Secondhand Rows 

Join Stephen Reid, our secondhand maestro, every month here as he takes a closer look at a couple of titles from his shelves.

May 2017

 - Wednesday, May 10, 2017
Biography as we have come to know it has ancient antecedents and immense range—from Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans (written c.200 CE) up to today’s Kardashian Dynasty: The Story of America’s Royal Family (2016). Is the primary function of biography to idealize and commemorate figures in order to provide role models for emulation? Is it to provide an intimate portrait of an individual human life and personality that deepens the self-understanding of the reader? Must it be based merely on knowable fact? Does the biographer’s portrait also depend on a measure of insight, speculation, fictionalisation to attempt a recreation of the known and the unknowable? As Nigel Hamilton, one of our selected biographers, asks: Is biography ‘a branch of history’ or ‘an art of human portraiture’? This month, I present a trio of titles from our extensive, and eclectic, range of the most difficult literary art and often the most rewarding.  

The Full Monty: Montgomery of Alamein 1887–1942 by Nigel Hamilton. (2001). Hardcover. $30. Nigel Hamilton’s official three volume life of WW II commander, British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (1887–1976) was published between 1981–1986 to great acclaim. Its purpose was to restore Montgomery’s historical reputation, which since the 1950s ‘had been trashed by a growing cohort of British and American military historians who disliked the man and permitted their bias to pervert their historianship’. Fifteen years later, this reworked first volume of his subject appeared. Now apparently freed from the constraints and conventions of those earlier times, Hamilton examines what he calls Montgomery’s ‘strange and absolute’ devotion to his men, and other issues regarding his subject’s sexuality. These were issues that Hamilton admits surfaced during the writing of his trilogy but which he says he did not investigate too closely since ‘as a young biographer’ Hamilton felt unready to enter what he called “those dark waters” of Montgomery’s sexuality. A second, concluding volume has been promised but the years accrue—and no appearance.

Marlene Dietrich by Maria Riva (1992). Hardcover. $25. A Serpent’s Tooth was King Lear’s description of an ungrateful child. This thought kept recurring when I read this biography of actress and entertainer, Marlene Dietrich (1901–1992), written by her only child, Maria Riva (b.1924). Riva apparently spent more than a decade gathering material on her mother’s life. Diaries (including selections from Marlene’s childhood diary—very sweet), letters, newspapers, journals, billets-doux—all are used in this long (just on 800 pages), somewhat rambling, personal account of her mother’s life. An agreement was struck between mother and daughter for this memoir not to appear until after Marlene’s death. Just as well. This is an biography that is full of bitchy, snide remarks throughout. An unsympathetic, often cruel, portrait of a parent that also manages to be weirdly entertaining in its gruesomeness. We are spared nothing in the portrait: drug addiction, alcoholism and Marlene’s (very) many loves—among them: Frank Sinatra, Edith Piaf, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Yul Brynner, Mercedes de Acosta and (unsurprisingly?) President John F. Kennedy in September 1963. She had after all, counted his father, Joseph as a paramour back in the 1940s. Maria Riva’s self-styled image through all this is one of a saintly, long-suffering martyr, yet as the pages pass her jealousy rises. I should add, in mitigation, that the selection of photographs in this book are wonderful.

Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellmann (1987). Hardcover. $35. One is always lucky to have one memorable teacher who opens up new avenues of reading in one’s life. Mine was Mrs Johnson who managed to interest an unruly 1974 Fifth Form (that’s Year 11, young uns) High School English class into an understanding (and even an appreciation) of the set authors, and who assigned Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) as additional reading ‘for those of you interested’. That sparked a lifelong enjoyment of Wilde’s writings. Thank you, Mrs Johnson. Thus, it is a pleasure to introduce Richard Ellmann’s magnificent life of Irish author and playwright Oscar Wilde to a new generation of readers. This is a beautifully written work. The passing of thirty years has not diminished the pleasure I found in re-reading it. The range of detail is merged into such a captivating and flowing narrative throughout, that some 600 pages seems almost too few. The five Section Headings: Beginnings, Advances, Exaltations, Disgrace and Exile trace Wilde’s literary beginnings, his incandescent brilliance, rapid flare out and extinguishment at age 46—rather like The Remarkable Rocket, featured in his immortal collection of Fairy Tales. Ellmann’s biography will not be not the final word on Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde. It is however, the indispensable first.