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The Book Trail: From The Lonely City to Lions

We begin this edition of The Book Trail with an incredibly thoughtful and well-written essay collection, Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City.  As always, I am using the Goodreads ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool to generate this list of fantastically intriguing tomes.

1. The Lonely City by Olivia Laing
28693032What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being? How do we connect with other people? When Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties, she found herself inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis. Fascinated by the experience, she began to explore the lonely city by way of art. Moving fluidly between works and lives – from Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks to Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules, from Henry Darger’s hoarding to David Wojnarowicz’s AIDS activism – Laing conducts an electric, dazzling investigation into what it means to be alone, illuminating not only the causes of loneliness but also how it might be resisted and redeemed. Humane, provocative and deeply moving, The Lonely City is about the spaces between people and the things that draw them together, about sexuality, mortality and the magical possibilities of art. It’s a celebration of a strange and lovely state, adrift from the larger continent of human experience, but intrinsic to the very act of being alive.

 

2. The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries by Jessa Crispin 24000166
When Jessa Crispin was thirty, she burned her settled Chicago life to the ground and took off for Berlin with a pair of suitcases and no plan beyond leaving. Half a decade later, she’s still on the road, in search not so much of a home as of understanding, a way of being in the world that demands neither constant struggle nor complete surrender.  The Dead Ladies Project is an account of that journey—but it’s also much, much more. Fascinated by exile, Crispin travels an itinerary of key locations in its literary map, of places that have drawn writers who needed to break free from their origins and start afresh. As she reflects on William James struggling through despair in Berlin, Nora Barnacle dependant on and dependable for James Joyce in Trieste, Maud Gonne fomenting revolution and fostering myth in Dublin, or Igor Stravinsky starting over from nothing in Switzerland, Crispin interweaves biography, incisive literary analysis, and personal experience into a rich meditation on the complicated interactions of place, personality, and society that can make escape and reinvention such an attractive, even intoxicating proposition.  Personal and profane, funny and fervent, The Dead Ladies Project ranges from the nineteenth century to the present, from historical figures to brand-new hangovers, in search, ultimately, of an answer to a bedrock question: How does a person decide how to live their life?

 

3. The Bad Mother by Marguerite Andersen
27969969Translated from the award-winning French novel La mauvaise mère, prolific author Marguerite Andersen fictionalizes the important moments of her life resulting in this unflinching account of her relationship with her three children and her years spent following her caprices and lovers, trying to regain the agency she lost when she became a mother.  Born in Germany, Marguerite was just into her twenties when she moved to Tunisia with her French lover. She thought she was choosing a life of adventure and freedom, but what she got was children and a marriage that quickly became abusive. Constrained by the minutiae of everyday life, Marguerite longs for the agency to make her own choices. Eventually she flees, leaving her children behind for a year and a half.  As the world labels her a wife, a mother, and eventually a bad mother, Marguerite wrestles with her own definition of personhood. Can you love your children and want your own life at the same time?  A half-century later, this fictionalized account of Andersen’s life is written with brutal honesty, in spare, pithy, and often poetic prose, as she expresses her own conflicted feelings concerning a difficult time and the impact it had on her sense of self. Andersen confronts the large and small choices that she made—the times she stayed and the times she didn’t—all the while asking, “What kind of mother am I?”

 

4. Fifty Days of Solitude by Doris Grumbach 394346
Faced with a rare opportunity to experiment with solitude, Doris Grumbach decided to live in her coastal Maine home without speaking to anyone for fifty days. The result is a beautiful meditation about what it means to write, to be alone, and to come to terms with mortality.

 

5. Mad in Pursuit by Violette Leduc
99088‘In the second remarkable volume of her life story, Mad In Pursuit, the war is finally over. A new generation of writers has appeared in Paris, among them Camus, Genet, Startre, and Cocteau, and every day, they can be seen writing at the marble-topped of the Cafe de Flore. Already in her thirties. Leduc burns with hero-worship and an obsession to become a celebrated writer herself. When she finds a mentor in none other than Simone de Beauvoir, she is pulled into the center of Parisian literary life — “a beehive gone mad. “In the no-holds-barred style that made her a legend, Leduc paints a vibrant picture of the brilliant minds around her — and the dark passions and insecurities that drove her to write.

 

6. Genet by Edmund White 53011
Bastard, thief, prostitute, jailbird, Jean Genet was one of French literature’s sacred monsters. in works from Our Lady of the Flowers to The Screens, he created a scandalous personal mythology while savaging the conventions of his society. His career was a series of calculated shocks marked by feuds, rootlessness, and the embrace of unpopular causes and outcast peoples. Now this most enigmatic of writers has found his ideal biographer in novelist Edmund White, whose eloquent and often poignant chronicle does justice to the unruly narrative of Genet’s life even as it maps the various worlds in which he lived and the perverse landscape of his imagination.

