Stephen Games: Pevsner: The Early Life: Germany and Art (2010)
Games has an excellent idea - to fill in the bits we don't know about Pevsner. What was Pevsner's German background? How did he become a symbol of a very British attitude to English art? How much did he know about England (and English art) when he arrived in the UK in 1933?
But this idea is sadly flawed in its execution. It is noticeable (Games draws attention to it) that when he edited and introduced a volume of Pevsner radio broadcasts, he was lambasted in the UK press for implying that Pevsner was a Nazi. Now, I don't think that Games in this book suggest for a moment that Pevsner was a Nazi. But it is a matter of regret that Games does not stick to the basic rule of biography: don't invent, and don't guess.
It is easy enough to spot the guesses: the uses of the little words "would" and "must". For example, when Pevsner got married, in 1923, "it was by all accounts a strange ceremony". By whose account? Well, Pevsner's new wife had a new step-mother, Margarete. It was felt by the Kurlbaum sisters that Margarete was glad to get Lola out of her house. "She wasn't a wicked woman or cruel step-mother", recalled Marianne Kockel, "but she had let's say, very little understanding of children."
Who were the Kurlbaum sisters? And who is Marianne Kockel? There are references at the back of the book, but these are people at several removes from Pevsner remembering events over 60 years earlier. Repeatedly, Games uses family members or friends to provide what is presented as corroboration for the author's opinion.
It gets worse. Games suggests the atmosphere was tense because Lola, Pevsner's wife, was pregnant. On what grounds? Their first baby was born 35 weeks later. Perhaps she was pregnant, perhaps she wasn't; but Games then goes on to make assumptions: "if Lola was pregnant, it was probably Margarete who made both families realize that a quick solution was needed." [ch9].
There are many other similar questionable inferences: start with a guess, and by the time you get to the inference, people may not have noticed the jump to a conclusion. Games admits he was not given access to Pevsner's diaries, and seems to have concluded that talking to any family members, descendants, friends, will serve. At the same time, he is quick to point out every time that Pevsner gets the slightest detail wrong.
Here is another example of what to me is rather questionable reasoning, this time from shortly after Pevsner had arrived in England. He had no job, no money, and was not equipped to teach anything about English art. At the time, his specialist topics were the Italian Mannerists and a thesis about 18th-century architecture in Leipzig. Hence he was dependent on English benefactors. On 23 November 1933, Games tells us he met Philip Florence, an academic at Birmingham University. But that very precise date is the only specific detail we are given. The rest of the paragraph is complete surmise:
When Florence and Pevsner met on 23 November 1933, they probably talked about Pevsner's wish to set up a course on German art history ... and Florence would have been interested in this because ... both being from overseas, they may also have exchanged impressions about what they regarded as England's peculiarities. ... Florence's approach would have been statistical and economic, however, and since Pevsner wasn't a statistician or an economist, there didn't seem to be anything useful he could say."
After a paragraph of guesswork, Games then continues to draw his conclusion: "In spite of this impasse, Florence was obviously impressed by Pevsner." How does he know?
The point is not that it makes much difference with the incidents above if Games is right or wrong - it's not really that important. But the more a biographer makes unwarranted references, the more I as a reader begin to question his conclusions about the things that are important. An author and reader have a relationship of trust. I trust the author, based on my limited knowledge of the subject, and when I see cases where the author's conclusions are dubious or uncertain. I begin to lose that trust. There are indeed things I don't know about Pevsner - but I start to become suspicious of many of the author's conclusions in this book.
An example is a comment about Pevsner's thesis, The Architecture of the Baroque Period in Leipzig. This is accompanied by a long and leisurely discussion of meanings of the term "baroque", including pupils of Pevsner remembering what other people had said about the term (is this relevant?) Then we move to Pevsner's own definition. Pevsner was co-author of the Penguin Dictionary of Architecture (40 years later). This book actually has three authors, so it is incorrect to say it is Pevsner's book. But in any case, the definition Pevsner has in the Penguin dictionary of the term baroque - if it is indeed by Pevsner - is a standard one. Games points out that the townhouses described by Pevsner do not have typical baroque features; they lack any kind of flourish. For his thesis, Pevsner was simply using the term "baroque" to mean a historical period - so why the preceding paragraph? That Games knows what the term "baroque" means? That Pevsner doesn't know what the term means?
Given the questionable nature of some of the references, what should we do about material that has no citation? For example, when Pevsner (or "Nika", as Games likes to call him at this age) goes to the Leipzig Thomas School, "he felt overshadowed by his mother and the dynamic personalities that she brought into the home ... he also felt overawed by his older brother." How does Games know this? No citations are given for any of it.
So in all, a wonderful subject, which is handled in a rather questionable way. The mixture of assertion, inference and irrelevance (together with substantial sections at the start and end where Games complains about his critics) leaves me dissatisfied. I have now reached the end of the first volume of this very expansive biography - it took me ten minutes to find out from the book when Pevsner was born, in 1902. I will read the next volume with interest, but with caution. At this rate, I've got a good few hundred pages still to go before we answer any of the big questions.