Tag Archives: Biography

A Short Life of Pushkin: Robert Chandler

I like a good biography, but selecting a book, sometimes from dozens written on an individual, can be a challenge. I want it to be the right one. What if the biography skips over chunks of a life? Then I end up reading another book and reading cross-over material.

Then there’s the completist biography. I’ve eyed, for example, the three volume set on Kafka by Reiner Stach. I’m tempted. Sorely tempted, but do I want to read around 1800 pages about Kakfa? Yes, he’s a fascinating man, no argument there, but exhaustive biographies can be just … well exhausting, and it’s often easy to lose the details when there are masses of them.

So when I saw translator Robert Chandler’s A Short Life of Pushkin, I was torn. Is this the Cliff Notes version? Did I want short? What if it was too short? What was the author leaving out and why?

A short life of Pushkin

Chandler examines Pushkin’s life and work in just over 160 pages. By trimming the fat, and I’ll get into more of that later, Chandler, left this reader with succinct details and a strong sense of the path that led to Pushkin’s early, tragic death.

Pushkin’s early life is examined in light of significant, shaping events, including the importance of his maternal grandfather, Abram Gannibal, and Pushkin’s  attendance at the “prestigious Imperial Lyceum, where he was “part of the first intake of thirty students.” Not a great deal of time is spent on Pushkin’s childhood, but we are told the essentials. There are times when the author ‘condenses’ behavior, but still leaves in a few significant details. For example we are told that Pushkin had many love affairs, but only the ones that left a mark on Pushkin, and generated creativity, are explored.

Most of us know, even without reading a biography. that Pushkin, an impetuous man from the sounds of his behaviour, fell foul of the Tsar and censorship very quickly. For this he was sent into exile. Many occasions are noted in which “Pushkin was to be saved by his friends. Unlike many children of emotionally distant parents, he had a gift for finding substitute parents who were affectionate and reliable. This may, perhaps, point to an underlying good sense in him that can easily be overlooked.”

He can’t have been too wild, as he was ‘adopted’ by several families, and yet the propensity to shock, outrage and offend was there, but was perhaps teased into prominence by frustration caused by censorship and lack of funds.

Pushkin’s southern exile began badly. During his first weeks in Yakaterinoslav (now Dnepropetrovsk) he seems to have tried hard to offend people, going as far as to attend one dinner in transparent muslin trousers and without underwear. The wife of the town’s civil governor led her three young daughters out of the room.

It’s choice details like this that pack a wallop.

There’s also a strong sense running through this lean biography of Pushkin’s self-destructive urges: his gambling, his desire to break free from society, his jealousy regarding his young, beautiful wife, and especially towards the end of his life, the duels he fought.

Significantly, the author mentions how Soviet critics, the “creative imagination” of one man and the vilification of Pushkin’s wife, Natalya have collectively impacted the impressions we have of Pushkin’s life.

Pushkin’s tangled relationships with both Tsar Nicholas I and censorship are charted, and in the dangerous political climate, Pushkin was watched, monitored and censored. Author Robert Chandler takes an interesting stance:

A great deal has been written about Pushkin as victim. The difficulties of his last years, and his eventual death, have been blamed on the Tsar–or more generally-on court intrigued. This view is too simple. The relationship between the Tsar and Pushkin was complex, and it certainly included mutual respect and affection. 

Snippets of a letter written by Pushkin to his wife are included, and this serves as a good foundation for the state of Pushkin’s mind when he challenged d’Anthès (his brother-in-law) to a duel. Another decision by the author is not to delve into the various conspiracy theories of Pushkin’s death. Conspiracy is mentioned (as it should be) but rapidly discarded. And instead the author, stating that “the truth is elusive,” follows the known facts and details of Pushkin’s final duel.

When I approached this biography, I was particularly interested in how the author would handle three topics:  Pushkin’s relationship with the Tsar, the behaviour of Pushkin’s wife, and conspiracy theories about Pushkin’s death. These three areas of interest are all tackled efficiently. I’ve read about the conspiracy theories and frankly, reading a biography that just dealt in the facts, while mentioning the theories, was oddly freeing. By concentrating on the known facts, and only mentioning rumour and conjecture, the author leaves us with plenty to ponder and also much concrete information to hang onto.

Review copy.

 

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Goebbels: Peter Longerich

“We have absolutely no intention of allowing ideas that have been totally eradicated from the new Germany to be reintroduced by film, whether openly or in disguise.”

I came to the new Goebbels biography from Peter Longerich mainly due to my interest in the German film industry during the WWII period. I’ve also seen the film that included excerpts of Goebbels’s diaries (The Goebbels Experiment) and seen various films which depict Goebbels–I’m thinking in particular of Downfall which concentrated on Hitler’s last days in the Bunker and also showed how Goebbels and his wife decided to kill their six children by poisoning before committing suicide themselves.  All this is to say that I had a certain impression of Goebbels rather than solid, intense knowledge. I’m not terribly interested in broad readings of military history, but I am interested in character, and of all the figures in the Third Reich, Goebbels, for his film and propaganda connections, was the one who interested me the most. Now after finishing Peter Longerich’s almost 1000 page biography, I can say that my impression of Goebbels has been altered.

GoebbelsIn this intense, highly readable biography, Goebbels comes across foremost as an empty human being–destined to be a follower of a stronger personality and “given the lack of balance in his personality,” throwing his fate in with Hitler’s “was in a certain sense the logical outcome.” The book certainly presents a solid argument for that. Politics and the Nazi Party gave Goebbels the power and celebrity he craved, and also, equally importantly, gave him a raison d’être. The book charts the unremarkable early life of Goebbels, his first relationships with women, his failed literary ambitions, and his growing anti-Semitism. In 1923, he worked in a bank–a job he loathed and from which he was subsequently fired. He returned home and began keeping those famous diaries. Clearly a “man lacking direction,” he turned to politics and found his niche. I’m not going to go into the nitty gritty of Goebbels rise to power and his growing anti-Semitism–for that, read the book, but I will say that Longerich, in charting Goebbels’ career, makes it clear that Goebbels had to make some seismic shifts in his opinions in order to mesh with the Nazi party. While Goebbels initially admired Lenin, “called himself a German Communist, and had seen Russia as a natural ally,” he’s quick to drop that admiration on favour of expediency and eventually “fully internalized Hitler’s arguments.”

His enthusiasm for Hitler as a political “führer” corresponded to messianic sentiments common on the right (we shall return to this theme). His political worldview therefore already bore many of the hallmarks of the “New Right” after the Great War. Accordingly, it is highly improbably that if a political leader of the left had happened to cross his path in the spring of 1924, he would have attached himself so enthusiastically to him and to his ideas. In his burgeoning enthusiasm for National Socialism Goebbels was not alone in the middle-class milieu to which he belonged. Referring to the Reichstag elections scheduled for May 4, he remarked, “All the young people I know are going to vote National Socialist.” His maxim of a few months earlier, that it “does not matter what we believe in, as long as we believe,” cannot therefore be read as proof that Goebbels was a throughgoing relativist or opportunist at this time.

I read one professional review that made the book sound as though it’s packed with Goebbels’s love affairs. This gives a false impression, and while the book initially discusses various love affairs, this focus shifts. While Goebbels always seemed to be in love–“often sustaining two or three affairs at a time,” it’s clear that Goebbels with his gigantic ego and immense self-love, primarily had a love affair with himself.

Full of self-pity, in all these complications he once again saw himself in the role of someone who simply loved everybody and was the victim to the end:

“Little Else, when am I going to see you again? Alma, you lovely minx! Anka, I’ll never forget you! And yet now I’m utterly alone!”

