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Customer Review

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why is this book so good?, 18 April 2002
This review is from: The Chameleon Poet: A Life of George Barker (Hardcover)
Why is it that some biographies read like novels and keep you turning the pages all night? It doesn't seem to depend on the fame of the subject. Some biographies of the famous just plod on with fact after fact. This one has the tightness of structure and the elements of conflict we associate with fiction. Some of the narrative tension comes from the very fact that nobody nowadays has heard of George Barker (except maybe that he was the lover Elizabeth Smart wrote about in "By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.") Yet he was once hailed by such people as Yeats and TS Eliot as the rising young genius of English poetry. He took his role as a poet very seriously. He did not believe that a poet should have a day job. He also fathered fifteen children by five women. This caused problems. Keeping track of the problems keeps this wonderful book going. As he juggled mistresses and wives and offspring and as he wangled and manipulated to get money he drank and drugged (mostly amphetamines) through the literary life of the thirties and forties. Doing this involved a kind of seductive charm and street smarts (no pun intended). Was he really such a great poet that all this delinquency was justified? Fraser carefully analyses the rise and collapse of his poetic reputation but somehow manages never to go off track into literary theory. You don't have to have read a line of George Barker to enjoy this. Everything hangs together in a superbly organized story that never loses pace.
As you read you sense another story in the background, the story of the changing relationship between biographer and subject. You sense the admirer who started off as a fan but who uncovers episodes, such as ugly physical violence towards women, that cannot be written off as bohemian revelry and free love, and who is relentlessly impelled to chronicle them.
Probably the brightest aspect of Barker was his ability to foster talent. He was a flatterer but a constructive one. He gave impetus and encouragement to many literary careers. Contacts with him caused the writing of books that include two masterpieces; one is "By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept" and the other is "The Chameleon Poet."
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Location: Suffern, NY USA

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