Biographies, auto- or otherwise, have never interested me that much. I have enough trouble living my own live without having to worry about how others lived theirs. Which might strike someone who knows I read a lot of history as strange, given the huge cast of characters that have walked the stage of the past. But their stories all interweave in a universal narrative, one that is best seen in relation to everything else. I may have obsessed over Άννα Κομνηνή, fallen in total lust with Θεοδώρα, but their stories where always involved in more. But certainly I would take a historical biography over some recent televisual star relating how hard her life has been, and how tough it was for her to make it to the top of her game and get some enhancement surgery to get her on the front cover of some empty magazine, none of whose names I can even recall. Is that the how it stands today? All we aspire to is being rich, marrying rich, winning the lottery or some Gong Show-esque karaoke competition? The thinkers and dreamers have retreated even further from the mainstream than when I was a child. Could anyone get away with writing such a self-obsessed autobiography/novel as À la recherche du temps perdu today? Would anyone read it, given it likely wouldn’t be put in some 3-for-2 stack in Waterstones?
But there is one auto(ish)biography that I adore, the reasons of which are wrapped up in my childhood, back when I did watch some moving imagery. But it was never the images, it was the wit and invention around it. Wit I have heard repeated many times in many places, and very few know where it comes from, perceiving it at some sort of given-from-on-high line, that everyone repeats, and so should they. This doesn’t, however, devalue the wit, as even from its origins in the 30s, it still shines today. But that is the curious thing about this book, none of that wit was attributed to the author.
The supporting cast, and what a supporting cast, that orbit around the centre, covers the range of the great and the good. Leading literary lights, musicians, society people, all gathered in what if it wasn’t accidental, would have been called a salon. In the Bloomsbury, Proustian meaning of the term. There are more anecdotes to be found about people you wouldn’t expect, the protagonist especially, connected with the infamous Algonquin Round Table of New York.
It all starts in grinding, unremitting poverty, reaches the heights of riches, and everything in between. But the sese of fun never leaves, the sense of, well, kind-heartedness, the inventive view of every situation, drifts through a life lived not for himself, but for everyone around him. Nothing came easy, no chance of an education in the early days, seeking work, through to the trials of touring the vast country during the vaudeville days.
A book that covers a filled life, told in the way you would imagine it would be. Breakneck speed, colourful, musical and more hits than misses. Honest to the point that we with our gadet-crutch lifestyles can’t begin to understand how it could have all happened. It seems alien, a total other generation, and the grasping, sense-of-entitlement current thinking can only scoff in disbelief. But this was part of me growing up, not the way they did, but the stories they told. Or not until this book, for this man.
Aside from bringing my own predujces to this review, I have also managed to avoid using terms like ‘zany’, ‘wacky’ and ‘manic’. Because while it is, and it isn’t, this is more that you imagine. And if you have seen the old films, you will have a predetermined idea of what to expect. And it isn’t that. How he found himself in those situations, by accident, on purpose, chancing his arm, these are the things great biographies are made of. And this is a great biography.
If you want to hear what he says when he does open his mouth, you have to read, rather than watch, and listen. For this is the second to only time Harpo Speaks, so enjoy it. And you certainly will.
*Review, principles, whatever.