At one point “standing before a portrait of Schiller, he thought he could see physical similarities between himself and the writer,” but then after reading Richard Wagner’s autobiography, he “contemplate[d] the similarities between himself and the composer.” Longerich points out that for Goebbels, “his self-loving reflection .. only had value when it was confirmed by a third person.”

But he had finally reached the conclusion that it was for someone else to be the savior-leader and that his destiny was to be the latter’s first disciple.

This transfer of the role of savior to another person, somebody greater, and the desire for the most perfect possible symbiotic fusion with this idol played to Goebbels’s narcissistic disorder. He himself could only feel great if he had constant confirmation from an idol he had chosen. Hitler was this idol

Longerich argues that Goebbels’s underdog devotion to Hitler was slavish and without limits–as evidenced by his decision to pledge his entire family in the joint suicide–despite the fact that even Magda, at the end, attempted to persuade Hitler to flee.

One of the most intriguing elements to the book is its examination of Goebbels’s weird marriage to Magda with its “triangular relationship” which included Hitler. Before the marriage, Goebbels expresses jealousy regarding the relations between Magda and Hitler, and even questions her “faithfulness.” Some of this could certainly be attributed to Goebbels’s love of drama starring himself, but then again, exactly who was he jealous of? There are too many instances of peculiarity between Magda and Hitler to dismiss entirely any possibly of a love affair.

It is also worth investigating a different version of the marriage plan. A devotee of Hitler’s Otto Wagener, wrote that the plan of a Goebbels-Quandt marriage was conceived in Hitler’s entourage as a way of providing the Party leader with a respectable female partner. According to Wagener, Hitler already had his eye on Magda before he learned to his disappointment that the one he adored was already spoken for by Goebbels. Hitler then developed the notion of building an intimate relationship with Magda who he regarded as the ideal “female opposite pole to my purely masculine instincts.” Hitler believed that a precondition for this was that Magda should be married. Wagener claims that he presented this idea to Magda shortly afterward, simultaneously proposing Goebbels as the candidate for marriage; after some time for reflection both accepted the idea.

Longerich presents the evidence, noting that Wagener’s report “contains one or two chronological inconsistencies” and then lets us decide for ourselves. Given the further information on the marriage with Hitler’s intervention on several occasions, Hitler’s refusal to allow an operation on Magda due to the “bad effects on her face,” and that Magda often “spent days, sometimes weeks, alone with Hitler as his guest,” my money is on Wagener’s version of the Goebbels marriage of convenience.

Longerich juxtaposes and balances excerpts from the diaries, sometimes delusional, with the realities of the war. Goebbels is not completely honest with himself in his diaries; he thought he was writing for posterity–and he was–just not with the magnificent role he’d imagined for himself, but nonetheless it’s made clear, repeatedly by the author through diary entries, that Goebbels was not the intimate confidante of Hitler that he thought he was. Throughout his career and growing role in the Third Reich, Goebbels struggled with party in-fighting, had “to fight for control of propaganda, and also repeatedly, we see Hitler parceling it out.” Goebbels was not privy to Hitler’s war plans and constantly had to play catch up in order to align his ideas with those of Hitler. For example, “it was only on April 8, the day before the invasion of Norway and Denmark, that Hitler considered it fit to inform his propaganda minister about the impending invasion.”  As Longerich notes: “these entries demonstrate yet again how cut off Goebbels was from decision-making in central political matters however hard he might try to maintain the impression that he enjoyed Hitler’s full confidence.” Conversely there is an absence of any “concrete plans for an attack on the Soviet Union” in the diaries until Goebbels was made aware of Operation Barbarossa just a few months before it happened. And here’s a quote to remember:

The whole thing poses certain psychological problems. Parallels with Napoleon etc. But we’ll easily get over them with anti-Bolshevism

And here’s another of my favourites–Goebbels illogically arguing for the Russian invasion when it’s obvious that he’s having to talk himself into it:

But Russia would attack us if we became weak and then we would have  a two-front war, which we shall avoid through this preventive action. Only then shall we have our backs free.

Finally, there was another reason for the attack: “we must also attack Russian in order to free up manpower.”

And:

“It’s rather worrying seeing these piles of snow now even in east Prussia: What will it be like on the eastern front?!”

I’ve always considered Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union insane, and presented here, even with the arguments for invasion, we see the Nazi war machine crumbling and yet even as it deteriorates, the propaganda increases and extermination of the jews increases in its desperate ferocity–almost as if while the Third Reich was being beaten, the puppetmasters hastened their plans in an attempt to accomplish some grotesque manifestation of their sick world vision.

The book charts Hitler’s withdrawal from public view as the war began to look hopeless, and how Goebbels took “on the role of being the regime’s main state orator.” My impression of Goebbels as one of the masterminds of the Third Reich has been eviscerated–although Longerich makes it clear that as it became perfectly obvious that Germany was losing the war, Hitler withdrew from public life, and Goebbels stepped up his role, really exulting in the power and the fact that, finally, he had the role with Hitler he’d craved all those years.

When it comes to books written about some of the more monstrous figures in history–Adolf Hitler, Stalin etc, there’s an enormous difficulty to be overcome by any writer. When you write about the monsters of history, there has to be a very strong interest emanating from the author for a project this size to even get off the ground.  While Goebbels committed horrendous crimes against humanity, the author’s job is to steer the book in an honest, evaluative direction and avoid clichés and easy shots, so the common pitfalls of disgust must be avoided. Peter Longerich does a tremendous job here of uncovering the very flawed, very mediocre man who managed to soar in Germany due to extraordinary times. Goebbels had a very good grasp of some aspects of human nature–especially population control. For example, the way he called a one-day boycott of all jewish businesses to curb the “atrocity propaganda abroad” was most effective in its execution. Goebbels’s used thuggery early on for population suppression tactics, and he modelled propaganda on advertising techniques. Longerich paints a portrait of a man who was not Hitler’s most intimate confidant–even though he desperately longed to be: “Hitler, who had quickly recognized Goebbels’s psychological dependence on him, systematically exploited it during the two decades of their relationship.” As others in Hitler’s circle dropped out, fled, were expelled, Goebbels remained, and the dogged devotion he’d always shown to Hitler initially had its twisted reward:

Thus Goebbels had indulged his narcissistic needs to the limit. By following Hitler’s example and committing suicide with his family, he had confirmed for all time the special relationship he believed he had with his idol

This is a marvelous biography, so beautifully in-depth, and it’s recommended to anyone interested in the subject matter. Finally, and here’s something I never knew: “Goebbels simply disliked crime films.”

Translated by Alan Bance, Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe.

Review copy

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Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters: The Private Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing by Jane Dunn

“Sisters are,” author Jane Dunn tells us “special,” and with a backlist which includes the book, Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, it’s easy to conclude that the author, Jane Dunn, is drawn to these “protean” relationships. Dunn admits in the intro to Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters: The Private Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing to a fascination with the du Maurier sisters: Daphne, Angela and Jeanne. Not only does the author find it “psychologically interesting” that Daphne’s fame “so eclipse[d]” her siblings, but she found it even more “intriguing” that the three entirely different sisters who led vastly dissimilar lives were so “strongly imprinted with family values.” Before arriving at the book, I was unaware that Daphne du Maurier had any siblings at all, but then again, although I have read many of her novels, I knew very little about her private life other than a few facts about the fabulous du Maurier family and Daphne’s connection to the “lost boys” who inspired J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. For those who enjoy reading biography, Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters: The Private Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing comes highly recommended especially for those who have a healthy appreciation of Daphne du Maurier’s work. Some readers, I’m aware, prefer not to know the details of the private lives of the authors they read and enjoy. With this book, Daphne du Maurier fans will gain an almost-blow-by-blow account of exactly how each of her books came to be created. I’ve read my fair share of biographies and yet I can’t remember one in which events in the author’s life so clearly morphed into a novel, and author Jane Dunn carefully fleshes out Daphne du Maurier’s life, the books and the themes that became signposts of the various events that took place as well as the places that inspired several of her better-known works.

