"A nice book to keep around just for the time when you're run out of something to read and need a suggestion." -- Charles Matthews, San Jose Mercury News
It is indeed an extraordinary one-volume literary education on great writers and their books. I've learnt quite a bit of Herodotus, The Arabian Nights, The Name of the Rose, just to name a few.
Here are some tidbits that I would like to share :
BLAKE by Peter Ackroyd
William Blake (1757-1827), a great poet and artist, did read trashy gothic novelists and often sat in the audience at "cheesy" melodramas; but also got up each morning, laid the fire and make tea for his wife; worked every day at his copper engraving and completed 500 plates; spent his last years in utter poverty; and finally died singing.
In his old age, after a life's work largely unnoticed and by then nearly forgotten, Blake ruefully observed, "What is fortune but an outward accident, for a few years, sixty at the most, and then gone?" As he lay calmly dying, he added, "I cannot consider death as anything but a removing from one room to another." He passed away in this accepting spirit.
PUSHKIN: A BIOGRAPHY by T.J. Binyon
This book reveals the vast gulf that looms between spirit and the personal life of Alexander pushkin (1799-1835), a poet, the author of Eugene Onegin, The Bronze Horseman, The Queen of Spades, and a handful of short poems. He drank like a frat boy, treated and spoke of women as whores, reduced his family to penury by additive gambling, and typically allowed his usually dirty fingernails to grow long and clawlike (Gross!). Once he arrived at a formal dinner "wearing muslin trousers, transparent, without any underwear" - do you believe that ?. He could be utterly thoughtless of others' feelings and quickly roused to anger, jealousy and spite. He conducted himself like a lout and a vulgarian, except (of course) in his writing.
Can't imagine someone like him can produce such a beautiful verse :
I loved you; love still. perhaps,
Is not quite extinguished in my soul,
But let it no longer alarm you;
I do not want to distress you in any way.
I loved you silently, hopelessly,
Tortuned now by shyness, now by jealousy;
I loved you sincerely, so tenderly,
May God grant you be so loved by another.
Approaching 30, Pushkin was drawn to the social whirl, attending "routs", losing vast sums at cards, frequenting brothels, while at the same time publishing his verses in magazines, reading Walter Scott, translating Chateaubriand. For a man already given to gambling and extravagance, marriage to Natayla Goncharova proved to be a very expansive proposition. She was a high-maintenance, attending balls almost nightly, requiring a household of over a dozen servants, keeping her husband from the "spiritual tranquillity" he needed to write. Though amazingly, he managed to produce two novels, a short story, a re-working, as a narrative poem, of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure; two imitations of the verse folktale, two translations of ballads by Mickiewicz; and a handful of short poems, all in under six weeks.
In 1836-37 a young Frenchman named Georges d'Anthes start paying increasingly indiscreet attention to Pushkin's beautiful wife. Rumors began to circulate. Pushkin issued a challenge to d'Anthes, but their rencontre was averted through friends; The Frenchman even married Natalya's sister as a way of defusing the situation. But the sense of dishonor festered in Pushkin and eventually flared up again. The two men finally met on the field of honor: Pushkin wounded d'Anthes slightly but was himself shot in the abdomen. He was dead at only 37.
After his death, his friends discovered that Pushkin was roughly 100,00 rubles in debt and that he could hardly have sustained his financial house of cards for more than a few more months, making one wonders if he might not have been half in love with easeful death as a way of solving his unsolvable money problems.
THE MANUSCRIPT FOUND IN SARAGOSSA by Jan Potocki / Translated by Ian Maclean
At its most magical this book reads like The Arabian Nights, the narrator Alphonse van Worden is launched into one of the strangest and structurally complex novels of the 19th century. Before van Wanden comes to understand the meaning of the night he has passed in the Venta Quemada , a deserted inn, he will encounter a host of strange beings, among them, a Kabbalist who aspires to immortality; a wonder-working hermit; the dreaded bandit Zoto; a gpysy chief with an adventure-filled past; the learn daughter of a great magus; a geometer who reduces everything, including love, religion and storytelling, to mathematical propositions; and even Wandering Jew.
The author's death may also make up one last story for the book. In his mid-fifties, suffering from political despair or depression or chronic pain or the rumours of incest, no one know for sure, Potocki supposedly hand-forged a silver bullet, had it blessed by the chaplain of his castle, and then use it to blow out his brains in his library.