 

7. Love in a Dark Time: and Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature by Colm Toibin
43705Colm Tóibín knows the languages of the outsider, the secret keeper, the gay man or woman. He knows the covert and overt language of homosexuality in literature. In Love in a Dark Time, he also describes the solace of finding like-minded companions through reading.  Tóibín examines the life and work of some of the greatest and most influential writers of the past two centuries, figures whose homosexuality remained hidden or oblique for much of their lives, either by choice or necessity. The larger world couldn’t know about their sexuality, but in their private lives, and in the spirit of their work, the laws of desire defined their expression.  This is an intimate encounter with Mann, Baldwin, Bishop, and with the contemporary poets Thom Gunn and Mark Doty. Through their work, Tóibín is able to come to terms with his own inner desires — his interest in secret erotic energy, his admiration for courageous figures, and his abiding fascination with sadness and tragedy. Tóibín looks both at writers forced to disguise their true experience on the page and at readers who find solace and sexual identity by reading between the lines.

 

8. Lions and Shadows: An Education in the Twenties by Christopher Isherwood
In 1938 the legendary Hogarth Press published the first of Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical writings, Lions and Shadows. The book evokes the atmosphere of Cambridge as Isherwood knew it and describes his life as a tutor, a medical student, and a struggling writer. Above all, Lions and Shadows is a captivating account of a young novelist’s development in the literary culture of 1920s Cambridge and London and of his experiences as he forged lifelong friendships with his peers W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Edward Upward.

 

Which of these books whets your appetite the most?  Have you read any of them?

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Problematic Biographies: ‘Alan Turing: The Enigma’ by Andrew Hodges *** and ‘Dorothy M. Richardson’ by John Cowper Powys ****

Further to my question of yesterday as to whether all biographies are flawed, I thought I would write about two which I read at the tail end of last year and had problems with.

Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges *** 9781784700089
Like many, I purchased this because I very much enjoyed ‘The Imitation Game’; it then sat upon my TBR shelf for well over a year.  I felt that I should try my best to read it before 2016 was out, so I squeezed it into my November reading.

As far as biographies go, Alan Turing: The Enigma is incredibly long, running to 679 pages excluding the notes and index.  The whole was not as well written as I was expecting, and it did not feel very consistent in places.  The intricate mathematical details placed here and there did not always seem necessary, and it read almost like a Further Maths textbook at times.  It is quite a difficult book to categorise, and it is by no means a straightforward biography, nor a critique of Turing’s work.  It occupies a strange middleground, which consequently means that it does not sit quite right with the reader.

Turing was undoubtedly a fantastically bright man, but I thought that the telling of his story would be more compelling than it turned out to be.  I do not feel as though I’ve learnt much more about him from this volume, sadly; Hodges’ account is undoubtedly well-researched, but it is also rather disappointing.

 

Dorothy M. Richardson by John Cowper Powys ****
I borrowed this from my University library to aid with my understanding of Dorothy Richardson’s life; prior to this, I knew very little about her, if I’m honest.  It is incredibly slight; standing at just 48 pages, I wasn’t entirely sure if it would be able to give me a full picture of Richardson.  It wasn’t overly in-depth, and presented barely anything of Richardson as a woman; rather, it provides a critique of her Pilgrimage series, and how its techniques veer away from the traditional.  Regardless, it is very intelligently written, and Powys clearly admires Richardson.  I would recommend it as an introduction into her work, but I’m sure there must be a more thorough and authoritative biography out there somewhere.

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Are All Biographies Flawed?

Following a conversation which I had with one of my thesis supervisors in November last year, I have been pondering about biographies.  I was advised not to include any of them in my research, as the supervisor in question is ‘not interested in what an author was like, but what they wrote’.  Fair enough, I suppose.

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From the Washington Independent Review of Books

However, my own personal stance on biographies is rather different to this.  I like to be acquainted with the work of a particular author or other historical figure before I read a biographical work about them, but I find that reading such tomes is central to my understanding of the world which they inhabited, and the influences which they had.

Whilst I’m not going to choose to eschew biographies in my reading life, it has led me to the following question – are all biographies flawed?  Is there really such thing as an impartial biography, or will there always be some sway by the author onto their chosen subject?  All thoughts on this, or on biographical writing in itself, are very welcome; I’d love to hear where you all stand.