Daphne du maurierBut here I am allowing my description of the book to concentrate on the very talented Daphne du Maurier to the neglect of her siblings. As Jane Dunn explains, searching for information about Angela led to an “intriguing journey” while the search for Jeanne has been “blocked” by her lifelong partner who retains all of Jeanne’s paintings and papers and is “adamantly set against” any biography of the sisters. This explains why a clear image of Angela emerges while the portrait of Jeanne remains somewhat murky.

Taking a chronological approach, the book opens with the unusual and privileged childhood of the three du Maurier girls–the last of the du Mauriers. Their father, Gerald, an actor and later a theatrical manager, wanted a son, and Daphne, the middle child became his clear favorite serving as a surrogate son while the youngest daughter, Jeanne became the favourite of the girls’ actress mother, Muriel.  Gerald appears in these pages as a glamorous figure, dashing and gregarious, and yet at the same time there is a darker side. While the three girls were definitely brought up in a protected environment, conflicting values emerge in their upbringing. They were mainly taught at home, and their education sounds wildly erratic with a maid, at one point, “engaged in trying to teach six-year-old Jeanne to read.”  While in some aspects of their lives, the girls were shielded, yet they also regularly attended the theatre and were given  a great deal of freedom when it came to their creativity and their imagination. Beyond a doubt, for the eldest two girls, Angela and Daphne, Gerald, “the grand panjandrum of his universe” emerges as the most formative figure of their lives who “alternated between laxity and ridiculous strictness,” and was, according to Angela “an emotional bully” capable of moments of cruelty. Gerald “hated and feared homosexuality,” an attitude that seems significant when considering the adult lives of his daughters. Gerald’s relationships with his daughters was problematic–he was domineering and possessive, and “burst into tears and cried,it isn’t fair’ ” when he heard the news of Daphne’s upcoming marriage. He also somewhat bizarrely confided his amorous adventures to his daughters:

Unusual for his generation, Gerald enjoyed his daughters’ company and this intimacy meant his influence on their growing minds was all the more powerful and potentially malign. Unusually for any generation, Gerald, confided his romantic entanglements with young actresses to Angela and Daphne and made an entertainment of it, inviting them to scoff at the young women’s naivety and misplaced hopes, and compromising the sisters’ natural loyalty to their mother, who was not included in these confidences. These young actresses were nicknamed ‘the stable’ by his daughters, who were encouraged to think of them as fillies in a race for the prize of their father’s attention. His daughters ‘would jeer, “And what’s the form this week? I’m not going to back [Miss X] much longer”,’ and they laughed as their father brilliantly mimicked the voices and mannerisms of the poor deluded girls.  

What’s so fascinating is that even though these three girls had, arguably, the same childhood environment albeit tainted with “manipulative favouritism,” that could so easily have led to bitter rivalry, individual characteristics were quickly clearly apparent.

Already very unalike in character, both girls seemed to inhabit parallel universes, Angela’s emotional, connected to others and Daphne’s bounded only by her imagination and peopled with her own creations. With a macabre detachment she could dispassionately watch the gardener at Slyfield nail a live adder to a tree, declaring it would take all day to die, and return at intervals to watch it writhing in its desperate attempts to break free. Aunt Billy had given Daphne two doves in a cage and she found it tiresome to have to feed and care for them when she would rather be out doing interesting things. She was struck how Angela loved administering to her pair of canaries and sang while she cleared out their droppings and sprinkled fresh sand on the base of their cage. Daphne’s solution was to set her doves free and accept without complaint the scolding that would be forthcoming, for this was the price of her freedom from care.

These sorts of patterns of behaviour only became more reinforced as the girls grew older. Angela became a great lover of Pekinese, a careful, devoted owner while several of Daphne’s dogs seemed to meet a sticky end. All three sisters exhibited a tremendous emotional bond with the houses they lived in and which they imprinted in various ways. Jeanne settled in “an ancient house and remarkable symbolic garden in the heart of Dartmoor,” while both Daphne and Angela were deeply rooted in Cornwall, and of course, all Daphne fans know about Menabilly– –“the love of her life.” This love of the region naturally seeped through to Daphne du Maurier’s work, and the novels Jamaica Inn, the House on the Strand, Frenchman’s Creek, and The King’s General were inspired by places in Daphne’s beloved Cornwall.

The book charts the lives of the sisters through their relationships and creative careers. Angela was also a novelist, but unfortunately her novels were not as well-received as those of her sister, and now she’s almost completely forgotten.  There’s a great moment recounted from Angela’s memoir,  It’s Only the Sister in which Angela tells of an incident in which she was mistaken for Daphne and how a woman who seemed delighted to meet her, turned away, her disappointment blatant, with the utterance that became the book’s title. Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters gives the sense that the three sisters were all fascinating, unique individuals, but also fascinatingly different. I came to the book with a deep appreciation for Daphne du Maurier’s work, and I left with a feeling that I would rather have liked Angela, one of the two forgotten sisters and also that it is a great shame that Jeanne remains in the shadows.

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Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox by Lois W. Banner

“She sometimes had a vacuous expression on her face,” David Conover remembered, “as though she lacked an identity.”

Two books about Marilyn Monroe in less than a month? Yes, and why not? It’s been fifty years since her death and with this milestone distance, there seems to be a general feeling for the need to re-evaluate this legendary star. The two books I read are very different. First came J.I. Baker’s fictional account of the death of Marilyn Monroe, The Empty Glass, and now comes the non-fiction book, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, a feminist critique by professor of History and Gender Studies at USC, Lois W. Banner. As it turns out, the two books complemented each other in an unexpected fashion, or perhaps, my mind was just in the right place to enjoy them both. I approached the non-fiction book with the idea that I wanted to learn something new about Marilyn, and with that goal in mind, I came away satisfied.

As the title suggests, the author explores the paradoxical aspects of Marilyn Monroe beginning with the iconic photo in which she stands over a subway grate and appears to be holding her skirt down as it blows in the air.  The photo gives the appearance of modesty, and yet the photo is far from that. The author asks the questions was Marilyn a “precursor of 60s feminism” and was there “power in her stance as a sex object?” Marilyn often played the role of  the dumb blonde sex kitten–the living, breathing embodiment of men’s sexual fantasies, and the reigning, unkind story of her life shrinks her down to a hysterical out-of-control pill-popper who committed suicide because she couldn’t bear the thought of her encroaching 40s. A large chunk of the book is spent exploring the other side of Marilyn–the tough side, the complex aspects of her character that survived a nomadic childhood, an early marriage, illness, and crushing childhood stress that resulted in stuttering.  For this fan, Marilyn seemed to become whatever you wanted her to be: not so much malleable but adaptable, and in spite of the fact that she supposedly committed suicide (I don’t believe that), she was also a survivor.  In many ways, Marilyn was a hell of a lot tougher than she appeared–that’s the only explanation why someone so damaged survived and even, for an all too brief period, soared.

With a bit of a dry start, this is, after all, an academic work, the author spends a fair portion of the book delving into Marilyn’s childhood, tracing the mental instability of Marilyn’s mother & family. The author recounts Marilyn’s troubled and disrupted childhood after her care was assumed by Marilyn’s mother’s friend, Christian Scientist Grace, a rather strange and formative character, and the “puppet master” of Marilyn’s life according to the author. The number of homes Marilyn (or should I say Norma Jeane) lived in was appalling, but the author makes the point that these were not state-run homes but the homes of people who were known to the family–some of whom wanted to adopt young Norma Jeane. The author argues that through this constant change, Norma Jeane tried hard to ‘fit in’ to her ever-shifting family situation:

Such behaviour would become standard for her, as she entered families and left them, testing her ability to charm again and again.

