Biographer looks for the romance in four literary lives

Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, by Richard Holmes. New York: Elisabeth Sifton/Viking. 279 pp. $16.95. Here is an unusual, and only partially successful, experiment: a grouping of biographical essays that emphasize the biographer's imaginative and emotional closeness to his subject; a kind of nonfiction non-novel in which our awareness of the teller colors our experience of the tale.

The book contains four long investigations of literary lives. The first describes Richard Holmes's travels in the Cevennes region of central France retracing the path trod by Robert Louis Stevenson and described in his ``Travels With a Donkey'' (1879). Mr. Holmes's journey was an imitative homage to Stevenson's concept of ``the saving grace of a life lived in the open, free from formalities and conventional creeds.'' It results in some fruitful inferences about the older writer's then-developing relatio nship with the woman -- the American Fanny Osbourne -- with whom he would spend the rest of his short life.

The second essay, begun when Holmes was in France during the 1968 student riots, examines the adventures of feminist intellectual Mary Wollstonecraft in Paris during the earlier French Revolution -- specifically, the relationship between her political idealism and her unexpected plunge into domestic happiness with the American novelist Gilbert Imlay.

A third, about the poet Shelley's utopian meanderings through Italy (hoping to establish an extramarital, or supramarital, ``new form of life, . . . new kind of community''), centers on his quizzical intimacy with friend and soul mate Claire Clairmont, emphasizing ``the emotional drama she generated around Shelley's attempts to live out his radical ideas.''

Holmes's final essay, apparently pieced together from his unpublished biography of the eccentric romancer G'erard de Nerval (1808-1855), interestingly explores that strange figure's ``romantic self-dramatising'' and recurring madness, and resolves itself into a thoroughly credible rhetorical question: ``Was he one of the last of the Romantic heroes, or a poor, suffering psychotic misfit?''

I'm afraid I find this book most interesting for its excavated detail; rather less so for Holmes's windy interpolated speculations about biography as ``a kind of pursuit, . . . a following of footsteps''; or that ``pre-biographic'' empathetic identification with one's subject that gets the scholarly juices flowing; or ``that slight but complex sense of guilt which shadows the vicarious element in historical research into individual lives.''

It's mildly stimulating to learn that the impetus for Holmes's Shelley essay was his realization that ``many of my friends . . . seemed to be going through the experiences and crises that Shelley's various households went through.'' But it's more stimulating to see how Holmes's own fascination with the seductive Claire Clairmont hindered, altered, and eventually aided his understanding of both Shelley's personal relations and his theoretical ambitions. The personal particulars here are far more compelli ng than what I take to be Holmes's effort to construct a philosophy, or metaphysics, of biography.

Everywhere best where it's most specific, ``Footsteps'' is a thing of shreds and patches. The Wollstonecraft and Shelley essays are labored and tedious. The latter, particularly, reads like material discarded from Holmes's acclaimed biography ``Shelley: The Pursuit'' (1974). Their two companion pieces are much better.

Writing about Stevenson, Holmes contrives several nice pages on the local tale of a marauding wolf, the Beast of G'evaudan, credited with supernatural ferocity, and also gives an interesting account of visits he and Stevenson made with Trappist monks. (Holmes's scrutiny of Stevenson's feelings about the monastic ideal heightens his understanding of the latter's ``devotion'' to art.) There's also an effective indirect characterization of the adventuress Fanny Osbourne.

Holmes's G'erard de Nerval is even more interesting. His ``strange actions, his picturesque travels, his weird fantasies'' are brought ringingly to life. The romantic melancholy madness of this little-known genius seems especially vivid precisely because of the way it's refracted through Holmes's uncertain, questioning approach. We're persuaded that Nerval's travel writings are a treasure remaining to be discovered, and we leave this book eager to read his writings and to learn more about him. This is what literary biography should do, and what Richard Holmes, when he's at his best, can do.

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