China’s Great Survivor

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

Few modern political leaders have been more versatile than Zhou Enlai. A journalist and recruiter in Paris in the early 1920s for the infant Chinese Communist Party (CCP), he reappeared repeatedly over the next few decades: as director of political affairs for the National Revolutionary Army set up to rid China of its warlords; as the spymaster managing the CCP intelligence network after the rift between the CCP and the Chinese Nationalist Party in 1927; as the Red Army’s chief decision-maker

Les Misérables

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

Biography, like any other literary form, adapts to meet the changing fads of readers. Currently we like our biographers where we can see them, commanding almost as much significance as their subject. This is certainly Mark Bostridge’s approach in In Pursuit of Love, a biography of Adèle Hugo, daughter of 19th-century France’s most admired writer. […]

Kiss of Death

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

H G Wells and Rebecca West are standing in front of a bookcase, talking frantically at each other about matters of literary style, moving closer and closer until they kiss. The physicist Leo Szilard is somewhere near the British Museum, staring down the street and watching the traffic lights change. A man in a Japanese prison camp is waiting to see if he will die of hunger or exhaustion, or be murdered by his guards when American forces invade. Post-kiss, an overwhelmed Wells darts off to Switzerland

Doctor & Dominatrix

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Academic and former sex worker Chris Belcher’s memoir explores how she went from being the winner of a regional ‘pretty baby’ contest as a child to becoming a highly paid professional dominatrix in Los Angeles, able to support herself through an expensive postgraduate humanities education. Billing herself as ‘LA’s Renowned Lesbian Dominatrix’, she finds that […]

Embarrassment & Riches

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Was there ever a group of men so wealthy and powerful as the American robber barons of the 19th century? Their names and the dynasties they founded, the ostentatious palaces they built for themselves on Fifth Avenue and the country mansions they stocked with European antiques on Rhode Island still make you gasp. They may […]

Man Who Fell to Earth

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The opportunity to spend two years shadowing Elon Musk, the South African-born entrepreneur behind Tesla cars and SpaceX rockets and owner, since October last year, of Twitter (now renamed X), would be a fascinating but daunting prospect for any writer. The veteran biographer and journalist Walter Isaacson, whose previous subjects have ranged from Leonardo da […]

Nuclear Family

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘I do not know how suicide would play with them and I do not have the bravery to find out,’ writes Natasha Walter, bravely, of the refugee women with whom she was working at the time of the death of her mother, Ruth, by suicide six years ago. Her memoir describes how Ruth, at seventy-five, […]

Royalist Surrealist

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The life that stretched ahead of the newborn Margaret Lucas in 1623 should have been as unmemorable as it was comfortable: marriage, children, genteel household management. But even as a girl, the future Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, self-styled princess and hopeful ‘authoress of a whole world’, looked for something a little more exciting. Events […]

All His Trials

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

If he’d lived another six months, Nick Drake would have joined the ‘27 Club’, the sad elite of popular musicians who died at twenty-seven, more or less by their own hands: Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and so on. His talent, fragility and reliance on non-prescription props were almost certainly equal to theirs. In […]

Toneless Wonders

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

I’ve felt a little guilty about Arnold Schoenberg all my adult life. If, as a pretentious teenager, I was claiming to be a serious music lover, shouldn’t I have been getting more out of his most ‘advanced’ works? It’s all very well having developed in my later years some faint understanding of the aesthetic manifesto […]

An Electromagnetic Personality

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘I lack both the natural aptitude and the experience to deal properly with people,’ Albert Einstein wrote in 1952. Having lived the previous three decades as a global celebrity, he could hardly have lacked experience; yet judging by Samuel Graydon’s intriguing, mosaic-like portrait of the great physicist, he was woefully lacking in aptitude. Graydon says […]

From Wapping to Westminster

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The ‘One Boy’ is Wes, of course. The ‘Two Bills’ are his grandfathers, Bill Crowley and Bill Streeting, the first a career criminal who carried a rubber mask and a shotgun, the second an ex-Royal Navy stoker. Burglar Bill wasn’t much use to anybody, but his wife, Nanny Libby, won Wes’s affection and showed him […]

A Few Modest Observations

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘Frederic Raphael is too clever by one quarter,’ Gore Vidal said. The two men had once made a radio programme together about the ancient world. ‘I suspect,’ Raphael admits in Last Post, ‘I was a little grand with him when it came to the detail.’ The broadcast must have been startling: two highly competitive men, […]

Muddying the Waters

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

This was never likely to be, in any sense, a critical biography. Roger Deakin – the former ad man who rebuilt a tumbledown house in rural Suffolk, wrote a book, Waterlog, that redefined a genre and died too soon, at sixty-three, from a brain tumour – is still seen as a reverend godfather to the […]

Tale of Two Tyrannies

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad: the title of Daniel Finkelstein’s book does not do justice to the impressive breadth of its scope. For this is both a memoir embracing several generations of two families tossed about in the worst that history has to offer and a scholarly account of the events shaping the lives of […]

God & Heroin

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The drug addiction memoir is, in its way, as formally rigid a genre as the vicarage mystery or the nurse-and-doctor romance. There will be scenes from an unhappy childhood. There will be episodes of squalor and degradation (toilets, those private nooks in public places, will feature heavily). There will be incidents of petty crime and […]

Cold Comforts

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

One night in the winter of 1961–2, the anthropologist Hugh Brody sat on the bed in his attic room in his parents’ house, placed a cartridge in his shotgun, leaned the shotgun barrel against his head and pulled the trigger. ‘My sense of having no future was so complete that it obscured the possibility of […]

He Played It Straight for Laughs

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

It was Dick Van Dyke, a television comedy star of the 1960s, who gave the eulogy at Buster Keaton’s funeral in 1966. This might seem odd, but Keaton had said in an interview that he admired Van Dyke over Bob Hope because he had ‘that knack of doing things funny’, as opposed to just delivering […]

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The Spy Who Came Out of the Sea

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

What a piece of work was John Stonehouse. This brisk biography, focusing on what was surely one of the most dramatic lives of the postwar period, provides a cracking account of the life of a man who managed to combine three kinds of betrayal. Stonehouse was a Labour MP in what was the safe seat […]

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