In her teens, Banner begins to show us the tenacious Marilyn as she struggled to overcome numerous crippling obstacles in order to rise from her tragically sad early life. She “mocked current fashion” became a “genius at self-creation,” and subsequently set out to become an actress, but also at the same time, her need for male attention became apparent. Of course, the book explores the three troubled marriages of Marilyn Monroe and touches on (but does not detail) the numerous sexual relationships she had.

If I had to select the information that surprised me the most, it would be the appalling ways she was treated by the men in her life. Not all of them–some men obviously recognised that abusing Marilyn didn’t help at all. Director Henry Hathaway, for example, appreciated her as an actress and seemed able to coax the best performance from her. Daryl Zanuck (who seems to have been Marilyn’s bete noir) and Billy Wilder, however, are an entirely different matter.

According to actress Gene Tierney, in order to keep off the “casting couch.” an actress needed either an “assertive mother to protect her, or an upper-class background or Broadway acting experience to impress studio executives.” So a woman needed to be rich, connected or protected, and that leaves a single woman and especially a divorced woman as easy pickings for the studio system. Some of the information regarding Marilyn’s treatment while she was a “party girl ” is  rather distressing. I was unaware that early in her career she was seen as a ‘freebie’ to be passed around to whoever happened to be in town that week. On the other hand, it’s interesting that some women liked Marilyn: Jane Russell and Louella Parsons are just two examples of women who saw more in Marilyn than a dumb blonde with a killer body.

Some considerable time is given to the last week of Marilyn’s life–along with the prevailing suicide theory, and the aftermath of her death. There’s also an argument pro and con Marilyn as a feminist icon. Personally, I go with the latter: that it was her “fixation with her femininity … that caused her victimization in the end.” The book makes it clear that she tried so hard to overcome her beginnings but was hobbled by her own demons and by the system in which she was defined. The author includes a number of interviews with individuals who’ve somehow been bypassed by the plethora of Marilyn biographers, and the book succeeds in accomplishing its goal of showing just how complex a woman Marilyn Monroe was. Perhaps it took a feminist writer to recognise Marilyn’s struggles for exactly how hard they were.

Review copy from the publisher.

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Turgenev by Henri Troyat Part II

From the safe distance of more than a century, it’s quite clear that Turgenev is, as Russian journalist Leonid Parfyonov states: “seen as the leader of the ‘Western’ liberals and Dostoevsky [was] the leader of the Slavophile conservatives,” but at the time, it seems questionable that Turgenev realised the monumental position posterity would assign to him. While he was much loved, feted and respected by the French literati, he was largely rejected, rather cruelly at times, by other Russian writers. Perhaps the reason for at least a large part of this trouble with his fellow countrymen can be found in the fact that Turgenev’s novels were judged primarily for their political content. Some of his novels were acclaimed by both sides of the Russian divide: the pro-Western Russians and the Slavophiles, but for the most part, Turgenev failed to keep either side happy, and he was considered passé.  According to Troyat:

Turgenev had always been a misfit in every aspect of his life. He was close to the extremist conspirators, but not a revolutionary; he was Russian to the very soles of his feet, but happy only abroad; he had been in love with the same woman for twenty years and lived beside her without hope of anything more than a kind word. Pulled by two ideas, two countries, and two destinies, he suffered from constant inner conflict, yet at the same time it gave him a kind of mournful satisfaction.

Also there’s the sense that Turgenev seems mostly out of tune with the events taking place in Russia, and he expressed that thought at more than one time during his life. Of course, he was mostly living abroad and slowly selling off his land at Spasskoye to maintain his European lifestyle. Troyat states that Turgenev’s “favourite position” was that of “international onlooker,”  and this certainly seeps through in the bio. Here’s the paradox of Turgenev: Turgenev visited Russia rarely, lived abroad most of his adult life, displeased both the Westerners and the Slavophiles, and was frequently viewed as anachronistic, yet in spite of these facts Parfyonov states Turgenev is  “the main author of conflicts of the epoch.

Turgenev (1818-1893) appears primarily as a kind man who avoided turbulence: that avoidance is manifested in Turgenev’s personal life (he had a track record of jettisoning from several relationships) and he also avoided extreme politics. At the same time, he didn’t drop friends when he disagreed with them politically. This character trait, while admirable, also led Turgenev into trouble with the Tsar. In increasingly difficult political times, with intense polarization of beliefs dividing the country, Turgenev’s continued friendships with Bakunin and Herzen, for example, were both frowned on and misunderstood. Turgenev “had given a roof to Bakunin, who had escaped from Siberia, provided him with an annual stipend of five thousand francs, and launched a fund on his behalf.” Quite a commitment to a friend in trouble. Turgenev also visited Bakunin’s brothers in the Peter Paul fortress. Turgenev’s friendships with Bakunin and Herzen became increasingly difficult and fractured by political differences that Turgenev tended to ‘overlook’ as separate from the friendships. Herzen’s movement towards “pan-Slavist tendencies”, however, led him to criticise Turgenev. Here’s a politically flavoured-quote from Troyat who states that Herzen was:

 attacking the petty, money grubbing civilization of western Europe and glorifying the ancestral values of the Russian people–the only people, according to him who were capable of saving mankind from total collapse. Bakunin and Ogarev had allied themselves with Herzen. Russia’s mission as reviver of the race seemed self-evident to them, and they were energetically demolishing anyone who, like Turgenev, still believed in the improving virtues of the West. They accused him of drifting away from them out of weakness and idleness, ‘epicreanism,’ or possibly old age.

Turgenev also promoted the publication of work written by revolutionaries. While Turgenev saw his tolerance and promotion as a matter of censorship and “intellectual integrity,” others viewed Turgenev as a troublemaker since he refused to draw the line on anti-Tsarist regime literature:

Russian authorities were made uneasy by his ambivalent attitude, and saw him as ‘flirting’ with the extremists at the same time he was scandalized by their deeds.

The book charts Turgenev’s turbulent relationships with Dostoevsky (he borrowed money from Turgenev), Goncharov (he accused Turgenev of plagiarism twice ) and Tolstoy (he challenged Turgenev to a duel).  The single most glaring fact of this biography is that Turgenev was loved, admired and feted by French literati while it’s really no exaggeration to say that he could barely stay in the same room with Russian contemporary writers. But by the end of his career, it seems as though Turgenev was finally recognised for what he was: one of the giants of 19th century Russian literature.

It’s impossible to write about the life of Turgenev without bringing up the fact that some of his fictional characters embody the idea of the “superfluous man.” The superfluous man is a Russian literature character type who does not fit into Russian society; a member of the gentry educated abroad, he may be a drifter or perhaps he’s ridiculous or ineffective, but whatever the reason, he seems to have no fixed place in Russian society, and while elegant and charming, he is often incapable of sincere emotional attachments.  It’s also impossible to read Troyat’s biography without seeing Turgenev as a superfluous man and in particular, I see the connection with one of his most memorable characters: Lavretsky in Home of the Gentry. Not that Turgenev was a cuckold, but he was certainly uncomfortable in Russian society and also uncomfortably aware that he seemed, at times, anachronistic.

For those interested in film, in the marvellous DVD set Russian Empire, Russian journalist Leonid Parfyonov tackles the sweeping centuries of Russian history. In one episode, he visits Turgenev’s chalet in France. It’s a wonderful sequence, and the chalet appears to be maintained quite beautifully. There’s also an exquisite, lovingly adapted Soviet version of Home of the Gentry (sometimes translated as Nest of the Gentry).

