Category Archives: biography

Biography: Simone de Beauvoir by Ursula Tidd

book cover for Ursula Tidd's study of de BeauvoirI absolutely loved this study of one of the twentieth century’s most brilliant and famous women writers and activists. It is the single most trenchant and insightful of the intellectual biographical studies of de Beauvoir.

Nothing of value in de Beauvoir’s life is overlooked. Context and circumstances are fully considered and the widest range of resources and key relationships are thought through: the influence of her parents, sister, lovers, friends and, of course, Sartre. Besides which you’re made aware of her serious reading of intellectual writers and philosophers such as Levis-Strauss, Hegel, Heidegger, Aquinas, Marx, Husserl, Leibniz, Kant, and the existential phenomenologists. A lengthier work would of course have had the space to consider the reading she did for The Second Sex alone, that included hundreds of historians, anthropologists, biologists and sociologists, but this is meant to be a brief study and its success as such is not diminished by this.

Tidd also sheds light on some of the influences on her growing sense of intersectional feminism and the lesser known yet critical influences for her magnum opus on women, The Second Sex, by reference, for example, to her strong interest in Gunnar Myrdal’s classic 1944 study American Dilemma, on race in America.

She doesn’t shy away from the complex and often troubling relationship Beauvoir had with Sartre: namely the ways in which it was supportive of each other, while often exploiting the affection of other lovers and writing about them and betraying their lovers’ confidences to each other.

Importantly, she quotes well from all Beauvoir’s work, so you get to appreciate her strengths as a memoirist, diarist, philosopher, essayist and polemicist, novelist, travel and letter writer, feminist and political activist.

I’ve read the full-length biographies by Deirdre Blair and Toril Moi, and this short study says everything of value while missing nothing of significance.

The highest praise I can think of for a biography of a writer is to say that it excites and compels you to want to go and read or reread the writer’s work. This brilliant study merits that accolade.

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Tony Rudt: A brilliant mind in a great collection of essays

Absolutely terrific. This collection of amazing political essays will provoke, stimulate and engage you, whether or not you agree with the insights that unfold herein.  These are insightful critical appreciations of keynote thinkers in the 20th century, including brilliant essays on Hannah Arendt, Leszek Kolowkowski [that incorporates a deliciously scathing attack on the historian Eric Hobsbawm‘s blind allegiance to communist regimes and communist thinking] and Primo Levi. Also compelling critiques relating to Israel, Tony Blair and others. Wonderful writing, provocative and well worth the read. Highly recommended. Obviously (if it is not clear already!), you will hate this collection of essays if you are at all: right-wing, homophobic, evangelistic (politically), ignorant, hateful, hate minorities, hate full stop, hate everything, etc. But, if you are open-minded, passionate about everyone having the right to decency, to the ideas and principles of care, reciprocity, universal education, social justice… Well, you will – like meLOVE this wonderful collection of essays from one of the most wonderful, passionate, caring, decent, clever minds of the 20th-21st century. You decide.

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Charles Dickens: The making of a literary giant – Hibbert’s masterful biography

book cover of Charles Dickens biography by Christopher Hibbert

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Christopher Hibbert rightly has a significant place in the pantheon of great 20th century biographers and he deservedly remains one of the most popular and widely read. His Charles Dickens: The Making of a Literary Giant is just one of the many proofs of his excellence as a biographer.

It is not just because he was a brilliant researcher, always being careful and absolutely thorough in his consideration of all relevant primary source material, nor – more impressively – his incredible, frankly astonishingly wide range of subjects, with over 60 books published in his lifetime, many of which have remained in print since first publication: from Dickens to Samuel Johnson, on cities (Florence, Rome, and an encyclopedia of London), King George III, to Napoleon, Disraeli, the French Revolution, Mussolini, Africa, Elizabeth I and even one on The Roots of Evil: A social History of Crime and Punishment, besides many others.

