T.S. Eliot: A Memor, by Robert Sencourt
This book is the sort of work one would expect from someone who knew the subject for a long time. I don’t know if memoir is the right word I would use for this. The author certainly is writing an informal biography of T.S. Eliot based at least in part on his memories, but really structured more in a conventional fashion. Generally speaking, at least, we can only write memoirs based on things that we actually remember ourselves. And, as Nabokov demonstrated in his wonderful memoir Speak, Memory , memory itself can be very tricky. This particular book demonstrates, at least in the way that the author speaks of the breakdown in the marriage between T.S. Eliot and his first wife, that his retrospective look back at the past is influenced by what happened after that, as he attempts to show himself as being more insightful about such matters than may have been the case at the time. If that sort of behavior makes the author a bit unreliable, this book is certainly not a bad one, but it is one that should be handled with caution, appreciated as an account of Eliot from a relative insider but not as someone who was privy to Eliot’s own thoughts and reasoning.
This book is a bit more than 200 pages long and it covers the span of Eliot’s life from beginning to end, focusing mostly on his writing and thinking and the people he was hanging around. Admittedly, Eliot does not seem like the most exciting of people, hardworking, writing and editing as a moonlighter, a man with restrained passions who came alive in writing about books and in witty conversations with friends, who had a deep faith and a strong love of privacy. The author shows Eliot’s beginnings of life in Missouri and his move to New England to study, and then his move to England where he studied at Oxford some and then married and found work that allowed him to support himself as an English expatriate. The author talks about Eliot’s growing success as a writer and book reviewer and editor over the course of years, how his first marriage broke down, how Eliot returned to the US as a guest professor, and how he was eventually recognized around the world as one of the foremost literary figures of his day, besides being a very knowledgeable critic of the writing of others, before marrying his secretary as an older man not far from death.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is the way that the author shows Eliot to have been a deeply secretive man whose big decisions were often made in such a way as to avoid causing a fight over them until after the fact. Unfortunately, this appears to have caused lasting problems in numerous relationships. It is a great shame that Eliot was not able to trust people close to him to not be offended or bothered by such decisions as marrying. I have known people to have married in secret without telling hardly anyone, and it tends to be the result of having little trust that other people will view such things sympathetically and trusting that presenting others with a fait accompli is better than getting into an argument before something is done. It does suggest something fascinating about Eliot’s personality and character, and we are certainly the better for realizing that this trend continued through the entirety of his life and was not something that he grew out of with age. And while that is something to be lamented, it is also something to ponder.