- Anglesey, North Wales
Jeremy Treglown is Professor of English at the University of Warwick and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
He was the editor of the Times Literary Supplement during the 1980s and is the author of several non-fiction books, with special interests in the history of literary journalism, in British writers of the mid-twentieth century, such as Henry Green, Roald Dahl and V.S. Pritchett, and also in Spain and Spanish literature.
V. S. Pritchett: A Working Life (2004) was shortlisted for the 2004 Whitbread Biography Award and the Duff Cooper Prize.
In Romancing: The Life and Work of Henry Green (2000), Jeremy Treglown neatly summarizes his own concept of biography as ‘a form whose subjectivity (no-one’s view of someone else is the same as another’s) can in the end only be overcome by dialogue’.
What this appears to mean is that Treglown sets up a dialogue between differing views of his subjects – Roald Dahl, Henry Green and V.S. Pritchett – as well as the ‘dialogue’ that he sees perennially taking place between a writer’s life and art. His books are ‘written with all kinds of readers in mind’, he has remarked. When interviewed for the magazine PN Review in 2003, Treglown modestly discussed his editorship of the Times Literary Supplement from 1982 to 1990, and his subsequent activities as a writer and academic with a special interest in literary journalism and Life Writing. He cited V.S. Pritchett as the kind of author that he was most drawn to, describing him as ‘somebody who crossed divides, and who found a way of writing about literature which wasn’t academic’. Treglown’s mentor was Karl Miller (long-time editor of The New Statesman and founder of The London Review of Books).
Treglown’s biographies blend lucid literary criticism with detailed archival research, alongside calmly judicious judgments about the personal lives and working careers of his subjects. The latter was particularly needed for his first, Roald Dahl: A Biography (1994), which was unauthorised by Dahl’s family. It details Dahl’s writing career from its origins in his wartime service to his later role as a tough-negotiating Businessman of Letters, and vast commercial success with children’s books. Dahl is shown as a family man who had to deal with tragedies involving his wife and children, but also as a ‘fantasist, a bully and a self-publicizing troublemaker’. An interesting insight is the view that Dahl’s character ‘makes better sense if he is thought of less as a writer than as a capricious tycoon’. Dealing with the writing, Treglown calls Dahl’s children’s stories ‘modern folk-tales of oppression and revenge, cunning and sorcery … they draw on deep, widespread longings and fears. They bind characters, readers and writer into a private fantasy’.
One important revelation is the sheer extent to which Dahl relied on his publishers’ editors and their ‘creative role’, especially in his latter years when blighted by illness (and the advance of Political Correctness). Accounts of the personal origins of James and the Giant Peach, and the work originally titled Charlie’s Chocolate Boy, are fascinating. But editorial interventions in Dahl’s writing increased from the 1970s onwards, from detailed advice during drafting to extensive revisions of The BFG, The Witches and Mathilda. By then the full-scale ‘packaging’ of Dahl’s books had begun. Treglown ends the book with a vignette of visiting Dahl’s grave, finding on it an apt symbol for the writer himself: ‘a large, handsome, tough-skinned, many-layered onion’.
The theme of Romancing: The Life and Work of Henry Green is the ‘double life’ of Henry Yorke: the leading experimental novelist of his generation who was also managing director of the family engineering firm. In the psychological interplay between them, Yorke/ Green’s ‘puzzles and insecurities’ about names are seen as significant. In a nicely ironic phrase, Treglown remarks that ‘inconsistency seems to have been a way of leaving himself imaginatively open’. He explains that ‘my account of the life is linked to the books more in terms of mood and thematic preoccupations’ and characterizes Green’s peculiarly Proustian, meditative satires on upper-class life combined with modernist fiction as ‘an intuitive, oblique, often wayward kind of art’. Treglown’s analysis of the plots and ‘voluptuous syntax’ of such novels is particularly good, especially Party Going, which he explains as a 1930s ‘allegory of social division’ but also as the first novel of the Second World War. In Back (‘the most miserable of his novels’) Treglown finds ‘an argument that runs throughout his work: that it is in ordinariness that true epiphanies occur’. In this regard, wartime service as a fireman during the Blitz was important, with his numerous love affairs and descent into alcoholism. Incidentally, Treglown’s subjects all had personal links: among Yorke/ Green’s drinking companions was Roald Dahl, while V.S. Pritchett delivered a eulogy at the former’s memorial service in 1973.
V.S. Pritchett: A Working Life (2004) was short-listed for the 2004 Whitbread Biography Award. In this case, ‘the family couldn’t have been more helpful’ and he makes a sympathetic case for a man who was long regarded as ‘the English Chekhov’. Discussing the short stories, novels, travel books and memoirs, it shows how many of them were based on close autobiographical observations; ‘the strangenesses he turned into fiction’. Pritchett’s public roles as a visiting lecturer overseas, presiding in his latter years over the Society of Authors and International PEN, are integrated within a personal life that was surprisingly turbulent. Treglown sets out how ‘a small man with big appetites and energies’ juggled his professional life and domestic duties, using his early working experiences, then as a journalist and travel writer in Spain, Ireland and elsewhere, as the basis for his art. Pritchett’s relationship with his second wife Dorothy, troubled by her alcoholism and his affairs but ultimately happy, forms the heart of the book. One of the literally revealing aspects of the book is the inclusion of extracts from their sexually charged correspondence, which combined ‘tender eroticism and domesticity’. Equally important to his fiction, though, was the influence of Pritchett’s spendthrift father and his own ‘long interest in people’s fantasies and the stories they tell themselves’.
Treglown is particularly acute in detailing the significance of Pritchett’s longevity and huge capacity as a critical reviewer, with ‘pioneering pieces on writers from British colonies’ from the 1930s onwards. By the 1960s-70s he was appreciating the works of Wole Soyinka, Salman Rushdie, Shiva Naipaul, and Paul Theroux, as well as his young colleagues at The New Statesman Martin Amis and Julian Barnes. Above all, Pritchett remained a working writer, continually taking on magazine commissions, lecturing, and – on a memorable trip to California – even contributing dialogue to the screenplay of Alfred Hitchcock’s film, The Birds. Treglown has clearly observed his subject close up: ‘When he talked, you would see the nicotine stains on his teeth. His lips moved lopsidedly, one side held tight as if to hold an absent pipe in place’. As this may suggest, Treglown is no flatterer, and always shows his subjects as all-too-human in their personal foibles. But he regards imaginative writers as being ‘still the best critics’, and it is his sympathy with his particular writers, as well as scrupulous research, that makes his biographies always well balanced and readable.
Dr Jules Smith, 2008