December 29th 2021

Favourite books of 2021: Memoir/biography

Just as I did for 2020, I won't publically disclose exactly how many books I read in 2021, but they evidently provoked enough thoughts that felt it worth splitting my yearly writeup into separate posts. I will reveal, however, that I got through more books than the previous year, and, like before, I enjoyed the books I read this year even more in comparison as well.

How much of this is due to refining my own preferences over time, and how much can be ascribed to feeling less pressure to read particular books? It“s impossible to say, and the question is complicated further by the fact I found many of the classics I read well worth of their entry into the dreaded canon.

But enough of the throat-clearing. In today's post I'll be looking at my favourite books filed under memoir and biography, in no particular order.

Books that just missed the cut here include: Bernard Crick's celebrated 1980 biography of George Orwell, if nothing else because it was a pleasure to read; Hilary Mantel's exhilaratingly bitter early memoir, Giving up the Ghost (2003); and Patricia Lockwood's hilarious Priestdaddy (2017). I also had a soft spot for Tim Kreider's We Learn Nothing (2012) as well, despite not knowing anything about the author in advance, likely a sign of good writing. The strangest book in this category I read was definitely Michelle Zauner's Crying in H Mart. Based on a highly-recommended 2018 essay in the New Yorker, its rich broth of genuine yearning for a departed mother made my eyebrows raise numerous times when I encountered inadvertent extra details about Zauner's relationships.

Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces (2020)

Laura Tunbridge

Whilst it might immediately present itself as a clickbait conceit, organising an overarching narrative around just nine compositions by Beethoven turns out to be an elegant way of saying something fresh about this grizzled old bear. Some of Beethoven's most famous compositions are naturally included in the nine (eg. the Eroica and the Hammerklavier piano sonata), but the book raises itself above conventional Beethoven fare when it highlights, for instance, his Septet, Op. 20, an early work that is virtually nobody's favourite Beethoven piece today. The insight here is that it was widely popular in its time, “played again and again around Vienna for the rest of his life.” No doubt many contemporary authors can relate to this inability to escape being artistically haunted by an earlier runaway success.

The easiest way to say something interesting about Beethoven in the twenty-first century is to talk about the myth of Beethoven instead. Or, as Tunbridge implies, perhaps that should really be 'Beethoven' in leaden quotation marks, given so much about what we think we know about the man is a quasi-fictional construction. Take Anton Schindler, Beethoven's first biographer and occasional amanuensis, who destroyed and fabricated details about Beethoven's life, casting himself in a favourable light and exaggerating his influence with the composer. Only a few decades later, the idea of a 'heroic' German was to be politically useful as well; the Anglosphere often need reminding that Germany did not exist as a nation-state prior to 1871, so it should be unsurprising to us that the late nineteenth-century saw a determined attempt to create a uniquely 'German' culture ex nihilo. (And the less we say about Immortal Beloved the better, even though I treasure that film.) Nevertheless, Tunbridge cuts through Beethoven's substantial legacy using surgical precision that not only avoids feeling like it is settling a score, but it also does so in a way that is unlikely to completely alienate anyone emotionally dedicated to some already-established idea of the man — to bring forth the tediously predictable sentiment that Beethoven has 'gone woke'.

With Alex Ross on the cult of Wagner, it seems that books about the 'myth of X' are somewhat in vogue right now. And this pattern within classical music might fit into some broader trend of deconstruction in popular non-fiction too, especially when we consider the numerous contemporary books on the long hangover of the Civil Rights era (Robin DiAngelo's White Fragility, etc.), the multifarious ghosts of Empire (Akala's Natives, Sathnam Sanghera's Empireland, etc.) or even the 'transmogrification' of George Orwell into myth.

But regardless of its place in some wider canon, A Life in Nine Pieces is beautifully printed in hardback form (worth acquiring for that very reason alone), and it is one of the rare good books about classical music that can be recommended to both the connoisseur and the layperson alike.

Sea State (2021)

Tabitha Lasley

In her mid-30s and jerking herself out of a terrible relationship, Tabitha Lasley left London and put all her savings into a six-month lease on a flat within a questionable neighbourhood in Aberdeen, Scotland. She left to make good on a lukewarm idea for a book about oil rigs and the kinds of men who work on them: “I wanted to see what men were like with no women around,” she claims. The result is Sea State, a forthright examination of the life of North Sea oil riggers, and an unsparing portrayal of loneliness, masculinity, female desire and the decline of industry in Britain. (It might almost be said that Sea State is an update of a sort to George Orwell's visit to the mines in the North of England.)

As bracing as the North Sea air, Sea State spoke to me on multiple levels but I found it additionally interesting to compare and contrast with Julian Barnes' The Man with Red Coat (see below). Women writers are rarely thought to be using fiction for higher purposes: it is assumed that, unlike men, whatever women commit to paper is confessional without any hint of artfulness. Indeed, it seems to me that the reaction against the decades-old genre of autofiction only really took hold when it became the domain of millennial women. (By contrast, as a 75-year-old male writer with a firmly established reputation in the literary establishment, Julian Barnes is allowed wide latitude in what he does with his sources and his writing can be imbued with supremely confident airs as a result.) Furthermore, women are rarely allowed metaphor or exaggeration for dramatic effect, and they certainly aren’t permitted to emphasise darker parts in order to explore them... hence some of the transgressive gratification of reading Sea State.

