Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Helbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PN Review 276
PN Review Substack

This item is taken from PN Review 115, Volume 23 Number 5, May - June 1997.

In 1980 David Arkell first contributed to PN Review (issue 14), an essay entitled 'Leon Vanier: Publisher of Poets'. In 1997 his last contribution appeared, 'La Vie de Victorine', about Manet's model Victorine Meurent. He died on 3 April at the age of 84. He contributed to PNR getting on for fifty essays, articles and reviews on subjects ranging from the love affairs, exiles, imprisonments and rivalries of writers and artists to the houses, city- and landscapes that informed their work. A number of his pieces were collected in Ententes Cordiales (1989).

Son of a writer and an actress, his irregular, enchanted childhood prepared him for the vocation of observer. His family's theatrical circle was metropolitan: the Russian ballet, great stage and cinema figures of the time, now forgotten writers. It was an up and down world, without the obsessive modern regard for solvency and pensions. What fascinated the boy was the cast of larger than life figures at the fringe of which he grew up with eyes and ears open.

He became a sleuth - 'Arkell of the Yard (and the Sureté),' he said. A just gossip, re-imparting life to individuals undervalued or traduced by biographers, he understood how the spark of physical desire can kindle a poem, a novel, a picture, how a work belonged to its occasion. That same spark could make a conflagration of a hitherto orderly, productive life. His subjects survived in the places which shaped them - Butor in Manchester, Stendhal in Grenoble, Laforgue in Berlin. Buildings alter, the bank of the river changes, but light and air still accommodate presences: events are never lost, even when they are lost sight of.

He became a staff and freelance journalist with a special interest in France where he lived for ten years. His first book was a popular pre-War guide, Paris Today: he knew every snicket of his chosen city, and that knowledge informs his accounts of Laforgue, Alain-Fournier and others: he can follow them down familiar streets, sit with them under known trees in the Bois. His novel Portrait of Mimosa is set in the south of France. But fiction was not to be his strong suit. Nor - though I urged him to it often - was autobiography. What matters in his own life is the occasion that leads into another's; that occasion frets like a sand-grain in an oyster. This is how his Looking for Laforgue (1979) opens:

My first introduction to Laforgue was at the Atelier Theatre, Paris, in April 1939. With my friend Vera Volkova, a Russian dancer who was studying with Mme Egorova in the rue La Rochefoucauld, I had gone to see a performance of Laforgue's Hamlet with Jean-Louis Barrault in the title role… afterwards we sat next to Barrault and his friends at a café in the Place Dancourt, and shamelessly eavesdropped on all they said.

Dates, companions, places. Half of any experience is its location.

The next time I met Laforgue was the following year in a house by the sea in Brittany. Gauguin's monkey was reputed to be buried in one of the garden urns, but I didn't bother to investigate. With a friend I had fled Paris by bicycle, and we were just congratulating ourselves on having outwitted the stupid Germans when a row of green helmets flashed by the other side of the hedge, followed by another and another. In the library I happened on a book of poems by Laforgue and found solace in what then seemed the light-hearted philosophy of Ariel himself.

It might all have ended there, but after the war David became involved in the controversy surrounding Laforgue's English wife Leah Lee. 'At that time her identity was unknown, but various things were being conjectured about her which I instinctively felt to be untrue.' He 'entered the lists on her behalf, established her identity, found her grave, and published his findings in the TLS of 10 June 1965.

David respects facts. Apollinaire, Picasso, Anouilh, Poe, Zola, Cavafy, Radiguet, Searle, Eliot, his own impresario uncle, the Russian ballet: all are presented with the assurance of one who understands the original and appreciates (in the old sense) what the conflicting particulars of life have made durable in art. If the catalyst is a mistress, a lover, a candle-stick, a hair-pin, the quality of air or light, he finds and records it in an unobtrusive, gently humorous style.

More important, he finds facts. Without him the history of Laforgue's marriage would still be a subject of wild conjecture. His biography Looking for Laforgue was his first sustained book of sleuthing, four decades in gestation. His second major encounter was with Alain-Fournier: A Brief Life (1986). Again, the English connection focused his interest: he worked his way into his subject by way of Gunnersbury: street-plans, its history of building and demolition. In the end nothing is erased, he seems to say: look intently, known facts configure and point towards other facts. His unfinished project - never formally begun, though we discussed it - was an informal life of Stendhal. Several memorable essays were written in which he shares his discoveries.

Unlike most biographers, he was generous with his findings. And he went out of his way to find out things for friends. The art of biography is collaborative, and he took great pleasure in being employed - gratis, of course - in someone else's venture. Acknowledged and unacknowledged, he is present in dozens of biographical and critical works.

Like the subjects he sought out, dusted down and re-positioned in their landscapes and artifacts, he can be sought and found in his books and articles. A man who loved literature, he never studied it. He avoided academic subjects (fascinated by Apollinaire, he only wrote a little about him because the poet had become academic fodder). His writing never smells of the lamp. It smells of the open air. Books and documents inform a biographer, but so do streets and rooms and 'comparable evenings by the same sea'. David was a journalist, and like any journalist he was out for scoops. But for him the scoop had to be fully verified and had to contribute to our understanding of the subject. A 'man of letters' in every sense, he will be missed, though unlike Leah Lee he will never go missing. In his own Sartrean sense, he informs PN Review, he informs his books, his friends. Literary sleuth, just gossip: David Arkell.

This item is taken from PN Review 115, Volume 23 Number 5, May - June 1997.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image