Troyat's 700-plus pages biography reads like a Tolstoy novel. It follows Tolstoy's life in detail, quoting extensively from his and his family's copio...moreTroyat's 700-plus pages biography reads like a Tolstoy novel. It follows Tolstoy's life in detail, quoting extensively from his and his family's copious diaries. His marriage, which started happily enough, and then turned into a nightmare for both him and his wife was morbidly fascinating. It was like watching a slow train wreck. Altogether, a satisfiying if rather lengthy portrait of a complicated genius.
200 pages shorter than Troyat's monumental biography, Wilson gives us less of a novel of Tolstoy's life and instead offers us more insights about the...more200 pages shorter than Troyat's monumental biography, Wilson gives us less of a novel of Tolstoy's life and instead offers us more insights about the man and his times. His theory is that Tolstoy's genius lies in his ability to seamlessly merge fact and fiction, resulting in the supreme ilussion of his novels.
Wilson questions the veracity of several incidents accepted as fact by Troyat and other biographers. His discussion of events in Russian history from an outsider's perspective is enlightening, and perhaps more helpful than Troyat's novelistic approach in understanding not only Tolstoy but also the milleu in which he was creating his novels.(less)
Ever since I picked up the condensed, popular version of Needham's book years ago, I've been curious about the man who wrote it. Now Simon Winchester...moreEver since I picked up the condensed, popular version of Needham's book years ago, I've been curious about the man who wrote it. Now Simon Winchester provides us with the biography of the fascinating man behind the book, an eccentric Cambridge Don of prodigious intellect, an uncritical China lover, a playboy who spent most of his life in a menage a trois with his wife and mistress, as well as a comitted Catholic and socialist. The most interesting part of the book is the section describing Needham's adventures in war-torn China, when he undertook dangerous expeditions to Dunhuang and other remote places.
I wish that Winchester had spent some pages discussing criticism of Needham's works on Chinese scientific history, just to bring some balance to an otherwise glowing biography.(less)
Jane Austen's life might be one of the most elusive of major English writers; she left no diaries (although she almost certainly kept them at differen...moreJane Austen's life might be one of the most elusive of major English writers; she left no diaries (although she almost certainly kept them at different points in her life) and many of her letters (no doubt including those which are most pertinent to biographers) were destroyed by her sister Cassandra or other heirs, either deliberately or through simple carelessness. Even the memoir written by her nephew is closer to hagiography then the truth, thus further obscuring her true character. Tomalin acknowledges this difficulty in writing about her in this brisk, page-turner of a biography, and wisely refrains from speculating too much beyond the few known facts about her. The result is that we read almost as much about her numerous relatives, neighbors and friends than the main subject herself. The story of their lives provides us with a panoramic view of Austen’s milieu, and the historical and social events which served as the background of her novels. That said, at times one feels that the profusion of details about these other lives threatens to overwhelm Jane’s story, which remains rather shadowy in contrast to the her siblings’. This lack of details is compensated by Tomalin’s empathetic and sensitive assessment of her character; the Jane Austen that appears before us is a tough, intelligent woman who could be both kind and defensively prickly, an astute observer of life who also longed to retreat into her imagination from time to time. She suffered from depressions, and did not always bear her lot as a poor spinster aunt with equanimity. Her literary success in her late thirties brought her joy and a modest income, things that were sorely needed in her life. An illness cut short her life at 41, and Tomalin poignantly tells us about her stoicism in the face of death. The book ends with a short section on Austen’s changing literary reputation through the centuries and some postscripts about the various characters that we have been following, some of them almost as interesting as Jane herself.(less)
This book is about that other papal bastard, not the infamous Lucrezia Borgia, of whom numerous biographies --- some more salacious than others --- ha...moreThis book is about that other papal bastard, not the infamous Lucrezia Borgia, of whom numerous biographies --- some more salacious than others --- have been written in the last five hundred years. Apparently, this book is also the only biography of Felice della Rovere that has ever seen print. It’s easy to discern why --- compared to Lucrezia, who (among other things) is accused by some of having an incestuous relationship with her father, Pope Alexander VI, Felice lived the relatively dull, virtuous life of a Renaissance clan matron. She was married twice, both arranged by her father for dynastic/political purposes, the second one to a scion of the powerful Orsini family, whose continuing street brawls with the Collonnas make the Capulets/Montagues feud looks like a schoolyard fight. In fact, their everlasting vendetta against each other drove the Papacy away from Rome for a while, and Julius II, Felice’s father, was desperate to engineer peace between the two clans. Marrying his bastard daughter into the troublesome, warlike family would ensure that they toed the papal line.
Unlike his predecessor (and arch-enemy) Alexander VI, who had numerous illegitimate children from several different mistresses, Julius was actually considered quite chaste --- the ‘Warrior Pope’ was more interested in making war than love. His having a daughter was nothing strange in an age when the preferred vice for a Catholic priest was not pedophilia but plain old-fashioned fornication with women, preferably aristocratic ones. The children that issued from such relationships became valuable pawns in their fathers’ political games and were mated with the sons of the powerful families that effectively ruled Italy. Their relatives, in turn, were given cardinals’ hats through blatant acts of nepotism (non-relatives were expected to engage in simony --- the Vatican did not believe in freebies for strangers).
Felice, despite having an unblemished reputation, was an adept of all the aristocratic arts of the day, which included everything that Macchiavelli advocated short of murder. Apparently, had she been born a man she would have been a formidable player, but being female, she had to be contented with being the dynastic brood mare of the Orsinis. When her mercenary husband died, she became the regent for her small sons and the de-facto ruler of the Orsini fiefdom. She spent the rest of her life managing the vast estates and outwitting the clan enemies, as well as envious, even murderous in-laws. She not only survived, but was able to hand over the family patrimony largely intact to her sons (who turned out to be totally undeserving, but that’s another story). To her credit, she was also piously charitable, ever ready to listen to sob stories and share her estate’s bounty with hard-luck tenant farmers and loyal retainers.
The story of her life, although not as piquant as Lucrezia’s, is an interesting glimpse into a fascinating period in Italian history; it was during her father’s reign that St. Peter was built and the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo. Raphael preserved her likeness in frescoes commissioned by the pope. She survived the sack of Rome by paying an enormous ransom, fleeing the city in a disguise.
Not much is known about her private thoughts, save for a few hints gleaned from official correspondences, and it seems that the author had to form quite a number of conjectures about them. It’s hard to know which are hard facts and which are mere inferences as there is a dearth of footnotes about them. It makes her story reads more smoothly, but is it really an accurate portrait? (less)