Furbank, P(hilip) N(icholas) 1920-
FURBANK, P(hilip) N(icholas) 1920-
PERSONAL: Born May 23, 1920, in Cranleigh, Surrey, England; son of William Percival (a bank manager) and Grace (Turner) Furbank. Education: Emmanuel College, Cambridge, M.A., 1947. Politics: Labour.
ADDRESSES: Home—12 Leverton St., London NW5 2PJ, England. Agent—Curtis Brown Ltd., 162-168 Regent St., London W1R 5TB, England.
CAREER: Cambridge University, Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England, fellow, 1947-53; Macmillan and Co. Ltd., London, England, editor, 1964-70; Cambridge University, King's College, Cambridge, England, fellow, 1970-72; Open University, Milton Keynes, England, lecturer, 1972-77, reader, then professor, 1977-85, emeritus professor, 1992—. Military service: British Army, Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, 1940-45; served in Italy; became corporal.
AWARDS, HONORS: Truman Capote Award for a work of literary criticism, 1995, for Diderot: A Critical Biography.
Samuel Butler: 1835-1902, Cambridge University Press (London, England), 1948, Folcroft Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1969.
Reflections on the Word "Image," Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1970.
E. M. Forster: A Life, two volumes, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1977-78, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1978.
Ezra Pound, Open University Press (Milton Keynes, England), 1985.
(With others) A KWIC Concordance to Daniel Defoe's "Moll Flanders," Garland Publishing (New York, NY), 1985.
(With others) A KWIC Concordance to Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe," Garland Publishing (New York, NY), 1987.
Diderot: A Critical Biography, Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.
(With Owens) Defoe De-attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore's Checklist, Hambledon (Rio Grande, OH), 1994.
(With Owens) A Critical Bibliography of Daniel Defoe, Pickering & Chatto (Brookfield, VT), 1998.
Behalf, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 1999.
(With Felicia Gordon) Marie-Madeleine Jodin, 1741-1790: Actress, Philosophe, and Feminist, Ashgate (Burlington, VT), 2001.
Contributor to anthologies, including The Pelican Guide to English Literature; G. K. Chesterton: A Centenary Appraisal; The Uses of Fiction: Essays on the Modern Novel; The Spirit of D. H. Lawrence: Centenary Studies; and Life by Other Means: Essays on D.J. Enright. Also contributor to various periodicals, including, Listener, Guardian, Observer, Cornhill, Essays in Criticism, Twentieth Century, Kenyon Review, Mosaic, New York Review of Books, Raritan, and Encounter.
Henry Fielding, Joseph Andrews, Penguin (Harmondsworth, England), 1954.
Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, Penguin (Harmondsworth, England), 1968.
Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1974.
(With Graham Martin) Twentieth Century Poetry: Critical Essays and Documents, Open University Press (Milton Keynes, England), 1975.
Leo Tolstoy, The Raid and Other Stories, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1982.
(With Mary Lago) Selected Letters of E. M. Forster, two volumes, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1984-85.
The Notebooks of Samuel Butler, Hogarth Press (London, England), 1985.
E. M. Forster, The New Collected Short Stories, Sidgwick & Jackson (London, England), 1985.
Rudyard Kipling, Life's Handicap, Penguin (Harmondsworth, England), 1987.
Harry Daley, This Small Cloud, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1988.
Livia Svevo, Memoirs of Italo Svevo, Libris (London, England), 1989.
E. M. Forster, A Passage to India, Everyman Library (London, England), 1991.
(And translator and author of introduction) Denis Diderot, This Is Not a Story; and Other Stories, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1991.
(Editor, with others) The True-born Englishman and Other Writings, Penguin Books (Harmondsworth, England), 1997.
E. M. Forster, The Prince's Tale and Other Uncollected Writings, A. Deutsch (London, England), 1998.
(With W. R. Owens) Daniel Defoe, Political and Economic Writings of Daniel Defoe, eight volumes, Pickering & Chatto (Brookfield, VT), 2000.
General editor (with W. R. Owens) of "Travel and Historical Writings of Daniel Defoe," Pickering & Chatt (Brookfield, VT), 2001—.
