Michael Hamburger’s String of Beginnings

To read Mathias Enard’s Compass and Michael Hamburger’s String of Beginnings in the same year is to be blessed. Doubly blessed. The gods of serendipity sometimes endow fortunate readers with such divine favour. Virginia Woolf contemplated reading King Lear, with the question, “Do I want such a strain on the emotions?”, answering, of course, pining reader that she was, “I think I do.” But esurient readers are equally blessed and cursed: the question always of what to read after scaling such peaks. Who can once again place such strain on our emotions?

One senses such diffidence in Michael Hamburger’s memoir, String of Beginnings, written of his early life from the perspective of his late forties. He attempts to subvert the fictional nature of autobiography by relying only on documentary evidence of the time: letters, diaries, fragments of a written life. The purism of eschewing memory and reconstruction from a work of autobiography is revealing, and marks Hamburger’s approach to both poetry and translation. He writes, “Had it not been for a crisis in my personal life that made it necessary for me to discover as much as I could about my formative years, so as to break the pattern they had set up, I was past wishing to write about myself at all.” Not, of course, that Hamburger discloses the nature of this crisis. This is a reluctant memoir.

His memoir captures the essence of an extraordinary time, of lives disrupted by the conflicts of 1939 to 1945; of the suspension of his education at Christ Church, Oxford, to serve in the British Army, and the subsequent return to his education and writing, altered irrevocably by his wartime experience. He writes, “So, in the end, I don’t know what the Army did to my writing. Even the books I glossed in barrack-rooms did something to me, though I’ve forgotten what most of them were about. Everything I saw and heard and felt did something to me, though I’ve forgotten most of the details. That’s one reason why one writes: sooner or later almost everything about a life is forgotten, by the person who lived it and by the others.”

In the end, what penetrates most, despite Hamburger’s self-effacement, is the admirable and lovable nature of the man himself, which is most clear, ironically, or perhaps typically, not in his own self-reflection, but in the way that he perceives and describes the other people he encounters. In an exquisite section on his friendship with half-forgotten Welsh poet, Vernon Watkins, he reproduces part of a letter Watkins wrote to him about the German poet, Heinrich Heine; “The nature of his genius is elusive, and so many readers treat the mask as absolute, whereas I think Heine really believed only in love, and rarely found it.” It isn’t surprising for Hamburger to single out such a sentence as it expresses a sentiment I am certain was equally true about himself.

7 thoughts on “Michael Hamburger’s String of Beginnings

  1. It’s well worth reading Vernon Watkins, by the way. Watkins was quite an influence on Dylan Thomas but was overshadowed – in the sense of people not knowing about him – by all the attention lavished on his contemporary, Dylan Thomas. Vernon Watkins’ poetry is certainly as accomplished as Dylan’s but is a lot less loud. I have a great admiration for both of them but many writers and readers in Wales are often peeved and sometimes exasperated by so much attention given to Dylan Thomas. For example, One Moonlit Night by Caradog Prichard (Un Nos Ola Leuad translated by Philip Mitchell) is a brilliant novel that’s hardly known at all (Canongate put out a recent edition). I’m happy to see that Cynan Jones is getting some well deserved attention for his dark and beautifully crafted fiction set in rural Wales. As always, a lot of gems hidden out of sight of the mainstream. Anyway, from your reading, the Michael Hamburger book does look fascinating. I hope you enjoy 2666. I read it before all the hype around Bolaño got crazily out of hand. It was recommended to me by photographer Diego Vidart with whom I’ve done a number of creative projects. The hype can be terribly off-putting but I think Bolaño genuinely is the ‘real thing.’


    • I read and enjoyed The Savage Detectives, but got bored of the hype, so didn’t read any further. Thanks for inspiring me to read 2666.

      I’ve been dipping into Vernon Watkins and like his poetry a lot. Hamburger writes beautifully of both the man and his writing.


  2. I don’t know whether this is known to you already, but I have identified the mysterious friend Hamburger refers to as ‘X’ throughout the book (at least I assume he does – to be precise, I have only read A Mug’s Game, the earlier version of his memoirs). X was John Symonds, the novelist and occultist. I happened to buy Symonds’ own copy of the book, and his extensive notes make it quite clear that he is X.

    Liked by 1 person

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