We have often used the thoughts of intellectuals to speak about everyday life, but have rarely spoken about the everyday lives of intellectuals themselves. A couple of us have in recent years been recipients of the generosity and company of one intellectual, the critic and author P.N. Furbank, who died on June 27th, aged 94. Furbank had been an early contributor to the English programme at the Open University, he was a friend of Alan Turing and became the executor of Turing’s will after his suicide in 1954, and was the novelist E.M. Forster’s confidante and authorised biographer. His life’s work also included a major edition of the complete works of the novelist Daniel Defoe, and he would refer to his tours of British archives and libraries with his co-editor as “the Defoe trail”. We made use of one of his anecdotes about Forster in the introduction to our book.
Conversation with Furbank was a lesson in life lived with writing. There was the Marxist colleague who had thought Furbank’s approach to Hardy and Tolstoy to be “too aesthetic” but who felt “so sorry” for Anna Karenina, and the friend who had prepared for death by reading John Donne’s Biathanatos, a book that argues Christ committed suicide. When reminded of the episode in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette where Lucy Snowe reads a misdirected love letter that she initially assumes to be intended for her – only to realize the mistake when she reaches some unflattering remarks about her in it – Furbank seemed quite serious about how awful that was. It came out during our acquaintance that, in the 1950s, a married colleague of Furbank’s had been monitored by MI6 over his Communist Party involvement, and that they had kept a dossier of his homosexual affairs: presumably intended for blackmail purposes. Furbank remarked with black humour that there had been no discussion of the colleague’s homosexuality at the time, although he had “surmised” it, and when the colleague’s wife gave him a manuscript of a novel by the colleague after his death, “it rather confirmed my feeling”. He spoke with self-deprecation of his generation of scholars who had no time for PhDs, but were “genteel amateurs, as tennis players used to be”. Much of what he said came immaculately from another time. A story we haven’t quite corroborated – and which is remembered through a haze of neat gin, served alongside the sherry on little drink stands however early the hour of calling – involved Turing setting up a maths-based treasure hunt across Cambridge for Furbank and Forster to solve. The final clue depended on an electrical current being run through Forster’s piano, which Turing had filled with tizer. Another friend at the table asked whether Forster played the piano well, and Furbank said he did.
In the last years of his life, Furbank was writing about European cinema and about the history of insects in literature, topics I don’t know that he had ever published on before. The not-especially-fashionable lesson to take away was that to have cultivated a serious interest in art and literature early on was to ensure that there could be no lonely indolence or sense of being superfluous in old age. Furbank’s humane, conversational interrogation of things was always social, and this, more than his massive erudition, made people want to talk to him. He showed that once one has started work on developing a relationship to the history of culture and the stories humans tell about each other’s lives, one’s work will never be finished. Among the great sadnesses of old age is to have run out of things to do. Furbank was working on saying something worth saying to the end; to learn to live like that would be a wise thing.