Eavesdrop on colourful lives


Eavesdrop on colourful lives

LOUIS GAIGHER was intrigued by biographies last year. He shares a few of his favourites.


WE have another year of reading behind us. In 2023, biographies brought me pleasure and captivated and surprised me, broadening my outlook. My favourites for the year, many of them written during the pandemic, alternate between lived experience and political science, social history, art history, nature description, reporting and actuality. 

My discovery of 2023, somewhat late but better late than never, was Lea Ypi, professor of political theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science and whistle-clear thinker, and her memoir, Free: Coming of Age at the End of History (Penguin, 2022). It is a family history full of swashbuckling humour and vitality. Ypi writes about growing up and Albania in the 1990s from a child's perspective. During Ypi's early childhood, Albania was Stalinism's last stronghold and doublethink was a survival mechanism, including for Ypi's family who were persecuted by the state without her knowledge. Ypi grew up in a glacial neo-liberal order of capitalist unravelling, civil war, hopelessness, human trafficking and forced emigration. 

Ypi's relatives emerge multifacetedly, but are also manifestations of different views of the concept of freedom. Ypi's grandmother Nini — the book's moral centre of gravity — remains, in spite of incomprehensible loss, at the helm of her life by appropriating moral agency. Freedom, for her, is being conscious of necessity. 

Free: Coming of Age at the End of History by Lea Ypi was published by Penguin and costs R302 at Exclusive Books.

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The freedoms, joys and enticements afforded by the big city, literature, a sentimental education and friendship are the subject of Darryl Pinckney's chatty and richly shaded Come Back in September: A Literary Education on West Sixty-Seventh Street, Manhattan (Riverrun, 2022). Pinckney — young, black, gay and small-town “decent" — befriends author and critic Elizabeth Hardwick and her New York Review of Books circle that includes Barbara Epstein and Susan Sontag. 

It's the mid-Seventies to early Eighties, a turbulent and productive period in Hardwick's life: on a September night, Robert Lowell, her impossible, estranged poet-husband, shows up dead at her apartment in a taxi; two years later, in 1979, she publishes her masterpiece, Sleepless Nights. In the New York demimonde and art world, this is the moment just before AIDS extinguished the lights. At this time, Pinckney realises, through Hardwick's doing, that he can be a writer and change the world with words. 

Come Back in September by Darryl Pinckney was published by Riverrun and costs R666 at Exclusive Books

Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China's Cultural Revolution (Faber & Faber, 2023) by Tania Branigan, The Guardian's former China correspondent, is a masterclass in reporting with evocative and sensitive portraits of 20 of the millions of people whose lives are still affected by Mao's Cultural Revolution even 50 years later. 

The portrait, for example, of Zhang Hongbing is memorable. At 15 he denounced his mother for burning pictures of Mao and successfully agitated for her execution. After short-lived fame, he was also branded a counter-revolutionary. He takes Branigan to the mass grave where his mother is buried. He fails to convince her of his bona fides and regrets. She finds his story “unusually consistent and complete" and his tears fake.

Branigan shows that to understand contemporary China it is essential to grasp the muddled history of the Cultural Revolution. This is of particular importance to us as South Africa increasingly finds itself in China's sphere of influence and grip.

Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution by Tania Branigan was published by Faber & Faber and costs R347 at Exclusive Books.

The posthumous Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory (Granta, 2023) is the closest the famed Janet Malcolm has come to an autobiography. By “horsing around", she bypasses the “journalistic habits" that inhibited love for herself and made autobiography impossible before. Also, a collage of “lovely plotless memories" helps her evade biography's typical narrative strategies of conflict, blame and self-justification. 

Photographs from her album serve as starting points for autobiographical sketches — mainly about her family's emigration from Prague's progressive Jewish elite and assimilation into middle-class America. Still, a disembodied cloud descends when she realises her psychiatrist father applied shock therapy to patients in his office in their apartment. In this he was assisted by her mother, Hannah, as was customary at the time. 

