Sometime in 1929, Arthur Waley, who was working as Assistant Keeper of Oriental Prints and Manuscripts at the British Museum and who had began to be known as a translator and popularizer of Asian literature with his publication of A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems, met Alison Grant, a young woman recently emigrated to London from New Zealand. She fell headlong in love with him and he was at least strongly attracted to her. Soon after, he took her back to his flat and they spent the night lying together, fully clothed, in his bed. As he led her to the street the next day, he tells her, “You must never come here again.” Why? Because “There is a lady in Fez….”
The lady in Fez was Beryl de Zoete, a dancer, writer, and researcher into exotic dance forms, with whom Waley had begun living in 1918. Although Beryl was “in Fez”–with three male admirers in tow–Waley implied that her return was imminent and that their ambiguous relationship had to take precedence over whatever he might like to start up with Alison. And so they parted, only to catch glimpses and exchange a few words while passing in and out of the British Museum. Alison married, bore a son, and carried on–the whole time still carrying a torch for Arthur.
Then, sometime in 1943, they met again in the midst of the Blitz and decided to resume the affair. Alison’s husband walked in on the pair–again lying together fully-clothed–and left her. Arthur, however, stayed firmly embedded with Beryl. And even more firmly embedded to the life of the solitary scholar. A man who spent his life studying and translating the literature of Asia, he never actually traveled more than a few hundred miles from London and was never able to converse in Chinese or Japanese. By all accounts other than Alison’s, he was at his happiest alone with his books and papers.
Nearly twenty years passed. Ten years older than Arthur, Beryl began to suffer the effects of Huntington’s chorea and was eventually confined to a bed in their Bloomsbury flat, where she died in 1962 at the age of 82. Alison swooped in and began to arrange for a life together with Arthur. Arthur appeared somewhat less enthusiastic at the prospect–in fact, he went and rented a studio flat–but after injured in an automobile accident while Alison was driving and, in its aftermath, diagnosed with cancer of the spine, he agreed to spend his few remaining months with her. Weeks before his death, they are wed at the local registry office. Arthur died in 1966 at the age of 76; Alison lived on to the next millennium, dying at the age of 100 in 2001.
Now, to the book.
In some ways, I’m tempted to call this the greatest of all English romances.
I say that because A Half of Two Lives features some of the most passionate love scenes, some of the most operatically intense raptures, some of the most uncontrolled and unashamed outbursts of desire to be found in any pages of English prose. Although she had to wait until the age of 82 to publish her love story, Alison Grant Robinson Waley managed to channel all the energy and focus of her inner teenager into its telling.
And I say that because, at the same time, this is a very English romance. Whether Arthur and Alison or Arthur and Beryl ever did actually have sex remains in doubt. Some writers suggest that Arthur was actually a tightly closeted homosexual, and among the weirder passages in this book are recollections of his distaste and dismissal of gays (“No party without buggers,” he sighed when reviewing a list of guests prepared by Alison). Although Arthur assures Alison at the very onset, “I love you. Every sort of way. Even physically,” it becomes clear that “even physically” is defined as holding hands, snuggling, and, in very special moments, kissing. By the time Arthur and Alison are living together, he is paralyzed from the chest down. There was a rumor, back in 2008, that the Hungarian director Istvan Szabo was planning to make a film based A Half of Two Lives. Had he stayed faithful (no pun intended) to the book, the film would been lucky to earn a “PG” rating.
What no one–other than Alison Waley–questions, though, is that this is not a work of nonfiction. Reviewing it for the New York Times, Humphrey Carpenter wrote, “There are many kinds of biography, and this is none of them.” He preferred to call it “a kind of mad, splendid poem.” Marina Warner, in The Sunday Times politely demurred that “it does not resemble a conventional biography,” while Hermione Lee was–by TLS standards–blunt in calling it “a fervent, fragmentary, and extremely odd narrative.” Even Hilary Spurling, in her well-modulated introduction to the book, advised that, “Some of the stranger episodes … do not tally with other people’s recollections any more than the anguished and tormented Arthur of this book matches previously published reminiscences of the great sinologist.”
Writing in the London Review of Books, Penelope Fitzgerald was characteristically insightful and deft: “Alison Waley, although she is a poet, has been too close to what she calls ‘every tear, every pain, every certainty’ to record them with precision. Sincerity should be the same thing as clarify, but isn’t.” And even between her own lines, Alison Waley occasionally betrays herself. At one gathering of the Bloomsbury elite, Arthur refused to introduce her, remarking, “One doesn’t introduce a child.” A further clue to Waley’s reservations can be found in this note from a 2011 auction of a collection of his letters and postcards to Beryl and Alison: “Waley’s correspondence with his future wife, Alison Grant Robinson, chiefly comprises the briefest notes, suggesting an elusive and apologetic relationship: ‘I shall be delighted to see you, on condition you don’t say nasty things about Beryl’; ‘I hate to cause you pain & disappointment’; ‘Will you obey me or not?'”
In a 1986 article in the Journal of the Rutgers University Libraries, Marian Ury quotes Edith Sitwell, writing to William Plomer after a visit from Alison: “[She] thinks one has to be screwed up to the pitch at which one writes, the whole time–otherwise one isn’t a writer.” And that, finally, defines what makes A Half of Two Lives simultaneously horrifying and wonderful. “Time must have a stop,” Alison quotes at several points in this book, but it’s obvious she never felt that applied to her passions, which she could still let blast full-bore in her ninth decade.
Even at a distance of over twenty years, for example, she cannot mute the tone of romantic madness in her last encounter with Beryl:
Beryl–propped with a dozen pillow–regards me with wavering glance.
I take her wildly jerking hands in mine and they are suddenly still. Looking only into her eyes, now fixed on mine and strangely glowing, I say: “Hullo, Beryl …” I lean forward and kiss her brow–sweat-soaked, dark and strange under its flying wisps of white. I sit back on my heels and lay my bare arms along her own–no more than withered sticks: but our eyes hold. And in that long moment we are known to one another so that nothing stands between. In some no-place, in some mid-heaven, a truce is called: all is as it might have been. I feel only a surge of love and joy that from that grotesque mask the eyes–oh, but unbelievably–are smiling into mine.
The next time an English composer is in need of a good libretto, he should take a careful look at A Half of Two Lives. If the book’s not the basis for the Great English Opera, there’s no question that Alison Waley is certainly a perfect candidate for the Great English Operatic Heroine with her motto, “Keep Hysterically Passionate and Carry On.”