Finally here’s Dostoevsky on Turgenev’s story The Epoch:

In my opinion, it is full of excrement, there is something unclean, unhealthy, senile in it, something weak and therefore unbelievable, in a word, it’s pure Turgenev.

Well, you’d never really expect Dostoevsky to go halfway, would you? Turgenev, according to Troyat, considered Dostoevsky to be  a “maniac.”

In a letter to Flaubert, here’s Turgenev doing some mud-slinging of his own :

I do not believe I have ever read anything as perfectly boring as Nana.

 There’s simply no accounting for taste….

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Turgenev by Henri Troyat Part I

I’ve enjoyed a couple of Turgenev novels (Home of the Gentry & Fathers & Sons) and I plan on reading other titles starting in 2011. It seemed like a good time to move into a Turgenev bio,  so I picked up Henri Troyat’s study of Turgenev to get the details. Troyat (real name Lev Tarasov) was born in Russia in 1911, but the family left in 1920 and settled in Paris.  When dealing with some aspect of Russian history (and Troyat does discuss certain names and beliefs in this book), it’s a good idea to know where the author stands on the subject of 19th century Russian politics.

Troyat was a prolific author and produced over a vast number of books before his death in 2007. One of his specialties was the biography. His Russian subjects include:

Dostoevsky

Pushkin

Tolstoy

Pasternak

Gogol

Gorky

Turgenev

Apart from covering a fair number of 19th century Russian authors, Troyat also tackled monarch biographies and later in his writing career moved onto the French giants of literature including: Balzac, Maupassant, Flaubert and Zola. According to someone who’s read nearly all Troyat’s Russian bios, at just over 160 pages, Turgenev is a relatively light analysis when compared to the Pushkin bio which clocks in at well over 600 pages.

Russian journalist Leonid Parfyonov, calls Turgenev “the main author of conflicts of the epoch” –the most prominent 19th century so-called Westernized Russian author. Turgenev, a tireless promoter of Russian literature in Europe, was reviled by most of his Russian peers, but then the Russian literati scene was as fractured as Russia itself:

In those days the literati of Russia were divided into two camps: the Slavophiles, for whom there was no salvation, in art, philosophy, or even politics, except in traditional, Russian, Orthodox, grassroots sources; and the Westerners, who maintained that all thing good came from abroad. The former vibrated solely to the nation’s past, its specific personality; they feared pollution from new ideas, they claimed that Russia should become the spiritual guide to all mankind. The latter proclaimed themselves open to the world, to progress; they wanted to see Russia merge with Europe.

Here’s another quote from Parfyonov who states that “Turgenev was seen as the leader of the ‘Western’ liberals and Dostoevsky was the leader of the Slavophile conservatives”:

They were authorities of those doctrines, rulers of other people’s minds. But they themselevs were free from those doctrines. But they were not free from their own minds.

It seems difficult to slot someone like Tolstoy into either the camp of the Western liberals or the Slavophile conservatives. Plus where do the revolutionaries fit in? I don’t feel comfortable with catch-all terms such as ‘left,’ ‘right,’ ‘radical’ and ‘liberal’. Real life is much more muddled and complicated than that. Here’s a quote from The Magical Chorus by Solomon Volkov on exactly where Tolstoy was supposed to fit in the scheme of things. Hint: he didn’t:

Since Tolstoy the writer was cast by critics as the patron saint of everything from realism to socialist realism, it comes as no surprise that politically he was variously labeled as well. Contemporaries tried to pin him down as a repentant aristocrat, or the voice of the patriarchal Russian peasantry, or a Christian anarchist, and even as a die-hard revolutionary. It was all true to a point: Tolstoy preached an extreme simplicity of life and took a hard libertarian stance toward government, which he considered immoral and illegal, yet he also rejected all forms of violence. In his famous 1909 article ‘I Cannot Be Silent,’ he protested capital punishment in Russia and did not recognize the authority of organized religion. This inevitably led the rebel count into conflict with the autocracy and the Russian Orthodox Church. Many believed that a confrontation with Tolstoy gravely weakened both institutions.

Polyglot Tolstoy, who doesn’t fit neatly into either the Slavophile or the Western camp, is often described as an anarcho-pacifist. 

But back to Turgenev….Turgenev’s era was hardly the first time the Western/Slavophile debate raged in Russia. After all Tsar Peter the Great founded St Petersburg with the idea that it would serve as a ‘window to the west’, but the debate was gathering steam. For most of his life, Turgenev, with a lifelong horror of violence and “radicalism,” found himself increasingly alienated from his Russian peers. While the Slavophile author, Aksakov found much to admire in the pure Russian sensibilities of the 1852 story Mumu, within a few years, in increasingly turbulent political times, Turgenev’s great novels were largely trashed by critics on all sides.  Russian critical appreciation of Turgenev’s work came, finally, towards the end of his life.

Troyat takes a strictly chronological approach and begins with some initial background information about Turgenev’s parents. This sets the scene for the family dynamic–a tyrannical mother who failed, in spite of her superior material circumstances, to rule her indolent husband–a man who appeared to prefer the easy company of serf girls. Turgenev’ s mother, Varvara Petrovna sounds as though she was a tough, hard woman. After her mother’s death, at age 16, Varvara’s stepfather tried to rape her:

She left home and walked sixty versts half naked through the snow to Spasskoye an estate belonging to a maternal great-uncle.

A verst is about 2/3 of a mile, by the way. Life at Spasskoye sounds rather explosive, for while the great-uncle allowed Varvara to stay there, they fought continuously, and Troyat tells us that:

Just as he was about to disinherit her, he died, in rather peculiar circumstances.

After dropping that nugget of information, Troyat explores it no further. Frustrating.

Varvara inherited the “vast estate” of Spasskoye which included twenty villages and over 5,000 serfs. When making tallies of serfs women and children were not counted, so we can extrapolate the real total from 5,000. Varvara, naturally, had her pick of suitors  and selected Sergey Nikolayevich Turgenev. He was, according to Troyat “a lover of luxury” and of course, “drowning in debt.” The marriage does not sound happy. He “lived in idleness and opulence” bedding the serf girls. Varvara “took her revenge for the humiliations she suffered at her husband’s hands by maltreating the servants.” According to Troyat, this became a lifelong habit, and at one point she actually told Turgenev that she’s beat the serfs if he didn’t come home and visit. How’s that for transparent manipulation?

Troyat argues that Varvara–a powerful, indomitable and controlling woman–had a profound impact on the lives of both of her sons. Not only did they stay away from her as much as possible, but they both consequently sought out similar women for their lasting relationships. Here’s a wonderful quote from the book which particularly stands out as it describes Varvara as a veritable unchallenged tsarina of her own kingdom at Spasskoye:

The domain over which she ruled as an absolute monarch included, in addition to the ordinary household staff, tutors, and governors, singers, serf actors and an orchestra. The household servants formed a brotherhood of some sixty families; they all lived within a few hundred yards of the main house, which had forty rooms. They worked as locksmiths, blacksmiths, carpenters, gardeners, cooks, land surveyors, tailors, shoemakers, upholsterers, coachmakers. It was like a rural principality living in a closed economy. Everything needed for survival could be produced on the estate. Varvara Petrovna took great pride in the fact she could sustain her little world without any outside help. She called her butler “court  minister,” and it was the “minister of the post” who brought her her letters from Mtsensk, after they had been scrutinized by the court minister, who decided, in light of their contents, whether the mistress of the house should be prepared for their perusal by a cheerful tune or a mournful one. Every morning at the same hour she sat in her office to hear the reports of her private secretary, estate manager, and steward, and, from her seat in a throne-like armchair on a raised platform, issued orders to her minions, who stammered with subservience. She had her own police force composed of retired guardsmen. Her justice was implacable. On her ruling, two serfs were sent to Siberia for failing to take off their hats in her presence. She had a waterfall rerouted because it disturbed her sleep. There were horsemen whose task it was to bring her a sort of porridge that could be made to her taste only in one village a long way from the house. 

