Nesta Bird: The Life and Times of Mary Biffy


 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).





17 thoughts on “Nesta Bird: The Life and Times of Mary Biffy

  1. Gert, what an amazing find. Mary Biffy did try to reinvent herself as a philosopher akin to Gertrude Stein, but felt that Gertrude had stolen her manuscript. Maybe you have some thoughts about this.

    1. How on earth do you know that, Sally? I did look for references to Gertrude because I felt it would have been extraordinary if MB had been in Paris at the time and not met her, but Nesta Bird doesn’t mention her. Do you have another source?

  2. I’m ashamed to say that I’d never heard of Mary Biffy until I read your piece. To say that she must have been quite a character sounds like a gross understatement – what a woman!

    1. Well, you’re not the only one, Jacqui. I’m sure you would have loved her books but they just don’t seem to be gettable. Our brother Denis Kodaly claims to have one of them, but he is a bit of a fantasist.

  3. I am amazed that you did not know Mary Biffy was a well travelled person given her writings and words of wisdom which you have obviously read. Maybe you are not quite in tune with the esoteric.

  4. Perhaps if she had a different title for her first book she would have made more of a splash.
    The Man Who Cleaned His Face With Sandpaper gives me the willies. It makes me think of finger nails scratching a chalk board.

    1. Yes, you’re right. It also sounds a bit like the title of a Sherlock Holmes novel. People would have been very disappointed if they bought it expecting Sherlock Holmes!

  5. I’m sorry Gert, but your review contains a significant error. The attribution of the authorship of Concrete Mondays to M. Biffy is a mere urban legend – I thought that everybody knew that actual author was Brassface Soon. After all the book does have very strong thematic links with that epoch defining quatrain by Soon and Vhakrsnapr:

    The British Constitution is a glorious institution and is truly rural.
    The British Constitution is a glorious institution and is truly rural.
    Elephants and elephants and elephants and elephants
    British elephants and constitutional elephants and truly rural elephants.

    Besides, Biffy is known to have despised Mondays, frequently having been reported as stating that the week would be better off without them.

    Botter, as well being the name of a character, is also a quaint contraction in the the dialect spoken in the Alfadores : it means “Be off with you!” Brassface Soon ingeniously applies this name to the character who is least likely to comply with this admonition.

    However, your article is a timely tribute to a literary giant who has fallen into undeserved neglect, like so many others: Lessev Wolliw, R, Chimpazini and A Still Unknown Tramp, to name but a few.

    1. This would be the same Brassface Soon who claimed to be the real author of “A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu”, I presume? He has been exposed as a charlatan in so many learned papers that I can’t begin to list them.
      And yes, Mary Biffy did hate Mondays. And so the title “Concrete Monday”, the idea being that Monday was a bleak, hard thing that could be compared to having your feet enclosed in a block of concrete and being thrown into deep water.

      On another note, I’ve heard that you’re working on a book called “Theology of the Incompetent”. Is that true?

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