Britain's best loved literary magazine, now in its 34th year
Reviews of new books in history, politics, travel, biography and fiction
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Selected highlights from the April 2015 issue:
Daniel Pick on a new history of madness
MINDS IN TUMULT
The story of Charles de Vere Beauclerk (1870-1934) is one of many to be found in Andrew Scull's grand tour through the terrain of madness and its treatment. This son and heir of the tenth duke of St Albans could trace his roots back at least as far as the couplings of Charles II and Nell Gwyn two centuries earlier. That Beauclerk would spend the last thirty years of his life at Ticehurst Asylum was certainly not what his mother and father had anticipated after their son's education at Eton. The boy's paranoid fantasies only manifested themselves fully when he was in his early twenties. Among his most upsetting delusions, from his parents' point of view, was a conviction that they were intent upon poisoning him. Read more.
Patrick Wilcken follows three naturalists up the Amazon
THREE OF A KIND
In 1848, Alfred Russel Wallace and Henry Walter Bates - then unknown, self-taught naturalists in their twenties - left Liverpool, setting sail for Belém, near the mouth of the Amazon. Both had come from similarly modest backgrounds with limited formal education, but were energised by a Victorian entrepreneurial spirit. They planned to spend years collecting plants and animals in the tropics, financing their travels through the sale of specimens that they would dispatch from the Amazon back to England. The following year they were joined by the 31-year-old Richard Spruce, a schoolteacher turned botanist who was an established amateur naturalist, having already collected in the Pyrenees. Read more.
Richard Davenport-Hines on the correspondence of Bernard Berenson and Kenneth Clark
NOTES FROM A SUNRISE OF CULTURE
Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) and Kenneth Clark (1903-83) were art historians and collectors whose ruthless intelligence, conversational vigour, pictorial memory, eloquence in exposition and hard-won erudition were matchless in their fields. Berenson was the Lithuanian-born son of a Jewish pedlar, but got himself to Harvard, began transforming the study of Italian Renaissance art in the 1890s and, by his business with dealers and American collectors, made a fortune, which he spent on his luxurious Florentine villa, I Tatti, with its famous art library, and on princely hospitality. Clark, the only child of a boorish Edwardian parvenu, became one of the foremost public men of his time, made himself an outstanding television educator, bought a picturesque castle in Kent and received a peerage. Their letters, sent winging between London and the outskirts of Florence, will absorb anyone interested in the history of connoisseurship. They depict not only the unrelenting pursuit of intellectual and aesthetic excellence, but also that disciplined, unconfiding, self-respecting cordiality between intelligent people that today's populists find stilted, frosty and superior. Each man, for example, knew that the other was a seasoned womaniser, but they both had the sense to keep their amatory exploits sealed in a separate compartment from their friendship. Read more.
Patricia Fara on a not-so-straightforward history of science
GOD IN THE MACHINE
The eminent theoretical physicist and Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg has written several acclaimed books on the origins of the cosmos, but now he has ventured into the foreign country of human history. Defiantly rejecting historians' shibboleths (his term, not mine), he declares that modern science was not invented, nor did it develop in different cultures over a long period of time; rather, science is a technique that works and has been lying around waiting to be discovered. Weinberg reveals that, as a practising scientist, he has a vested interest in showing how his own research fits into a grand tradition stretching back over many centuries - and he candidly admits that he has no qualms about narrating a story of science based on his personal opinions. He certainly lives up to that promise by passing some brisk judgements: Aristotle, he pronounces, can be tedious and wrong, but at least he is not silly, like Plato. Read more.
Jonathan Mirsky on Chen Guangcheng, the bravest man in China
HE FOUGHT THE LAW
Here is China down and dirty, a side of the country rarely, if ever, experienced by foreigners, no matter how knowledgeable or fluent in the language they are. What Chen Guangcheng shows, as only a Chinese peasant can - though no other has, at least in English - is what life continues to be like in rural China, where 80 per cent of Chinese live, and what life is like for anyone who challenges the Communist Party. Read more.
Christopher Hart on the memoirs of an undertaker
THE ORDER OF THE GOOD DEATH
Caitlin Doughty has always had a fascination with death, so much so that, despite being highly educated, she decided to become a mortician. Such a career choice is surely one of those that prompt the question, 'Why?' In Doughty's case, her own explanation is harrowing but pretty convincing. When she was just eight years old, she saw a toddler fall to its death in a two-storey shopping mall, and heard the mother's howls of agony as she saw it fall. Read more.
Donald Rayfield on three books on the Armenian genocide
GHOSTS OF ANATOLIA
The extent of the Armenian genocide (at a sober estimate, half of the 1.5 million Armenians of Constantinople and Anatolia were slaughtered) carried out by Turks in 1915 was dwarfed by the Holocaust inflicted by the Nazis and their allies between 1941 and 1945, but the horror of the events and the festering political consequences are just as great. Yet recognition of the Armenian genocide is less widespread and more often denied than the extermination of Europe's Jews. The literature alone is sparse and mostly academic: to date the most moving account is Franz Werfel's fictional The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. However, the centenary of the genocide is being marked by three fine and very different studies. It is to be hoped that they will be published not only in English but in Turkish (Azeri and Ottoman) and Armenian too. Read more.
Miranda France on Mario Vargas Llosa's The Discreet Hero
PIURAN OF THE YEAR
Recent years have brought forth powerful and violent fictions from Latin America, including Juan Villalobos's and Laura Restrepo's nightmarish meditations on the drugs trade, Evelio Rosero on state terror in Colombia and the dislocated cult novels of Roberto Bolaño. Given such nerve-jangling reading, it's reassuring to be back with Mario Vargas Llosa in a landscape so familiar it even contains some of his old characters, as well as themes that have run through his work since the 1960s. Read more.
Samantha Ellis on Patricia Duncker's Sophie and the Sibyl
'The lady is old. The lady is ugly. The lady has wonderful eyes.' So Max, junior partner in his brother's publishing house in Berlin, sums up George Eliot on the first page of this exuberant novel. Eliot is liver-spotted, wrinkled (it is 1872 and she is racing to finish Middlemarch), smells of cinnamon and alcohol, and has a long thin face, a massive jaw and vast eyes. Max shares a surname with Patricia Duncker; the seed of this novel was a reference Duncker found to Eliot's German publishers, which sparked the question, 'If someone who bore my name had been so closely connected to the writer I loved, why should I not take his place?' Read more.