 That’s a long quote, but it’s included to show both the absurd and the despotic behaviour Turgenev grew up with.  Both Turgenev and his brother were kept on an allowance with their mother refusing to loosen the purse strings. The widowed Varvara, by the way, later bore an illegitimate child with her doctor–none other than the father of Sonya, who later became the wife of Tolstoy.

Troyat charts the major events in Turgenev’s life: his most significant love affair was with opera singer Pauline Viardot. Turgenev adored Pauline and he followed her around Europe, setting up house upon several occasions with Pauline, her husband and her children. One of those children may possibly have belonged to Turgenev. This premier relationship, however, did not stop Turgenev from “capricious” dalliances with several women of the gentry class (the list included Bakunin’s sister, Tatyana and Tolstoy’s sister, Marya, and this may partly explain why both Bakunin and Tolstoy were often out-of-patience with Turgenev). Turgenev engaged in several relationships in which he jettisoned right before that crucial commitment, and it seems that he left more than one woman feeling confused and anguished about the disrupted courtship.  He also sired a child, named Paulinette (after his married idol), by a serf girl. The child was later raised by the Viardots.

I mentioned earlier the reference to the “mysterious death” of Varvara’s great-uncle. No explanation is given,  just innuendo, but since Troyat brought up the subject, he really should have dug around a bit more.  Later Troyat mentions that the Viardots had some financial difficulties due to the Franco-Prussian war, and money troubles were compounded by the gradual loss of Varvara’s voice. At one point she was giving singing lessons to augment the family’s income, and according to Turgenev the Viardots were “virtually ruined.”  Later, Turgenev wrote to a friend that “The Viardots and I have bought a wonderful villa” at Bougival.  Turgenev had a modest “chalet” built close by, and there is some indication that his friends found Turgenev’s living conditions alarming–not that his place was a dump by any means, but it hardly met the standards of his previous residences (the book includes a photo of the palace Turgenev built but could not afford to furnish at Baden-Baden). In addition, he was forced to sell his painting collection at a huge loss as he needed money so badly. Putting these facts together, it seems very likely that Turgenev, who’d more or less ‘adopted’ the Viardots, was footing the bills. There is mention made that Pauline Viardot was concerned at one point that Turgenev might stay in Russia. Troyat says she “needed him at her side to make her ‘household’ complete.” While Troyat wisely avoids any nastiness towards Pauline Viardot, once again, there’s significant unexplored innuendo that Pauline Viardot’s desire to keep Turgenev in France was very possibly rooted in financial interest.  

Troyat’s book seems slight but competent at 162 pages. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by Patrick Marnham’s excellent bio of Simenon

Part II up next….

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Orwell: Life and Art by Jeffrey Meyers

Orwell spent five years as a policeman in Burma, and he was responsible for the kicking, flogging, torturing and hanging of men. He saw the dirty work of Empire at close quarters and “the horribly ugly, degrading scenes which offend one’s eyes all the time in the starved countries of the East” where an Indian coolie’s leg is often thinner than an Englishman’s arm.

By the end of the five years, writes Orwell, “I hated the imperialism I was serving with a bitterness which I probably cannot make clear… it is not possible to be part of such a system without recognizing it as an unjustificable tyranny….I was conscious of an immense weight of guilt that I had got to expiate.” (from Orwell: Life and Art by Jeffrey Meyers)

A few years ago I read the marvellous non-fiction book, Finding George Orwell in Burma. The author, Emma Larkin (a pseudonym) travelled to Burma (now Myanmar) to trace Orwell’s life in that British colony. The book became one of the best books I read that year and confirmed my interest in Orwell–a writer I’ve always intended to get back to. This brings me to Orwell: Life and Art by Jeffrey Meyers. The book is a compilation of twenty-one essays on the life and work of Orwell.  Meyers also authored A Reader’s Guide to George Orwell, George Orwell: The Critical Heritage, the heavy-duty title George Orwell: an Annotated Bibliography of Criticism, and Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation, a biography of Orwell written by Meyers as a response to a sense of dissatisfaction with other Orwell bios. I should add that Meyers has written forty-three books to date, but it’s clear that Orwell is one of the greatest interests of his life. The range of this author’s knowledge on the subject of George Orwell makes an irrefutable argument for specialisation.

The essays in Orwell: Life and Art were published, according to the introduction, “over a period of forty years,” and they cover Orwell’s life and work, analyses of his novels, and one essay even compares various Orwell bios. Since the essays were written at separate times for various audiences, some of the information is repeated, but for anyone interested in Orwell, the essays really are marvellous and substantial reading. Moreover, while the essays are by no means light reading matter, neither are they too esoteric. Meyers is extremely familiar with Orwell, his life and his work, and he isn’t afraid to make judgments at key points. Each of the essay is prefaced with some explanation from Meyers.

Orwell is, according to Meyers, a writer whose work “has had–still has–extraordinary political and cultural influence.” Reading the essays gives a strong sense of who Orwell was and the lifelong demons he struggled with. Meyers argues “we need Orwell more than ever,” and I couldn’t agree more. Here’s a quote from Meyers encapsulating Orwell’s work:

Orwell’s books deal with two dominant themes–poverty and politics–or as he put it, “the twin nightmares that beset nearly every modern man, the nightmare of unemployment and the nightmare of State interference.

Meyers admits that he’s “particularly interested in the life in the work, in the relations between biography, politics and literature,” and the essays approach Orwell from that angle. Meyers covers Orwell’s life from his childhood to his death, tracing elements of his life in these essays and always seeking to understand this strangely elusive, troubled author.

While I was familiar with some of the outlines of Orwell’s life, these essays gave a great deal of insight. One essay compares Orwell’s early years to “those of Thackeray, Kipling and Durrell in India, and to Dickens and Joyce in Britain.” Orwell’s father worked in the Indian Opium Department which Meyers describes in the essay’s foreword:

The production, collection and transportation of opium to China was the most vicious and indefensible kind of imperialistic exploitation.

Meyers adds that Orwell’s father’s profession added to Orwell’s innate sense of guilt. Orwell’s school years are outlined, and it’s difficult to narrow down a quote or two from this marvellous book, but here’s one that stuck with me:

Probably the greatest cruelty one can inflict on a child is to send it to a school among children richer that itself. A child conscious of poverty will suffer snobbish agonies such as a grown up person can hardly imagine.

My  favourite essays concerns Orwell  living ‘down and out in Paris and London,’ Orwell’s short-lived career as a BBC propagandist during WWII, and Orwell as a film critic. I was fascinated by Orwell’s poverty-stricken life in Paris, and one section of the essay mentions how Orwell noted the French reaction to the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, marked by massive street protests while a British bank employee wasn’t particularly concerned with guilt or innocence but thought that all anarchists should be hanged. There are some wonderful slices of Orwell’s life as a lowly employee in a posh hotel where he experienced an entirely different life from the one he’d led in Burma. Here’s another choice quote regarding the sharp divide between classes–those serving and those being served in:

“the luxury and squalor of the grand hotel where the splendid customers sit just a few feet away from the disgusting filth of the kitchen workers. The only connection between these two worlds is the food prepared by one for the other, which often contains the cook’s spit and the waiter’s hair grease.”

Orwell made an odd film critic, and Meyer notes that Orwell “rarely mentions the directors and is not interested in film as a distinct form of art.” Instead he was interested in “the political, social and moral content of film; their propaganda value; the way they reflect the progress of the war; and the difference between English and American cinema.” He loathed “american escapist films” but was fascinated by the reactions of the audience.

