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Autobiography of an Unknown Indian Paperback – 11 Mar 1964
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About the Author
Nirad C. Chaudhuri was a Bengali-English writer and cultural commentator. He is best known for: A Passage to England, The Continent of Circe, The Intellectual in India, Thy Hand, Great Anarch! and Three Horsemen of the New Apocalypse among several other books. A recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award for Scholar Extraordinary, a biography of Max Müller, he was later bestowed the title of Commander of Order of the British Empire (CBE) by Queen Elizabeth II in 1992.
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The book gives us, too, an introduction to Willa Muir, Edwin's wife and collaborator; it is refreshing to read of so happy a marriage!
Edwin Muir’s An Autobiography, first published in its entirety by The Hogarth Press in 1954, tells of Muir’s early life in Orkney and Glasgow, his life in Europe and his work for the British Council and his return to Italy, where he discovered ‘that Christ had walked on the earth, and also that things truly made preserve themselves through time in the first freshness of their nature.’
As with the Brownings, Edwin and Willa Muir were a devoted couple who found harmony in their joined lives and the pursuit of literature. After a life of wandering through Europe, Muir found his spiritual home in 1950 as Warden of Newbattle Abbey College, his students being ‘clerks, fitters, turners, tube-makers, railwaymen, typists, journalists, teachers, civil servants.’ They came mostly for a year, many returning to their work, others winning scholarships, one, a miner with a dissertation on Kant, another, a tube-maker with an essay on Paradise Lost.
Having read at least a dozen autobiographies/memoirs over the past couple of years, I found Muir’s account of his life the most re-readable. Although I had to accept his statement that all his life he had been ‘a Christian without knowing it ,’ I was baffled by his concluding statement that ‘we receive from the past … from the source of the mystery itself, by the means which religious people call Grace.’ But what precisely do we receive? It can only be a sense of the past - which is surely a circular arguement - we receive from the mystery of the past a sense of the past. How else? What else?
Certainly Muir is obsessed with his own past, his love of the friendship found among the people in his childhood homes of Wyre and Garth, of close family ties and the fields and animals he encountered; the awful shock of being uprooted to Glasgow, where he encountered nothing but lies and villainy, rudeness, ugliness and dirt. These urban experiences at a young age never left him and he became a recluse, finding solace in books. He experiences of school are almost terrifying, the terror of seeing children beaten with up to twelve lashings of the tawse, the unpredictabilty and hostility of teachers, and the loss of siblings to diseases of various kinds such as cancer and tuberculosis.
Muir (1887-1959) is probably best known today for his collaboration with his wife Willa in their translations of Franz Kafka or for his critical studies. But of his novels I most enjoyed The Marionette, the story of an idiot boy who cannot face the ‘real’ world until he destroys his precious marionette. The changing relationship between the boy Hans and his father Martin who introduces his son to the terrifying world of real people is both haunting and moving.