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‘Tove Jansson: Work and Love’ by Tuula Karjalainen *****

The best part of Tove Jansson’s centenary celebrations is, for me, the plethora of new books released, which showcase both her own work and her life.  The second biography of Jansson, written by Finnish art historian Tuula Karjalainen, is released today by Particular Books, and follows Boel Westin’s work, Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words, which was released in January.  Whilst the titles of both books are similar, it is Karjalainen’s which stands out, and which, I feel, provides the best insight into Jansson’s work.

Jansson was born in Paris in 1914, and moved to Finland in her early childhood.  The blurb of Tove Jansson: Work and Love states that she ‘led a long, colourful and productive life, shaped by the political, social and cultural landscape of 20th-century Finland’.  The blurb of the book says, quite rightly, that Karjalainen has conjured up ‘a vivid picture of Jansson’s extraordinary life’.  Rather than focus solely on Jansson’s literary output, as Westin’s work largely does, Karjalainen has taken into account her writing and artwork in equal measure: ‘Her life’s work is enormous.  It should really be discussed in the plural, because she had several careers – as an author of fairytales, as an illustrator, painter, writer, stage designer, dramaturge, poet, political caricaturist and cartoonist’.  Much of Tove Jansson: Work and Love has been built around the ‘decades of personal correspondence and journals’ which she was able to examine following Jansson’s death in 2001.

Tove Jansson: Work and Love was first published in Finland last year.  In her book, Karjalainen begins with a lovely section entitled ‘To the Reader’, which speaks of the early days of the relationship between Tove’s parents, Signe and Viktor.  She goes on to write about the things which she has personally gained from peering into Jansson’s life: ‘Stepping in… has been a rich and wonderful experience, though I had constantly to be aware that I might not necessarily be welcome.  Tove has been the subject of biographies, studies and dissertations written from many different points of view.  She permitted it during her lifetime, despite not always being very interested’.  The structure of the book is interesting, and certainly works well; it hovers somewhere between being a chronological and thematic account, Karjalainen believing that these elements are of equal importance in such a biography.

Tove Jansson: Work and Love is incredibly well written, and such care has been given to its translation.  Lovely photographs and beautiful specimens of Jansson’s art, all in beautiful colour, have been interspersed throughout.  Karjalainen adds new information and thoughtful musings to the impression previously given of Jansson’s life and work.  Quotes have been included from those who knew her best, and who have devoted time to examining her life.  Karjalainen has even given such thought to the book’s title; it is based upon Tove’s ex libris motto, ‘Laborare et Amare‘, the two elements of paramount importance for her.

It is clear throughout that Karjalainen has such respect for Jansson and her work, and sums her up perfectly in the following paragraph: ‘Tove’s life was fascinating.  She challenged conventional ways of thinking and moral rules in a country where old prejudices, especially on the subject of sexual behaviour, maintained a strict hold…  She influenced the values and attitudes of her time, but was no flag-bearer – instead, she was a quiet person who remained uncompromising in her own life choices’.

Tove Jansson: Work and Love is a sheer joy for all of Tove’s admirers; it is in depth, compassionate, far-reaching and absolutely stunning.  The book itself is absolutely beautiful, and its gloriously colourful back and spine are sure to delight every Moomin fan.

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Women of The Jazz Age

I have a slight obsession with inter-war novels and the lives of those people who culturally helped shape the Jazz Age. There are some amazing women who played public and literary roles whose stories I have enjoyed greatly and in honor of International Women’s day in March I thought I would list some of my forever favorite bios.

Zelda by Nancy Milford

If there was ever a muse to an author, it was surely Zelda to Scott. She was the idealized flapper to the pubic and for a while they were the enchanted couple. Hadley Hemingway once said that to watch Scott and Zelda dance the Charleston in Paris was to see it done to perfection and not to be forgotten. From the early years to the glory years and the decline of her mental health, this book has her story wonderfully compiled, and is the most complete of anything I’ve read yet on Zelda.

Rating: 5 stars

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Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s critical approval was years long in coming, despite her first piece’s success. To say she lived life on her own terms doesn’t even apply. She was a terrific and wild force. Her exploits sexually are legendary, but her relationships with her mother and anyone strong enough to get close to her, are complicated to extremes.  This is a must read for Jazz Age enthusiasts.

Rating: 5 stars

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‘Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin’ by Marion Meade

Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin by Marion Meade

Not technically biography, but more a chronicle of the lives of four pillars of the Jazz Age woman. Dorothy Parker, Edna Thurber, Zelda Fitzgerald and Edna St. Vincent Millay are followed yearly from 1920 through 1929. This is a mixture of social history, biography, gossip and overview of their lives. I did like how it was done one year at a time. It was a nice way to show parallels in their lives and careers. A fun addition to full biographies, it is less formal and is a quick read.

Rating: 4 stars

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