On a final note–I particularly liked the anecdote about Henry Miller saying that “it’s a pity” that Orwell didn’t write a “down and out in Shanghai.”

Review copy from the publisher courtesy of netgalley . Read on my kindle.

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The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret: A Portrait of Georges Simenon by Patrick Marnham

For those who don’t know, I am a fan of the romans durs (hard novels) written by Belgium author, Georges Simenon. I may also be a fan of his Inspector Maigret novels, but it’s too early to say as I haven’t read any yet. I am still ploughing my way, slowly, through Simenon’s romans durs.

Out of curiosity, I picked up Patrick Marnham’s bio of Simenon–The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret: A Portrait of Georges Simenon. I often avoid reading biographies of authors as I don’t want the biographies to deter me from reading the novels. Authors aren’t perfect people, but sometimes knowing the details of an author’s private life can be a disillusioning experience. Tolstoy is a case in point.  How can someone write a novel as sensitive as Anna Karenina and then be such an arse at home. That’s a rhetorical question, of course,  but my point is that sometimes I’d rather not know about an author’s life. This brings me back to Marnham’s marvellous bio–a book that is so good, so insightful, that it’s sealed the decision that I need to overcome my qualms and read more bios of my favourite authors. Balzac & Zola…this means YOU.

Marnham’s book traces Simenon’s incredible life–from his childhood in Liege, through WWI, WWII, his years in America, his marriages, affairs, and, of course, his literary career. While Marnham obviously admires Simenon and appears to view him as a criminally underrated writer (we agree on that last one), Marnham maintains his objectivity and is also able to identity Simenon’s flaws and his personal demons. If I had to sum up Simenon, I’d say that he was a man who never did anything in moderation. During his lifetime:

He had written 193 novels under his own name and over 200 under eighteen pseudonyms. His world sales were said to be over 500 million copies in 55 languages, exceeded among writers of fiction only by Jules Verne and William Shakespeare, which made him the world’s best selling novelist. … He had taken less than two weeks to write most of his books and in the forty-four years up to 1972, when he retired from writing fiction, he had produced an average of four and five titles each year. … He had been married twice and had twice conducted lengthy affairs with his wives’ maid. He had been a devoted father of four children and had once sent his son 133 letters during a separation of three weeks. And as almost everyone knows, he once claimed to have made love to 10,000 women.

In writing this biography, Marnham had his work cut out for him. He states that Simenon’s “mastery of publicity”  made him a difficult subject–especially on the subject of his personal life:

Simenon wrote two autobiographical novels and four autobiographies, and after his retirement as a novelist [he] dictated twenty-one volumes of memoirs. But his autobiographical writings formed a complex web of fact and fantasy which he ended by partly believing himself. He once said that he found it difficult to tell the story of his early years “because we make up the memories of our childhood for the rest of our life, and we change them as we go along.” Certainly in his own case this was true.

Marnham painstakingly picks apart the fact from the elaborations. While some of Simenon’s versions of events can reasonably be explained away as the tricks of time, other versions–the story of the fate of Simenon’s brother, for example, cannot.  Simenon remained vague about his brother’s death, but the book reveals some of the shady details of Christian Simenon’s activities in WWII and his subsequent enlistment in the French Foreign Legion. While Simenon adored his father, he had a troubled relationship with his mother, yet in spite of the fact he avoided her for long periods of his life, he didn’t write for a year after her death. As can be expected with a man of Simenon’s temperament and his self-confessed “devouring need for women,” his domestic relationships were sometimes difficult. But this is all Simenon’s personal life–fascinating stuff but what of the writer? Marnham details Simenon’s incredible talent. As a child he exhibited an ability to write essays for his schoolmates with phenomenal speed. As a teenager, he mingled with criminals and narrowly escaped a life of crime. At 15, he landed a job as a journalist at the Gazette de Liege (several versions of how he got the job), got mixed up in a blackmail gig, and by the time he was barely an adult, he had throughly learned his trade as a journalist and the art of self-publicity. He was ready to move on.

Marnham covers Simenon’s progress as a writer, his typical working schedule, his elusive literary aspirations, and the central themes of his books. In 1928 alone, Simenon wrote 44 novels, so it’s no wonder that Simenon is frequently compared to Balzac. But apart from covering the details–which make rewarding information, Marnham also includes the far more complicated area of Simenon’s sources of inspiration.

While I can’t say that any part of this wonderful book was boring, the WWII years were of particular interest. Marnham describes Simenon’s life during this period, and this section of the novel explores the fine line artists sometimes trod when it came to collaboration with the Nazis. As a film fan, the information about the collapse of the French film industry and its cannibalization during Nazi occupation by Continental, the German production company makes for fascinating reading.

There’s a sense of doom and underlying sadness in these pages when Simenon meets Denyse in 1945, and the bio tends to speed up from there. To give credit to Marnham he gives Denyse’s view of the suicide of their daughter, Marie-Jo.

Marnham presents a portrait of a complicated man who never really overcame the profoundly corrupting experience of WWI, and Simenon emerges from these pages as complex human being who “acquired the habits of a man pursued.” As I read this biography’s exploration of various episodes in Simenon’s long life (1903-1989), I recognised plot elements from some of the novels: alcoholism, relationships between brothers, relationships between family members, nagging controlling wives, husbands who long to escape from their boring mundane lives, and middle class men whose lives of bourgeois correctness are derailed by fate. For fans of Simenon, The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret is highly recommended and is an invaluable companion book to Simenon’s work.

The book includes numerous photographs, a chronology of Simenon’s life, a map of Liege, a bibliography and an index.

 

Thank you, Mr. Marnham.

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A glimpse of Peter the Great from Henri Troyat

I came across a section in Henri Troyat’s bio Peter the Great today, and it gave me such a good laugh, I decided to include it here.

 In 1698, Peter the Great sailed to England for “advanced studies in shipbuilding.” Once in England, the Tsar and his entourage moved to a house near the shipyards that was owned by John Evelyn. Three months later, John Evelyn went back to his house and was “horrified” by what he saw:

“The doors and windows had been taken down and burned, the hangings had been torn down or soiled with vomit and spit, precious parquet floorboards were smashed to pieces, masterpieces of painting were riddled with bullets (every portrait having served as a target), and flowerbeds were trampled as if a regiment had camped in the garden.”

I wonder if the neighbours complained?

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Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus by Laurence Kelly

‘You have not even started talking to him,’ wrote one acquaintance, ‘but he has already seen through you; he notices everything; his glance is heavy and it is tiring to feel this gaze upon oneself. His presence was unpleasant for the first minutes. But at the same time I understand the only reason for such a strong effect was only mere curiosity … this man never listens to what you are telling him; he is listening to you yourself, and is observing you. You remain an exterior force in his life, having no right to change anything in it.’

At the end of 2009, I realised that I hadn’t read much non-fiction during the year, and I decided to remedy this in 2010. What better subject than Lermontov? Especially since it was a 2010 goal to reread A Hero of Our Time. I’d been looking for an excuse to reread it, and I hoped that reading a bio would give me a bit more insight into Lermontov’s wonderful novel. And so I turned to Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus by Laurence Kelly.

Lermontov cuts a romantic but tragic figure whose brief but brilliant life ended in a duel at the age of 26. When I first read A Hero of Our Time, I was struck with a terrific sense of loss–loss on a selfish level (no more novels to read), but the loss too for Russian literature. Then on top of that I was struck by some rather eerie similarities about the novel and the life of its author. While some of this would be expected (Lermontov was a young man who, after all,  incorporated his experiences into his novel), other aspects cannot be so easily explained away. For example, Pechorin in A Hero of Our Time fights a duel outside of Pyatigorsk, and it’s here that Lermontov met his death. There are some slim but still uncanny similarities between Pechorin’s enemy Grushnitski and Lermontov’s opponent Martynov. Grushnitski, who is a figure of fun for Pechorin, falls in love and tries to impress Princess Mary. The real-life Martynov went around in “Circassian dress and wearing an enormous dagger,” trying to impress women and becoming the target for Lermontov’s ridicule instead.

