July 6, 2013 § 1 Comment
THE TIMES: Summer 2013: Memoirs & Biographies
Burt Bacharach’s life is music; music is his life, to the point that his association with anything and anyone else has been more or less tone deaf. In ANYONE WHO HAD A HEART by Burt Bacharach with Robert Greenfield (Atlantic, £12.99) this conflict makes for a lively memoir of Mr. Smooth. Secure in his global reputation as one of the great modern songwriters and composers, he reflects on the coloratura range of his long, tuneful, turbulent career. He is candidly regretful about the wives, the daughter with Asperger’s syndrome and colleagues he has hurt, some of whom, like singers in an oratorio dedicated to a great life, contribute virtuoso performances in their own words to his book.
Just as Bacharach lived for music, so Diana Vreeland devoted herself completely to the art of fashion and the idea of style. In DIANA VREELAND: Empress of Fashion (Thames & Hudson, £19.95), an adventurous, insightful biography, Amanda Mackenzie Stuart is sympathetic to the conceit that style mattered profoundly to the rich, sophisticated women photographed and featured in ‘Vogue’. Like Vreeland, they led complicated lives and paid for it in ways unimaginable to the merely fashionable. Now best known as the iconic, iconoclastic editor of American ‘Vogue’ in the 1960s, Vreeland perfectly reflected its national character while reinforcing its international influence.
In the course of another iconic career, F. Scott Fitzgerald famously declared that there are no second acts in American life. But he hadn’t reckoned on the Hollywood resurrectionists who revive Jay Gatsby in every generation. Sarah Churchwell suggests that Fitzgerald set his most famous novel, ‘The Great Gatsby’, in the autumn of1922 as a deliberate reference to the sensational murders of a notoriously adulterous couple, Eleanor Mills and Edward Hall. She defines CARELESS PEOPLE: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of ‘The Great Gatsby’ (Virago, £16.99) as “the biography of a book”, seeking the social origins of the novel and setting it in the lives of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald who momentarily embodied the American zeitgeist in the Jazz Age.
One might just as well define THE NORTH (And Almost Everything In It) by Paul Morley (Bloomsbury, £20) as the biography of a long historical experience and ingrained cultural attitude personified in the character of its author who, now in his mid forties, consistently defines himself as a Stockport boy. The North may be only two hours by train from the South, but there is no noticeable continental drift either way. Morley is as suffused with the North as music, poetry, industry, politics, pies and music hall comics are built into the bricks of ‘Coronation Street’ and the sodden, unkind weather is soaked into the landscape.
A quest for a person or a place is often an exploration of oneself. As ‘The North’ is about Paul Morley’s discovery of himself, so Peter Stothard’s ALEXANDRIA: The Last Nights of Cleopatra (Granta, £25) is an erudite, reflective memoir of his eighth, long-delayed and oft-distracted attempt in late 2010 to write the story of Cleopatra. This latest trip to Egypt coincided with the Arab Spring, and so his book becomes a travel journal, a reminiscence of his days as a young classicist and journalist and, by now incidentally, about Cleopatra in her past and his present. The elegant folding of his themes into shape is akin to literary origami, just as the miniature form of a comically carved netsuke might represent the nicely turned essays in LET’S EXPLORE DIABETES WITH OWLS (Abacus, £12.99) by David Sedaris. With deft daftness, spiralling effortlessly from the banal into the bizarre, these episodes from the ongoing comic strip of his life float in a mirror world of wonder and bemusement.
Sedaris manages to be quirkily satirical but happily serene, whereas most writers find the fictional Radio 4 world of curmudgeonly, hard-up hack writer Ed Reardon a little too close to the knuckle for comfort. BITTER EXPERIENCE HAS TAUGHT ME: Adventures in Love, Loss and Penury (Faber, £9.99) is living proof that reality bites for journalist Nicholas Lezard who, tossed precipitately out of his home and family, and living on the breadline, rises like yeast to comic relief in a rueful survivalist’s memoir extracted from his “Down and Out” columns for the ‘New Statesman’. The novelist and short story writer A. L. Kennedy, too, has recently found herself between homes; but, apparently unlike the Reardon’s of reality, has always been a wary, lairy character as an author and, in her other life, as a pithy performer on stage and inspirational teacher in writer’s workshops. ON WRITING by A. L. Kennedy (Cape, £18.99) is a memoir by way of her blog, a running sardonic commentary on three years of her life as a functioning writer and occasionally dysfunctional, suffering human being.
In terms of dysfunction, GIRL LEAST LIKELY TO: Thirty Years of Fashion, Fasting and Fleet Street by Liz Jones (Simon & Schuster, £14.99) is a masterclass. Ms. Jones is an Essex girl, whose tone of fast-talking, disingenuous self-depreciation is like an airbag that inflates when she crashes or is fired (famously, from the editorship of ‘Marie Claire’). She walks away, shell-shocked but chic, surviving as fashion editor of the ‘Daily Mail’ and controversial columnist for the ‘Mail on Sunday’. You might not want to be Liz Jones, but you will relish her talent to amuse and enrage.
Liz Jones confesses to having given up on men, diets and drink. In the end, she may want to leave it all behind, vanish from public view and – vitally – living memory. If so, she is likely to be disappointed, like the characters in HOW TO DISAPPEAR by Duncan Fallowell (Union Books, £8.99). Pity those with whom Fallowell becomes infatuated; he is ardent, indefatigable and rarely frustrated in pursuit of people whose lives take his fancy through simple serendipity or an elective affinity. The characters in this group biography may have disappeared from public consciousness, deliberately or otherwise, but they surface in Fallowell’s insistence that their forgotten lives deserve a second act.