l i f e o f t h e p e n him writing for Catherine of Aragon as a loyal and ascetic servant, while falling under the influence of her great rival; representing the king abroad, while doubting both his means and ends. Wyatt sympathised to a still uncertain extent with the idealistic side of Protestantism. The vernacular translation of scripture appealed to him; he was fascinated by the notion that individual souls were ultimately responsible for their own cure, and in repentant fashion turned his hand to ‘paraphrasing’ psalms. But he had much in common with the fellow men of letters who remained loyal to the old Roman Church. A great deal of what Brigden writes is taken up by the betrayal and inner wrenching such conflicts produced.
Brigden is an outstanding historian: her London and the Reformation (1989)
in particular is a masterpiece of research and empathy. Showing tremendous sensitivity and learning as a literary scholar, she places Wyatt in ‘the heart’s forest’ – beneath a canopy of translucent signs and emotions. This was both the state in which he discovered himself and the medium he found for describing that state. Renaissance literature is full of forests, yet for the best artists they are never purely generic. Wyatt’s forest is personal and existential, and it continued growing long after he stopped wandering through it. His oeuvre proved highly influential, though most of it only circulated freely after his early death, exhausted by diplomatic service at the age of about thirty-eight. Brigden is surely right to explore the diverse contexts and occasions of the verse and other writings, explicit and implied. Her material on Wyatt’s travels in Italy, researched in collaboration with Jonathan Woolfson, is especially important.
Thomas Wyatt is currently enjoying a revival, it seems. Another excellent biography of the poet, by Nicola Shulman, was published last year, and both these books should be given time and breathing space. Shulman’s study is perhaps the more accessible and engaging of the two. Susan Brigden’s, meanwhile, is masterly on Wyatt’s milieu, and on the nuances of the personalities involved. Reading her pages, one really comes to understand how Wyatt and his contemporaries saw their world. She does a great service to a poet who has too often been lost in the woods. To order this book for £24, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 13
s am l e i t h
Bandanna on the Run Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace
By D T Max (Granta Books 352pp £20)
David Foster Wallace hanged himself in the autumn of 2008, leaving a dense, agonised, brilliant and moving body of work. What was already a more than usually cultish following for a living American writer entered, as the publication puff for this biography vulgarly boasts, the territory of a Kurt Cobain or a James Dean.
A biography of this sort, then, is to be greeted with caution. More often than not, any such writer’s first biographer – so soon after the fact, under the presumed pressure to publish as quickly as possible – will make a hash of things. DT Max does not. Barring the odd organisational clumsiness, this is a fine piece of work: detailed yet economical, shrewd and subtle about the writing, and detached enough about the life to make clear, from time to time, that this candidate for secular sainthood could also be a jerk.
Wallace wrote and lived like someone who had become consumed by his own themes: media supersaturation (for Wallace it was television, though as Max points out he’s been posthumously claimed for the Internet generation); the scrambling of high and low culture; the moral imperative and extreme difficulty of paying close, continuous and loving attention to the right things amid a blizzard of distractions and addictions.
Wallace’s recursive, doodling sentences, his self-consciousness, his goofy and sometimes childish pot-head humour, his emotional lability – all had about them a distinct and deliberate air of the teenage slacker. The images that survive of him – long-haired, wide-eyed, stubbly, wearing T-shirts, unlaced hiking boots, flannel shirts and the bandanna which he told a friend’s child was to prevent his head from exploding – cemented that image.
When Wallace – then an admired but not yet famous first novelist – arrived at Amherst to teach creative writing, ‘the students who showed up for his first day of class were surprised to find a man barely older than themselves, carrying a pink Care Bears folder and a tennis racket’. There’s an open question as to how contrived all this was (he took a New
Wallace: sitting uncomfortably
York Times interviewer to a friend’s house to eat KFC and watch The X-Files) but then, what could be more teenage than anxiously fashioning your own image?
Wallace had the disgusting habit of drinking coffee with a tea-bag dunked in it, and he liked to let his pet dogs lick food out of his mouth (‘they pretend they’re kissing you, but they’re really mining your mouth for food’), which was only mitigated by another habit of keeping a toothbrush in a Ziploc bag in his sock and incessantly brushing his teeth. Left to his own devices, even as an adult, he lived almost entirely on Pop-Tarts and had not the slightest feel
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