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Reviews of new books in history, politics, travel, biography and fiction
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Selected highlights from the February 2015 issue:
Seamus Perry on the early life of T S Eliot
Biographers of T S Eliot face a number of challenges, not least the marked disinclination of their subject to having his biography written at all. When, in the early 1960s, a scholar wrote an account relating the poetry to his early life, Eliot went through the typescript striking out unwarranted speculations. 'This is just silly', he wrote in the margin at one point, responding to the perfectly mild suggestion that an interest in Arthurian myth might have been partly prompted by the paintings in Boston Public Library. His manner with admirers' enquiries was celebrated for its unforthcoming deadpan: he was a master of disavowal and deflection. The comparison with Joyce, always happy to expand upon the ambitions and strategies of his genius for the edification of generations to come, is very striking. 'Possum', Ezra Pound's nickname for Eliot, referred to an animal that played dead to deflect predators. One manifestation of the Possum spirit was Eliot's destruction of much of his correspondence, so as to spoil the chances of his hunters. Read more.
Jan Morris on the lure of the bella figura
MAMMISMO & MACHISMO
John Hooper is a supremely able and experienced foreign correspondent who has mastered a particular subgenre of his craft: the detailed and comprehensive study of individual countries - in his case, Spain and now Italy. His book The Spaniards has gone through successive editions and has become more or less obligatory reading for students of contemporary Spain; The Italians may well do the same for Italy. Read more.
Alberto Manguel on the magical worlds of fairy tales
In that most compelling of autobiographies Father and Son, Edmund Gosse tells of how works of fiction were not admitted into his parents' stern Plymouth Brethren household: 'Never in all my early childhood, did anyone address to me the affecting preamble, 'Once upon a time!' I was told about missionaries, but never about pirates; I was familiar with humming-birds, but I had never heard of fairies. Jack the Giant-Killer, Rumpelstiltskin and Robin Hood were not of my acquaintance, and though I understood about wolves, Little Red Ridinghood was a stranger even by name. So far as my 'dedication' was concerned, I can but think that my parents were in error thus to exclude the imaginary from my outlook upon facts. They desired to make me truthful; the tendency was to make me positive and sceptical. Had they wrapped me in the soft folds of supernatural fancy, my mind might have been longer content to follow their traditions in an unquestioning spirit.' Read more.
Michael Bywater on the half-truths of urban legends
I TOLD YOU SO...
I know a chap who knew a girl whose mother told her that one day a vicious ogre who, ever since drinking a bottle of Coke with a dead mouse in it, had been living in the sewers of New York as a crocodile and one day he slithered in through the bedroom window and ate the little girl's head right off. Meanwhile, this escaped lunatic with a hook for a hand was lurking on the edge of town and one day this girl's older sister was necking in the car and heard... Read more.
Francis Wheen on the rise and fall of Jeremy Thorpe
More than twenty years have passed since Michael Bloch interviewed me for this biography of Jeremy Thorpe. The book's gestation period has been ten times longer than an elephant's. The public life of its subject, by contrast, whizzed by like that of an Edwardian-suited mayfly. President of the Oxford Union at twenty-one, an MP at thirty, Liberal leader at thirty-seven, he was effectively offered the deputy prime ministership at the age of forty-four. He might have taken it, too, had not his fellow Liberal MPs been understandably revolted by the idea of getting into bed with Ted Heath. In May 1979, five days after his fiftieth birthday, Thorpe lost his seat in Parliament. Five days after that he was in the dock at the Old Bailey, standing trial for conspiracy to murder Norman Scott, a former male model. Read more.
Caroline Moorehead on Ravensbrück
PLACE OF TERROR
Ravensbrück was never intended as a death camp. The only concentration camp built entirely for women, it was planned by Himmler as a place of labour and re-education for prostitutes, Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses and vagrants - all the 'undesirables' of the new Nazi Germany. But as Sarah Helm documents with meticulous thoroughness, such was the level of brutality that the women died, first in their tens, then in their hundreds and finally in their thousands. Of the 130,000 women estimated to have entered the camp during the six years of its existence, as many as half, and possibly three-quarters, did not survive. The French ethnologist Germaine Tillion, who was sent there in 1943, described it as a place of 'slow extermination'. Read more.
Dominic Sandbrook on a new collection of Tony Judt's essays and reviews
BIG GAME HUNTER
For a man who died more than four years ago, Tony Judt remains remarkably prolific. During his lifetime he built a well-deserved reputation as one of the most combative, clear-sighted and illuminating historians of his generation, crowned by Postwar, his sweeping history of Europe after 1945. In 2008 he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease, a horrible condition that left him paralysed from the neck down. In the summer of 2010, at the age of only sixty-two, he died. Read more.
Elspeth Barker on Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread
THE HOUSE THAT JUNIOR BUILT
Anne Tyler's 20th novel will bring joy to her legions of admirers. It is the story of three generations of the Whitshank family, starting with Junior, his wife and two children, and, most importantly, the house he built, the repository of his life's significance. The house passes down through the generations, along with Junior's construction company and the inherited twists of character and talent that reappear in different permutations, nature and nurture at odds, surprising and unquenchable. The titular spool serves as a metaphor for the passing down of these things, a powerful reassurance. Read more.
David Collard on D J Taylor's Wrote for Luck
Although the title carries a whiff of hipness (it's a song by the Manchester band Happy Mondays - the author once worked for New Musical Express), an unhipper collection than Wrote for Luck is impossible to imagine. This book is a field guide to an endangered species: the cultivated liberal middle classes, the kind of folk who used to write and read about themselves in stories that appeared in now-defunct magazines such as The Listener or the classier broadsheets; a leisured, educated, privileged readership that no longer possesses the social heft and cultural clout it once assumed as its birthright. Read more.