15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
A beautiful memoir,
This review is from: An Autobiography (Canongate Classics) (Paperback)
Edwin Muir was one of the great Scottish poets of the C20th, and this is his account of his life, split into two broad periods. The first is from his birth to around the age of 30, accounting for his time growing up in Orkney before moving to industrial Glasgow in his teenage years, before finally leaving for London and then Europe sometime into the 1920's. The second half picks up from around WW2 and into the years afterwards.
They are quite remarkably different accounts, different both in style and focus. The first is more concerned with the sharp contrast between his rural upbringing in the epic landscapes of Orkney and the harsh realities of the unhealthy, impersonal, industrial Glasgow. His account of growing up in Orkney is magical and other-worldly, aided considerably by his poet's economy of prose and eye for telling detail and imagery. When he moves to Glasgow this economy stays with him, though it is less magical and mythical things he sees now (arguably though as we are a post industrialist society, is this world any more alien to us than of the agrarian Orkney he describes?).
It is an intensely personal and introspective memoir, to the point where he lives and works as a clerk in various Glasgow offices during the period of WW1, with barely a mention to it. However, such is the ability of Muir's writing to drag you in his account of how he and his family struggled to survive in Glasgow that you barely notice it. Most of his family died within a few years of moving to Glasgow. He was ill for many years himself, cured only by a slum doctor who spent much time with him. The mental scars he bore after his claustrophobic proximity to this tragedy were considerable and lasted for many years after. It is only years later in London when an analyst starts to work with him as a patient for no fee does he realise how ill he was; at one point he was capable of having waking dreams that he could control.
The second part of the book is in sharp contrast to the first, This concerns the period of WW2 and after when he is working as a writer both in Britain (during the war) and in Europe after. You can tell immediately from his prose that this is a much more wordly man concerned with what is happening around him. Most striking is his account as a visiting teacher with the British Council to Prague after WW2. The initial period of optimism amongst the Czechs is then quickly extinguished by a Communist coup. The new regime rolls out the Orwellian nightmare those of us who read the history of the period have come to accept and expect; how dispiriting to have seen it by yourself without the benefit of hindsight we enjoy.
I'm rarely a reader of biographies but this book has been quite dear to my heart since I finished it. It is a good story told with such beautiful prose that I wish it had been twice as long; it could have been about the life of a binman who never left the town he was born in and Edwin Muir would still make it a wonderful read. I'm going to go away and read the rest of his books now.