A thrilling boots-and-all ride through the life of one of the most celebrated eccentrics of the last century. Bird pursues the truth about Biffy in a series of fascinating interviews with those who knew her best.
‘An almost impossibly entertaining work of art,’ Gordon Strange.
‘A Biffyian rollercoaster that perplexes, illuminates, enrages and confuses in equal proportions,’ Sir Lucretius Baboon.
So says the blurb of Nesta Bird’s new book on this almost-forgotten figure. It really is an extraordinary life. The daughter of a vicar, Biffy became one of the most daring literary experimentalists we’ve seen, as well as an inveterate gambler and a terrible judge of horseflesh, addicted to cards (she was more than once accused of cheating at Scranski), and not at all grateful for the financial support provided by her small group of admirers in the last years of her life. She knew everyone, it seems from Baron Corvo to Ronald Knox to Iris Murdoch to the Kraye twins, and Nesta Bird’s book is hugely entertaining on the personal level.
Bird is not so strong, though, on Biffy as a serious writer, which she most certainly was, even if her books are not for the faint-hearted. Inventor and master of the technique of bouleversement intime, she makes use of a deliberately empty symbology. Her semi-real characters wander, or perhaps only seem to wander, in a harrowing perpetuity of moral and epistemological mazes. The syntactic technique of ennui construit confronts the reader with a seemingly impenetrable wall of mis- or dis-understanding.
The bleak existential romance The Man Who Cleaned His Face With Sandpaper appeared in 1905 when Biffy was only 22. Discouraged by its poor reception, she did not publish again until 1927 when she had been living in Paris for some years and appears to have been heavily influenced by the surrealists. Concrete Monday brought us the unforgettable character Botter (or is it Otter? You can never be sure) and the totalitarian English village of Thring. Her last book, The Woollen Rufus (1931), is a complicated linguistic experiment built around the concept of the “non-joke”.
All her books have been out of print since the 1930’s, which Biffy herself in later life described as “a bloody good thing”. Towards the end of her life she took to denying that she had ever written a book, ascribing the three titles at different times to G.K. Chesterton, Andre Breton, Gogol and even Barbara Cartland. Despite her difficult and unreliable personality, a small circle of admirers supported her financially until the end of her life in 1956.
Nesta Bird: The Life and Times of Mary Biffy (Oscar Trerty, 2015).