Laurence’s book, Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus begins with descriptions of Lermontov’s parents, Mariya Arseniyeva who in 1812 married a feckless neighbour Captain Yuri Lermontov against her mother’s wishes. The instincts of Lermontov’s grandmother, Madame Arseniyeva,  were correct. After marriage, Captain Lermontov rapidly turned to the “traditional distractions of serf girls and drink,” and his wife died of consumption in 1817.  This left Lermontov, an infant, born in 1814, in the dubious care of his father. At this point, Madame Arseniyeva made her son-in-law an offer: she demanded custody of her grandson, and if Captain Lermontov refused, her considerable estate would pass to “her Stolyin relations.” If Captain Lermontov agreed, then his son would be the sole heir to his grandmother’s estate. Madame Arseniyeva, a woman who played to win, had experienced marital problems of her own, and in this instance, she held all the cards (her son-in-law owed her money), and so little Mikhail Lermontov “entered, at the age of three, the gilded and luxurious cage lovingly prepared for him by his grandmother.

The author details “three expeditions” undertaken by Lermontov and his grandmother to the Caucasus. These occurred when Lermontov was three, five and ten years old, and these expeditions (you have to read the details to realise the appropriateness of the author’s choice of word) were pivotal experiences and represented exciting unforgettable months which later found their way into Lermontov’s poetry. Already  “The Caucasus had become for him a temple of liberty.”

In 1825, the Decembrists failed in their coup attempt. Lermontov was 12 at the time, and two of his grandmother’s brothers had close friendships with two of the Decembrists who were executed by hanging. The Decembrists were to have a profound influence on Lermontov–especially when he found himself exiled in the Caucasus a few years later. By 15, Lermontov was attending a school for the “children of the aristocracy” in Moscow, and it’s here that Lermontov first fell foul of Tsar Nicholas I. Nicholas viewed the pupils as “potential germ carriers of liberal contraband.” And the Tsar’s visit provoked Lermontov to write poetry that was definitely anti-tsarist and ‘treasonous.’ This was the beginning of a pattern of behaviour and also the beginning of the adversarial relationship between Nicholas and Lermontov.

Kelly argues that Lermontov was in spirit, a  “Decembrist without December.” While Lermontov wasn’t vehemently opposed to serfdom, he held several “dangerous” attitudes–attitudes that he shared with the Decembrists and attitudes which were the root cause of exile (Yermolov is mentioned as an example). Kelly does an excellent job of outlining the poisonous system of censorship within Russia, and the key players within the system–Count Benckendorff & General Dubbelt.  Censorship and any hint of so-called “shameless free-thinking” raised the ire of both the Tsar and his censors–after all, one of the Decembrists’ goals was for freedom from censorship. After the Decembrists were either executed or sent into exile, censorship was enforced with new gusto. When Lermontov wrote “The Death of a Poet” after Pushkin’s death as the result of a duel, the poem eventually found its way into the Tsar’s hands. Nicholas decided that Lermontov should be “inspected” in order to ascertain “if he is demented.” Lermontov, a military officer, was put under house arrest and then exiled for the first time.

Lermontov’s first exile was fairly brief and evidently it was supposed to be a lesson in how to conform. Lermontov either didn’t learn that lesson–or refused to learn it (I argue the latter). It’s a very bizarre thing that Nicholas loved sending off those who offended him into exile, and yet very often those sent away found far more freedom in the destination that was supposed to be a punishment. In the Caucasus, Lermontov mingled with others in exile and he socialised with some of the surviving Decembrists.

Lermontov was soon pardoned and made his way back to St Petersburg–all in all he was gone less than a year. He was still a military officer, but found time to complete A Hero of Our Time. Here’s a nasty little excerpt of a quote from Nicholas I on the novel:

“I have now read and finished the ‘Hero’. I find the second volume odious and quite worthy to be fashionable [a la mode] as it is the same gallery of despicable, exaggerated characters that one finds in fashionable foreign novels. It is such novels that debauch morals and distort character, and whilst one hears such caterwauling with disgust, it always leaves one painfully half-convinced that the world is only composed of such people whose best actions apparently are inspired only by abominable or impure motives….I therefore repeat my view that the author suffers from a most depraved spirit, and his talents are pathetic.”

Reading the Tsar’s opinion is chilling. This is a man whose limitless power crushed and destroyed those who displeased him. And Lermontov displeased him very much.

Back in military life in St Petersburg, it was just  matter of time before Lermontov fell in disgrace once again. Excerpts from his letters show a bitter despair combined with a sense of suffocation. Kelly systematically lists the events that led to Lermontov’s second exile: his appearance on parade with a toy sword, his membership in the “Circle of Sixteen,” the Empress’s “weakness” for flirtation, and Lermontov’s duel with the son of an ambassador. Lermontov was arrested for this duel, sent to the guard-house and ordered back to the Caucasus. The Tsar wrote a nasty little note titled “Bon Voyage a M. Lermontov” and Kelly argues that the Tsar’s intention was that Lermontov’s spirit be broken by assigning him to the boring mundane assignment of training–not that he be killed by being sent to the front lines. While the Tsar understood what made Lermontov tick and evidently knew that boredom could destroy him, he completely underestimated Lermontov’s self-destructive streak and his sheer refusal to bow to the Tsar’s authority. Once out in the Caucasus again, Lermontov went wild and by pulling strings, he participated in a number of daring campaigns. Lermontov basically rewrote his assignment thus effectively thwarting the will of the Tsar. After being nominated by medals by his commanding officers, he returned on leave to St Petersburg, and here perhaps Lermontov finally understood that the damage was irreversible. The Tsar was furious that Lermontov’s exile–which was supposed to be a humiliating experience–had been converted into heroism. Lermontov was turned down for medals and returning to the Caucasus, he managed to get diverted to the spa town of Pyatigorsk….

Kelly’s book pays marvellous attention to the work of Lermontov, connecting strands in the poetry, plays and novel with real life incidents. However, there are some frustrating gaps. At one point, for example, the book mentions that Lermontov suffered from arthritis as he had badly crushed knees from an accident that had happened years before. This was only mentioned as an explanation for some of his health problems, and I would have preferred this sort of detail to appear in the chronology of Lermontov’s life. But the book does give a marvelous sense of who Lermontov was–his sense of humour, his friendships, his melancholy streak, his despair and his self-destructive urges.

Kelly details Lermontov’s early relationship with the woman who was arguably the love of the poet’s life–Varvara Lopukhina. They met as teenagers and apparently Lermontov was devastated when she later married a much older man. She was the inspiration for some of Lermontov’s early poems and paintings. The book also outlines the versions of the quarrel with Martynov and also versions of the duel, and there’s a great index included along with illustrations. Basically if you are interested in Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time or just Russian literature in general, Kelly’s book is highly recommended.

On a final note, after my initial reading of  A Hero of Our Time I felt as though I’d been cheated by Lermontov’s early death. Now after reading Kelly’s book, I also feel anger that he was tossed away by a Tsar so controlling and dictatorial that Lermontov, a man whose work the Tsar purported to despise, was in reality so threatened by this painfully young writer’s talent that he attempted to silence him.

Here’s a short poem written by Lermontov as he left Russia for the last time:

Farewell, unwashed Russia

Land of slaves, land of lords,

And you blue uniforms,

And you submissive hordes.

Perhaps beyond Caucasian peaks,

I’ll find a peace from tears,

From Tsars’ all seeing eyes,

From their all hearing ears.

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