SIDELIGHTS: P. N. Furbank's biographies of literary figures have earned praise from many reviewers. In a New York Times Book Review critique of Italo Svevo: The Man and the Writer, John Simon noted both the inherent difficulties in the genre and Furbank's skill in overcoming them: "A critical biography is rarely a complete success: the author is usually more of a biographer or more of a critic, and leans heavily to one or the other side of the fence. P. N. Furbank's Italo Svevo: The Man and the Writer is, however, very nearly perfect; its only failing, if failing it be, is that it strives so resolutely for brevity as to leave us, especially on the critical side, hungry for more."
Furbank's work on British novelist E. M. Forster—a two-volume biography, dedicated to Forster, and two volumes of his correspondence—presented special difficulties. Forster had led a sheltered life, one that provided seemingly scant material for biographers. He spent the last half of his life in residence at Cambridge University, where he met Furbank. The two enjoyed a twenty-three-year friendship. Near the end of his life, the novelist asked Furbank to be his official biographer. In this capacity, Furbank had access to Forster's unpublished writings, private papers, and correspondence. "Much of the material concerned Forster's homosexuality, and his whole story could not have been told without it," reported Paul Gray in Time magazine. "He was one of the great English novelists of this century, but the foundations of his art have rested on a buried life."
"Forster's life doesn't offer a heartening display of weaknesses overcome, fears mastered or inhibitions shed. It is a history of outward tameness, sexual debility and hampered creativity," stated Walter Clemons in Newsweek. "Facing these obstacles, P. N. Furbank has written one of the best biographies of a writer I've ever read." Michiko Kakutani also described E. M. Forster: A Life as "a superb model of biographical art. Written in lovely, casual prose that Forster himself would have admired, the book [depicts] the author and his world with candor and affection." A New Yorker writer summarized the book as "the life of Edward Morgan Forster." Michael Herbert wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "anyone writing a biography of Forster now would be inevitably overshadowed by Furbank's achievement."
In contrast to setting a precedent, as Herbert described E. M. Forster, Furbank's biography of Denis Diderot follows in the footsteps of an earlier publication on the French encyclopedist and philosopher. Herbert explained that Diderot: A Critical Biography is "in the shadow of Arthur M. Wilson's monumental two-volume biography (1957, 1972) and can add little to our knowledge of the man….But Furbank's aimsare different from Wilson's, involving not only writing a guided tour of the mind of his subject, just as he had done with Forster, but also writing a critical biography, which he had not done with Forster." Although Furbank presents previously exposed details of Diderot, "his critical comments have a broader range and often a sharper focus than those of his predecessor," stated Donald Schier in Sewanee Review. Schier summarized, "Furbank's book is gracefully written (but so is Wilson's)….Wilson's biography will no doubt continue to be the scholar's source, but the general reader would do very well with Furbank's exploration of essentially the same territory." Ruth Plaut Weinreb noted in the New York Times Book Review: "[Furbank] responds superbly to the challenge presented by Wilson. With the benefit of recent scholarship, he brings the subject up to date and sheds light on new areas. Mr. Furbank's book is directed to the general reader, but the specialist will appreciate the vast quantity of new material on Diderot." Although describing Furbank's Diderot as "thoughtful, jargon-free and rewarding," the Washington Post's Michael Dirda recommended Furbank's other Diderot book—his excellent translation of This is Not a Story; and Other Stories—as the better introduction to "this subtle philosopher and beguiling writer." Furthermore, Dirda stated, when Furbank's and Wilson's biographies of Diderot are compared, "the best straight biography remains Arthur Wilson's."
According to Stanley Mellon in the Chicago Tribune, Diderot "is not a study of Diderot's inner life, which after two centuries still remains a great mystery. Instead Furbank has adopted the oldest and soundest of biographical techniques and given us Diderot as he was known to his contemporaries…. Furbank fullytreats all of Diderot's frantic activity, all his forgotten failures. But he also realizes that in his own time Diderot was simply Diderot of the Encyclopedie." Weinreb noted that "this biography emphasizes the fact that Diderot was not an ivory-tower intellectual." The book "chronicles not so much what he 'represented' as what he achieved," reported Wulf D. Rehder in the Bloomsbury Review. In the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Richard Eder wrote: "[Furbank's] book is a critical biography but the author … possesses an almost novelistic vividness. In fact, more than in the analysis of the individual works—sometimes tedious or fuzzy—his achievement is to connect these works to a central passion and to use that passion to make a portrait."
