much though one enjoys his reflections on art and literature—chapter 28, for e example, is a glorious testament to the importance' hi of writing poetry—what sticks in the mind is hls 8 furiously vivid account of what he calls fascist atrocities.

Finally, two biographies where the saner world of objective documentation takes the place of the' obsessional self-absorption of autobiographical' writing. Virginia Cowles's The Kaiser (Collins 45s.) ,is like one of those Hollywood extrava- ganzas which have everything in them, front domestic cradling to blood and thunder, all colourfully presented on a wide screen. It would

be hard to imagine a more comprehensiv biography of William II; basing her narrativ

on memoirs and letters, Miss Cowles leaves littl unexamined. The portrait of William whit emerges is one of authoritative arrogance, haughty impulsiveness which seemed to co strain his acknowledged intelligence. Compared with Miss Cowles's spectacular panorama, Lay,' rence Wilson's The Incredible Kaiser (Robert Hale, 21s.) looks like an old silent movie, 1,01' what he loses in audience-appeal, he gains 111 uncluttered authenticity.