Stuart – A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters

June 20, 2011

Alexander Masters first met Stuart Shorter in Wintercomfort, a Cambridge institution for helping the homeless. Stuart was an ex-convict, a junkie and an alcoholic; he suffered from borderline personality disorder and muscular dystrophy; he was prone to self-mutilation and outbursts of anger; and earlier he lived the chaotic life of a homeless man. The Cambridge social workers considered Stuart’s case a great success story as they more or less managed to turn him into a ’normal’ person: they provided him with a council flat so that he could finally live a regular life free from the strains of homelessness, and Stuart even stopped doing drugs.

Alexander (whom I will mention by his first name, as he also appears in the book as Alexander) wanted to dig deeper into Stuart’s story and find out where his life went off the tracks, so he decided to write his biography. The book took him years to complete, and during this time he conducted countless interviews with Stuart and his family, and he also managed to become friends with Stu: he tasted Stuart’s famous prison curry; lent him some money every now and then; accompanied him to his court hearings; and based on Stuart’s idea he organized a big campaign in order to have the authorities release the leaders of Wintercomfort who were arrested on less than just charges.

After several years, Alexander finished the biography, which is in fact not only a biography as it also contains the story of its own creation, and the story of the friendship between Alexander and Stuart. Among the biographical chapters proper, we find the chronicle of the events of Stuart’s and Alexander’s present days, and we can also read about the difficulties Alexander faced while writing the book.

At the beginning of the book, Alexander admits that Stuart found the first version of the biography excessively boring and recommended that Alexander write the events in a reversed order, in the manner of a crime novel, so that the reader can keep guessing as to what might have happened in Stuart’s childhood which turned him into a dangerous misfit bound to live a chaotic life. Alexander listened to Stu’s advice and I’m glad he did. Even though the outcome (or rather: the beginning) is predictable, I was keeping my fingers crossed and kept anticipating what might surface in the subsequent chapter, and kept hoping that it wouldn’t be what I expected.

Despite the constant shifts between past and present and other such ’literary’ things in the book, Alexander doesn’t turn Stuart into a romantic hero. He writes about Stuart in an honest, often rather ironic way, doesn’t try to make his actions appear in a positive light, and doesn’t depict him as a poor misunderstood man. And even though Alexander considers himself to be a friend of Stuart, he readily admits that sometimes he is absolutely fed up with Stuart’s behavior, way of life, unpredictability and constant chattering, and that he often thinks that the best solution would be to lock up Stuart in some safe place where he wouldn’t be able to harm anyone – least of all himself.

By the way, it’s very interesting how Stuart himself withstands even the most feeble attempt on Alexander’s part to turn him into a tragic hero with a hard life. As I mentioned before, Alexander tries to pinpoint the event which turned the lively and happy little Stuart first into a teenager constantly running away from home and sniffing glue, and then into a thief and drug-abuser who was bound to end up in prison. And even though Stuart claims that his life changed forever the day he discovered violence, he immediately adds that a lot of kids with a similar background grew up to be normal adults. Therefore even though Alexander may think (and with every reason I’m sure) that a childhood such as Stuart’s can wreck someone’s life forever, Stuart himself is not willing to blame only others for ruining his life, he refuses to make a melodrama out of his life, and this indeed makes him rather special.

Finally I must mention that I had the misfortune to read the Hungarian edition of the book, which is of a very low quality. The translation is full of mistakes which often make it really hard to understand a sentence, and sometimes even suggest a meaning totally different from the real meaning of the sentence. So I wasn’t even surprised to see that the name of the author is three times written as ’Alexanders’ instead of ’Alexander’ on the book cover. It’s a pity that mistakes (or rather negligence) of this kind make this book seem a cheap pulp book, when in fact it is everything but cheap and pulpy.


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