It is  because, combined with these two talents, he was first an exceptional, thoroughly engaging and always compelling storyteller.  As he said once in an interview with the UK’s The Sunday Times in 1990:

The main aim is to entertain and tell a good accurate story without attempting to make historical discoveries or change historical opinion in any way. You’ve got to make the reader want to know what’s going to happen next, even if you’re writing about something the outcome of which is well known.

This biography of Dickens is in fact a reprint that was first published in 1967 and this merits the only caveat emptor besides what is otherwise a wholehearted and passionate recommendation of this wonderful book; the warning being that, inevitably, through absolute no fault of Hibbert, at the time of his reading of primary sources and publication, there were many important items unavailable to him because they had not yet become accessible, edited or otherwise published; the most significant being that of Dickens many thousands of letters. Hibbert’s only access at the time of his writing was to the Nonesuch edition, published back in 1938 which, while certainly covering a wide range across Dickens’ entire life, was itself thought of as ‘patchy and sometimes even misleading [though] is still the best complete edition of Dickens’s correspondence for the years not covered by the Pilgrim edition’ (page 1,084, in the hardback edition of Dickens, by Peter Ackroyd). Unfortunately, only the first volume of the authoritative Pilgrim edition of letters, published in 1965, was available to Hibbert, and which itself could only manage to cover the period of Dickens from age eight to 27 – i.e., a further 31 years’ worth of his letters are not fully accounted for, and weren’t, until – with the final volume (12 in its series) of this astonishingly comprehensive and brilliantly edited collection – was published in 2002.

Having said that, the research up to 1967 is without doubt impeccable, and Hibbert’s style of writing – as always – is elegant, entertaining, fluid and charming. His deep wisdom and capacity to make important connections and provide innumerable and always valuable insights into Dickens, whether of the author’s psychology, personality – it seems clear from all the evidence that Dickens was very much a manic-depressive – the relevance of his personal history to his obsessively reoccurring themes and key archetypal characters in his fiction (John Carey’s The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens’ Imagination is also particularly brilliant on these issues), his feats of herculean productivity, phenomenal energy and inevitable restlessness, or his behaviour towards and relationship with his family, friends, his publishers and his much devoted audience (both readership-wise and when he gave his hugely popular readings in the UK and the US) – well, Hibbert remains consistently brilliant. His knowledge of Dickens’ novels is profound, and the way he quotes from them is always apposite and enlightening about Dickens himself, as well as – of course – offering a judicious, scrupulous understanding of the novels themselves.

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Twelve 20th-Century Women Writers – a great book by Lorna Sage

Book cover Moments of Truth by Lorna Sage

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A wonderful collection. Sage, sadly no longer with us, was a phenomenal and thoroughly well-read essayist, journalist and critic of literature, not just about writers of the 20th century period, but from the 18th onwards. She not only understood what the writers and their work were about, but also knew about the culture and society within which they lived, engaged and often struggled.

This collection of some of her literary criticism/essays/journalism (there’s another fab, even larger selection titled Good As Her Word, also published by Fourth Estate) focuses on a number of great women writers of the 20th century. They’re not linked in any way, other than the writers are all female and brilliant each in their own way, and the fact all these articles reflect Sage’s tremendous insight, appreciation and sensitivity for the work of these writers, leaving you always with a deeper understanding of their psychological, intellectual and literary viewpoints as well as a passionate interest in the novels she discusses.

From an obituary of Iris Murdoch (both as a novelist and philosopher, and the relationship between these two), to intelligent essays on perhaps lesser known novelists Christine Brooke-Rose and Djuna Barnes (and certainly this applies to Violet Trefusis), to the well-known Edith Wharton, Angela Carter – I think she’s the best critic on Carter’s work and has written a book on her and edited a collection of essays on her – Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Jean Rhys, Christina Stead, Jane Bowles, and Simone de Beauvoir, you will finish this collection with a passion to read the novels Sage discusses. What better recommendation is there for a literary critic’s work?

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