“It began, probably, in a cave,” “In the sweltering August of 1919”, a 30-year-old bank clerk named Thomas Stearns Eliot – on a walking holiday in the Dordogne with his friend Ezra Pound – gazed at the Stone Age cave art in the Font-de-Gaume and “felt something stir within”. As the “paint flickered crimson in the firelight”, an idea for a poem lodged in Eliot’s mind – one that would result, three years later, in the publication of his “allusively riddling” modernist masterpiece, The Waste Land. A century on, Eliot’s “song for doomed empires collapsing” remains a work that “baffles and beguiles”. In this elegant, witty and often touching book, Matthew Hollis – a poet whose 2011 biography of Edward Thomas won the Costa biography award – recounts the story of its “difficult birth”.
This is very much a “step-by-step” biography of The Waste Land, Hollis traces the poem’s composition “almost day by day”, and his book is “thronged by the many characters who inhabited Eliot’s world”, from fellow writers such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf to his mean-spirited American relatives. Sometimes, literary scholars “cite social events around a poem so promiscuously and unconvincingly that the poem suffers under their attentions”.
Hollis, however, avoids this trap. A “discriminating judge of what is appropriate”, he manages to make even trivial-seeming details – such as the makes of the various typewriters Eliot used – appear “wonderfully relevant”. “Hollis is expert at blending biographical detail with literary criticism,” He’s also very good at assessing the contribution of various “enablers”. Chief among them was Ezra Pound, whose assiduous editing of Eliot’s early drafts turned them from a “collection of fragments” into a coherent work. Eliot’s friend “looms almost as large in the book as does Eliot himself”. There are one or two puzzling omissions, For instance, Hollis barely examines the claim made by Eliot’s second wife, Valerie, that Eliot lifted a large section of the poem’s famous opening “verbatim” from a conversation with an Austrian aristocrat, Countess Marie Larisch. Still, such defects don’t detract too much from what is a “wonderfully compelling” book – one that “turns a complex process of literary composition into a rattling good story”.