Sea State is admittedly not a work of autofiction, but the sense that you are reading about an author writing a book is pleasantly unavoidable throughout. It frequently returns to the topic of oil workers who live multiple lives, and Lasley admits to living two lives herself: she may be in love but she's also on assignment, and a lot of the pleasure in this candid and remarkably accessible book lies in the way these states become slowly inseparable.

Twilight of Democracy (2020)

Anne Applebaum

For the uninitiated, Anne Applebaum is a staff writer for The Atlantic magazine who won a Pulitzer-prize for her 2004 book on the Soviet Gulag system. Her latest book, however, Twilight of Democracy is part memoir and part political analysis and discusses the democratic decline and the rise of right-wing populism. This, according to Applebaum, displays distinctly “authoritarian tendencies,” and who am I to disagree? Applebaum does this through three main case studies (Poland, the United Kingdom and the United States), but the book also touches on Hungary as well.

The strongest feature of this engaging book is that Appelbaum's analysis focuses on the intellectual classes and how they provide significant justification for a descent into authoritarianism. This is always an important point to be remembered, especially as much of the folk understanding of the rise of authoritarian regimes tends to place exaggerated responsibility on the ordinary and everyday citizen: the blame placed on the working-class in the Weimar Republic or the scorn heaped upon 'white trash' of the contemporary Rust Belt, for example.

Applebaum is uniquely poised to discuss these intellectuals because, well, she actually knows a lot of them personally. Or at least, she used to know them. Indeed, the narrative of the book revolves around two parties she hosted, both in the same house in northwest Poland. The first party, on 31 December 1999, was attended by friends from around the Western world, but most of the guests were Poles from the broad anti-communist alliance. They all agreed about democracy, the rule of law and the route to prosperity whilst toasting in the new millennium. (I found it amusing to realise that War and Peace also starts with a party.) But nearly two decades later, many of the attendees have ended up as supporters of the problematic 'Law and Justice' party which currently governs the country. Applebaum would now “cross the road to avoid them,” and they would do the same to her, let alone behave themselves at a cordial reception. The result of this autobiographical detail is that by personalising the argument, Applebaum avoids the trap of making too much of high-minded abstract argument for 'democracy', and additionally makes her book compellingly spicy too.

Yet the strongest part of this book is also its weakest. By individualising the argument, it often feels that Applebaum is settling a number of personal scores. She might be very well justified in doing this, but at times it feels like the reader has walked in halfway through some personal argument and is being asked to judge who is in the right. Furthermore, Applebaum's account of contemporary British politics sometimes deviates into the cartoonish: nothing was egregiously incorrect in any of her summations, but her explanation of the Brexit referendum result didn't read as completely sound.

Nevertheless, this lively and entertaining book that can be read with profit, even if you disagree with significant portions of it, and its highly-personal approach makes it a refreshing change from similar contemporary political analysis (eg. David Runciman's How Democracy Ends) which reaches for that more 'objective' line.

The Man in the Red Coat (2019)

Julian Barnes

As rich as the eponymous red coat that adorns his cover, Julian Barnes quasi-biography of French gynaecologist Samuel-Jean Pozzi (1846–1918) is at once illuminating, perplexing and downright hilarious. Yet even that short description is rather misleading, for this book evades classification all manner number of ways.

For instance, it is unclear that, with the biographer's narrative voice so obviously manifest, it is even a biography in the useful sense of the word. After all, doesn't the implied pact between author and reader require the biographer to at least pretend that they are hiding from the reader? Perhaps this is just what happens when an author of very fine fiction turns his hand to non-fiction history, and, if so, it represents a deeper incursion into enemy territory after his 1984 metafictional Flaubert's Parrot. Indeed, upon encountering an intriguing mystery in Pozzi's life crying out for a solution, Barnes baldly turns to the reader, winks and states: “These matters could, of course, be solved in a novel.” Well, quite.

Perhaps Barnes' broader point is that, given that's impossible for the author to completely melt into air, why not simply put down your cards and have a bit of fun whilst you're at it? If there's any biography that makes the case for a “rambling and lightly polemical” treatment, then it is this one.

Speaking of having fun, however, two qualities you do not expect in a typical biography is simply how witty they can be, as well as it having something of the whiff of the thriller about it. A bullet might be mentioned in an early chapter, but given the name and history of Monsieur Pozzi is not widely known, one is unlikely to learn how he lived his final years until the closing chapters. (Or what happened to that turtle.) Humour is primarily incorporated into the book in two main ways: first, by explicitly citing the various wits of the day (“What is a vice? Merely a taste you don’t share.“ etc.), but perhaps more powerful is the gentle ironies, bon mots and observations in Barnes' entirely unflappable prose style, along with the satire implicit in him writing this moreish pseudo-biography to begin with.

The opening page, with its steadfast refusal to even choose where to begin, is somewhat characteristic of Barnes' method, so if you don't enjoy the first few pages then you are unlikely to like the rest. (Indeed, the whole enterprise may be something of an acquired taste. Like Campari.) For me, though, I was left wryly grinning and often couldn't wait to turn the page. Indeed, at times it reminded me of a being at a dinner party with an extremely charming guest at the very peak of his form as a wit and raconteur, delighting the party with his rambling yet well-informed discursive on his topic de jour. A significant book, and a book of significance.

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