In presenting Diderot's work, Furbank "occasionally takes our arm to conduct us through Diderot's writing," Eder remarked. Herbert similarly recognized that "Furbank is concerned with teaching the reader how to read the literary works he so much admires," specifying at one point that "what interests Furbank about Diderot are the works by which his name continues to live: not his feeble plays; not his rational philosophy; not even the Encyclopedie." Weinreb stated that in Furbank's "contemporary literary theory" analysis of Diderot's fiction, "perhaps he attributes too much weight to the originality of Diderot's fictional narrative technique."
Generally, Diderot has been very well received by critics. Stuart Hampshire, a contributor to the New York Review of Books, wrote that Furbank's book is "light and sympathetic in a style appropriate to its subject….Ina single volume, comfortably held, itis quite impossible to do justice to the superabundance of Diderot's adventures and friendships and also to his writings….Mr. Furbank has cut a pleasant andcentral path through the thicket, while also directing the reader's attention to dense subjects along the path, subjects which he has no space to treat adequately….But Mr. Furbank does convey animpression of the superabundance of his subject as well as of the enduring charm and gaiety of the man who was not without his darker premonitions." Eder called the book "rich, high-spirited, restless and thus [an] utterly Diderotesque critical biography….[A]lavish and stimulating portrait." Weinreb cited one of the book's strengths as "[allowing] Diderot to speak for himself in long passages quoted from lively letters to family and friends," and concluded that "Mr. Furbank demonstrates a sympathetic grasp of Diderot's personality and writing, and the ethical and artistic problems he faced, which he recounts in graceful prose." Herbert praised Furbank for his "remarkable ability to make coherent sense of the bewildering diversity of Diderot's many-sided genius" and "his ability to make that polymath's variety of ideas sparkle with new and exciting life."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 155: Twentieth-Century British Literary Biographers, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1995.
Antioch Review, spring, 1979.
Bloomsbury Review, May-June, 1994, Wulf D. Rehder, review of Diderot: A Critical Biography.
Chicago Tribune, January 10, 1993, Stanley Mellon, review of Diderot.
Chicago Tribune Book World, November 12, 1978.
Choice, December, 1998, review of A Critical Bibliography of Daniel Defoe, p. 662.
Contemporary Review, December, 1992, Linda Kirk, review of Diderot, p. 332.
Eighteenth-Century Fiction, July, 2000, G. A. Starr, review of A Critical Bibliography of Daniel Defoe, p. 584.
English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, spring, 1999, J. H. Stape, "Forster's Essays," p. 209.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), January 14, 1984.
London Review of Books, July 19, 2001, Tom Paulin, review of Political and Economic Writings of Daniel Defoe, p. 15.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 15, 1992, Richard Eder, review of Diderot.
Nation, November 11, 1978; May 29, 1979.
New Republic, February 1, 1993.
Newsweek, October 30, 1978, Walter Clemons, review of E. M. Forster: A Life. New Yorker, December 25, 1978, review of E. M. Forster. New York Review of Books, May 4, 1967; October 12, 1978; December 22, 1988; March 4, 1993, review of Diderot. New York Times, December 22, 1978.
New York Times Book Review, April 9, 1967, John Simon, review of Italo Svevo: The Man and the Writer; January 8, 1984; May 5, 1985; January 24, 1993, Ruth Plaut Weinreb, review of Diderot.
Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, June, 1999, James E. May, review of A Critical Bibliography of Daniel Defoe, p. 276,
Review of English Studies, November, 1999, Tom Keymer, review of A Critical Bibliography of Daniel Defoe, p. 533.
Sewanee Review, summer, 1993, Donald Schier, review of Diderot.
Spectator, August 6, 1977; March 25, 1978; April 4, 1998, Julian Mitchell, review of The Prince's Tale and Other Uncollected Writings, p. 39.
Time, November 6, 1978, Paul Gray, review of E. M. Forster.
Times (London, England), December 29, 1983.
Times Literary Supplement, August 11, 1966; July 29, 1977; March 24, 1978; November 18, 1983; May 24, 1985; September 13, 1985; May 21, 1999, review of A Critical Bibliography of Daniel Defoe, p. 33; November 17, 2000, Malcolm Bowie, review of Behalf, p. 20.
Washington Post, December 20, 1992, Michael Dirda, review of Diderot.
Washington Post Book World, December 17, 1978; January 1, 1984; May 26, 1985.
World Literature Today, spring, 1979.