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T.J. Binyon

A Very Athletic Person

T.J. Binyon, 26 May 1994

About half-way through Nabokov’s novel Pnin, the eponymous hero, Professor Timofey Pnin, who teaches Russian literature at Waindell College in New England, enters a sports shop and asks for a football (a present for his son). He is offered one:

Did he really?

T.J. Binyon, 3 December 1992

Simenon was not a man to do things by halves. He moved house 33 times, wrote 193 novels under his own name and more than two hundred under 18 pseudonyms, produced 27 volumes of autobiography and at 74 claimed to have slept with ten thousand women, eight thousand of whom were prostitutes (his second wife later smallmindedly reduced the total to 1200). The man who was to be described by Gide as ‘the greatest of all, the most genuine novelist we have had in literature’ was born in Liège, in Belgium, in 1903. His father, Désiré, a tall, quiet man with a weak heart, was a clerk in an insurance agency; his mother. Henriette, a small woman with a big head, had known abject poverty as a child. As a result, her life was a constant search for security, and this was to be, in Marnham’s view, a dominating factor in the formation of her son’s personality. A younger brother, Christian, was born in 1906. After a chequered career he was killed in Vietnam in 1947 while serving with the French Foreign Legion.

Round Things

T.J. Binyon, 24 October 1991

John Vavassour de Quentin Jones, Belloc tells us in his Cautionary Tales,

‘Of the four Queens of Crime who dominated the 1930s – Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L. Sayers – Ngaio Marsh reigns supreme for excellence of style and characterisation,’ writes Margaret Lewis in her introduction. The proposition could be contested; it could be maintained that Christie is more ingenious, Allingham more lively and Sayers has more intellectual weight. But Margaret Lewis’s problem as a biographer is not so much finding a raison d’être for her work as making it interesting. For though her subject’s life was undoubtedly mouvementê, in that much of it was spent on the ocean wave, voyaging between England and New Zealand, events such as Christie’s disappearance or Sayers’s peculiar marriage are not to be found: the most exciting story in the book is that of a cocktail party Ngaio Marsh gave in Christchurch in 1953. Her young cousin forgot to dilute a potent mixture; the cream of local society, including the Dean and the Bishop, succumbed to insobriety, one elderly lady being discovered unconscious beneath the piano by her dog, which, alarmed by her absence, had come to investigate. The difficulty is compounded by her subject’s reluctance to reveal anything whatsoever of her inner self, whether in conversation, letters, diaries or autobiography. Her memoirs, Black Beech and Honeydew, should, she later remarked, have been called ‘Other People’, and her editor at Collins describes it as ‘pretty dull, largely because of her reticence’.’

Sasha, Stalin and the Gorbachovshchina

T.J. Binyon, 15 September 1988

On returning from Munich to St Petersburg in the spring of 1837, the poet Tyutchev, as well known for his wit as for his verse, told a friend that he was suffering not so much from Heimweh as Herausweh; and, a little later, hearing that D’Anthès, Pushkin’s opponent in the fatal duel earlier that year, had been sentenced for his part in the affair to perpetual banishment from Russia, seized the opportunity for a mot by announcing that he would immediately go off and kill Zhukovsky – then, after Pushkin, the most famous poet in Russia. Yet Tyutchev’s verse, highly esteemed by Lenin and, according to Erenburg’s testimony, more popular with the Red Army soldier during the Great Patriotic War than the work of any other writer (excluding that of Erenburg himself), expresses a very different view of Russia. He is, moreover, the author of the famous quatrain which succinctly formulates that semi-mystical, annoyingly unanswerable view of Russia’s unique quality, her difference from all other nations:’

At the Hydropathic

T.J. Binyon, 6 December 1984

At first sight Janet Morgan does not seem the obvious person to choose as the official biographer of Agatha Christie. She describes herself on the jacket of the book as a ‘writer and consultant’, who now ‘advises governments, companies and other organisations on long-range strategic planning, new technology and different approaches to whatever they find themselves doing’. She has written on politics and broadcasting and was, of course, the editor of the four-volume edition of Crossman’s diaries. All this is a world away from M. Poirot or Miss Marple, and internal evidence suggests, too, that she has no particular knowledge of, or liking for, the detective story. But on the whole this is a solid and sensible life – if sometimes annoyingly vague on detail and dates – which complements and expands Agatha Christie’s posthumously published autobiography. It is also annoying that it should not contain a chronological list of her work: that one is available elsewhere is no excuse for the omission. But the biography certainly fulfils what was presumably the family’s main aim: it lays, once and for all, the malicious rumours and vulgar gossip put about by other writers on the subject of Agatha Christie’s ten days’ disappearance in 1926, providing an authoritative, as well as authorised, explanation for the event.’

Buchan’s Pathological Vitality

T.J. Binyon, 18 December 1980

David Daniell is also the author of the only full-length critical study of Buchan’s work – The Interpreter’s House (1975). Both there and here, in the introduction to this collection of 12 of Buchan’s stories, he is concerned to defend the writer against the usual accusations of anti-semitism, racism and blatant imperialism; to protest against the way he is automatically ranked with Sapper, Dornford Yates and similar figures; and to assert that he is not only worth reading (which the general public has never forgotten), but also worth reading seriously.

Alexander Blok’s Beautiful Lady

T.J. Binyon, 7 August 1980

The appearance of the second volume of Avril Pyman’s life of Aleksandr Blok to join the first, published last year, brings her enterprise, the fruit of some twenty years’ work on the poet, to a triumphant conclusion. Blok’s life is well-documented, and the period is almost too rich in contemporary memoirs. Dr Pyman demonstrates a complete mastery of the sources, both printed and in manuscript, using the original diaries, notebooks and letters in Russian archives to supplement the expurgated Soviet editions. With loving care she assembles detail upon detail to build up what must be the fullest possible account of Blok’s life and immediate environment. At the same time, she analyses the sources of the poet’s inspiration, charts the movements of his psyche, and presents us with a comprehensive account of his development from a hermetic lyricist to a prophet of the Revolution.

Pushkin’s Leave-Taking

James Wood, 20 February 2003

It is in some ways unfortunate that Tchaikovsky set Eugene Onegin to music, not Rossini, the composer of deep shallows. Pushkin, according to T.J. Binyon’s remarkable biography, became...

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Hanging out with Higgins

Michael Wood, 7 December 1989

There is food for comparative thought – well, not real food, more of a light snack – in the fact that the French call roman policier what we would call a crime novel. A sign of our...

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