Malcolm is both reticent and candid. She writes about her affair with her editor at The New Yorker, later her husband, as “the-turgid-American-cheating-on-your-spouse-and-feeling-awful-about-it kind of thing". Yet she exercises the “prerogative of cowardly withholding" in her failure to elaborate on the green floral plates, which go against her modernist taste, with which she has endowed their love nest.

Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory by Janet Malcolm was published by Granta and costs R445 at Exclusive Books.

Representations and artworks make art critic Laura Cumming receptive to the world, offering a prism through which she looks at life. In Thunderclap: A memoir of art and life & sudden death (Chatto & Windus, 2023), her attention is focused on the generous and imaginative visual culture of the Golden Age and the Dutch landscape in its “staggering flatness". The memoir is also a celebration of the sense of sight and of the life of her father, the Scottish semi-figurative painter James Cumming. 

Cumming is most luminescent when she writes about works of art, such as about the “metallic sheen" vs. “obliterating darkness" of Adriaen Coorte's asparagus. Central is Carel Fabritius and his most famous painting, Het puttertje (The Goldfinch), a work that, unlike its maker, survived the Delft Thunderclap (a 1654 gunpowder storage explosion).

Thunderclap: A memoir of art and life & sudden death by Laura Cumming was published by Chatto & Windus and costs R687 at Exclusive Books.

In 14 richly illustrated essays, Dorthe Nors explores the barren, myth-filled coastline that stretches from the northern tip of Denmark to Friesland in A Line in the World: A Year on the North Sea Coast (translated from Danish by Caroline Waight, Pushkin Press, 2023). Time and again, she makes surprising connections between the landscape and her past, environmental struggles, history and women's social position. This is the type of book in which plastic bags, amber, herbs and a washed-out shipment of Dutch tulip bulbs wash up.

If Nors had her way, a map of the coastline would be in constant motion: “It would bend forwards, shift backwards, open, turn, perforate; then close, then open up again. It would vanish in part beneath heavy masses of ice but revived as something else, and it would dance, its tail one moment twisting like an eel, fluttering the next like a pennant.”

A Line in the World: A Year on the North Sea Coast by Dorthe Nors was published by Pushkin Press and costs R295 at Exclusive Books.

My Thirty-Minute Bar Mitzvah (Jacana, 2023) is one of Denis Hirson's seven memoirs about growing up in Johannesburg in the Sixties, the book in which he writes most undisguisedly about personal and family trauma. It is also the work in which he most generously shares stories, objects, understanding and insight.

“Of course I had a bar mitzvah," reads the opening sentence. Matching the childlike impulse to relate mysteries and honour the power and mystery of secrets, it is not revealed until much later in the book what Hirson's initiation entailed, with his secular-political upbringing, how it was experienced by others, and what its returns were.

My Thirty-Minute Bar Mitzvah by Denis Hirson was published by Jacana and costs R270 at Exclusive Books.

In Naomi Klein's insightful Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World (Allen Lane, 2023), ideas from psychoanalysis, such as projection, demarcation, the doppelganger and avoidance, shed light on our heated, post-pandemic world and alternative facts, nationalism, AI, deep fakes, plot theories and Palestinian genocide. 

Klein follows public intellectual Naomi Wolf's trajectory from liberal commentator to conspiracy theorist who found an appreciative audience in the alt-right shadow world after mainstream discreditation. Wolf is a type of doppelganger for Klein and they are often confused, something Klein finds in turn comical and irritating. Is the confusion attributable to anti-Semitism and/or sexism and the “interchangeability" in the public sphere of (Jewish) women over 50? Or do twisted aspects of Klein's seminal progressive work resonate like “disaster capitalism" with right-wingers' worldview? 

Klein is never patronising and doesn't attack right-wingers as an easy target. As befits a book about the doppelganger, she holds up a mirror for progressives about complicity and shortcomings. “Stay with the trouble," is her wake-up call for us.

Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World by Naomi Klein was published by Penguin and costs R425 at Exclusive Books.

  ♦ VWB ♦

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