Category Archives: Biography

Leonardo Da Vinci

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Leonardo da Vinci – The Biography
By Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster- £30.00

Leonardo’s fantasies pervaded everything he touched: his theatrical productions, plans to divert rivers, designs for ideal cities, schemes for flying machines, and almost every aspect of his art as well as engineering.

Largely due to his work, dimensionality became the supreme innovation of Renaissance art.

The portrayal of the landscape behind Lisa contains other tricks of the eye. We see it from high above, as if from a bird’s-eye view. The geological formations and misty mountains incorporate a mix, as did much of what Leonardo produced, of science and fantasy. The barren jaggedness evokes prehistoric eons, but it is connected to the present by a faint arched bridge […]. The horizon on the right side seems higher and more distant than the one on the left, a disjuncture that gives the painting a sense of dynamism. The earth seems to twist like Lisa’s torso does, and her head seems to cock slightly when you shift from focusing on the left horizon to the right horizon.

Where most biographies start with an Introduction, Leonardo Da Vinci – The Biography – a most terrific of book if ever there was one – embarks upon a list of principal characters; all of whom fall within the ‘Primary Periods of Leonardo da Vinci’s Life.’ This is then immediately followed by a colourful, four-page Timeline – which almost acts as something of an inadvertent reminder of just how much da Vinci achieved in his lifetime.

Thus by the time one has reached the actual Introduction itself (endearingly entitled ‘I Can Also Paint’), one has already gleaned an undercurrent of periodic knowledge. And if there’s one thing and one thing alone that one ought to equate with Leonardo da Vinci, it is surely knowledge.

That said, to say Walter Isaacson herein deciphers and homes in on someone who was very clearly a most complex human being, is something of the quintessential understatement.

Such a simple, albeit effective line as ”vision without execution is hallucination,” is as surely alluring from a reading perspective, as it is most profound within the parameters of da Vinci’s work itself. Might as much stem from the openness of the author’s approach throughout these thirty-three chapters; most, if not all of which, are underlined by a more than regal, sensible and what’s more, relatively current grounding: ”[…] when Steve Jobs climaxed his product launches with an image of streets signs showing the intersection of the liberal arts and technology. Leonardo was his hero. ”He saw beauty in both art and engineering,” Jobs said, ”and his ability to combine them was what made him a genius.”

Moreover, one does feel the need to openly admit that such grounding is as equally aligned with daring, as the very first of the above three opening quotes – with regards Leonardo’s technical fantasies – ought surely substantiate.

After all, such daring is itself immediately clarified by the following, wherein Isaacson writes: ”His letter to the ruler of Milan is an example, since his military engineering skills then existed mainly in his mind. His initial role at the court was not building weapons but conjuring up festivals and pageants. Even at the height of his career, most of his fighting and flying contraptions were more visionary than practical.”

I do indeed rather like the author’s use of the word ‘contraptions,’ which again, focuses on the subject’s potentiality, as opposed to a seemingly fawning conglomeration of all that da Vinci achieved throughout his lifetime. As such, these 525 pages (excluding Abbreviations of Frequently Cited Sources, extensive Notes, Illustration Credits and Index) are just as much an appreciation of Leonardo da Vinci’s life, as they are a chronological re-telling.

Suffice to say, there’s an entire chapter devoted to The Mona Lisa which is as equally revelatory as it is informed.
If not scientific in description.

Throughout the chapter, Isaacson bequeaths both the reader as well as the art lover, with oodles to ponder upon. Not to mention, continue thinking about: ”Covering Lisa’s hair is a gossamer veil, worn as a mark of virtue (not mourning), which is so transparent that it would be almost unnoticeable were it not for the line it makes across the top of her forehead. Look carefully at how it drapes loosely over her hair near her right ear; it is evident that Leonardo was meticulous enough to paint the background landscape first and then used almost transparent glazes to paint the veil over it […]. Depicting veils came naturally to Leonardo. He had a fingertip feel for the elusive nature of reality and the uncertainties of perception. Understanding that light hits multiple points on the retina, he wrote that humans perceive reality as lacking razor-sharp edges and lines; instead, we see everything with a sfumato-like softness of the edges. This is true not only of the misty landscapes stretching out to infinity; it applies even to the outlines of Lisa’s fingers that seem so close we think we can touch them. We see everything, Leonardo knew, through a veil.”

That Isaacson’s previous books, among others, include Steve Jobs, Einstein: His Life and Universe, A Benjamin Franklin Reader and Kissinger: A Biography; one invariably knows one is in good academic, if not well researched company whilst reading this most audacious and engaging of biographies. Along with a menagerie of colour plates, reproductions and r-produced diagrams throughout, Leonardo da Vinci – The Biography is a veritable treasure-trove of literary finesse, analyses and a whole lot more besides.

David Marx

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Sticky Fingers

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Sticky Fingers –
The Life and Times of Jann Wenner
By Joe Hagan
Canongate – £25.00

As your company was failing (again) and as a special favour (Two Virgins was first), I gave you an interview, which was to run one time only, with all rights belonging to me. You saw fit to publish a book of my work, without my consent – in fact, against my wishes, having told you many times on the phone, and in writing, that I did not want a book, an album or anything else made from it.

               John Lennon (‘Temptation Eyes’)

It was so clear, and he didn’t care at all what kind of attention he got. He didn’t care if it was negative or positive, as long as he got attention.

                Jane Kenner (‘Atlantis’).

I have to absolutely embark on this review by initially giving full marks to Joe Hagan for his top-notch, soaring honesty.

In Sticky Fingers – The Life and Times of Jann Wenner, he really has done an outstanding job in researching, writing and accounting for an (astoundingly) open thesis on someone, who, for all intents and egotistical purposes, really doesn’t sound like a particularly nice fella.

There again, much, if not most of the music industry is essentially riddled with unpleasant people. And that, to be sure, is putting it mildly.

I could, like John Lennon, describe the music industry as being full of cunts – but one does like to keep ones option(s) somewhat open by not tarnishing every smug and self-serving, totally dishonest and free-loading Judas with the same sacrosanct brush as Simon Cowell – or any array of others, who between them, have triggered irreparable, cancer induced damage into popular music.
Popular music as we once knew (and revered it) that is.
But that’s another story.

Amid these 511 pages (excluding Notes, Selected Biography and Notes), Hagan tells the annoying, semi-saccharine, yet highly exasperating story of how Jann Wenner became the infamous editor of Rolling Stone.

A man for whom the term the good, the bad and the ugly was surely devised.

Reason being, does Hagan ever regale as much- or what?
Already in the Prologue, he writes: ”[…] at its base, Rolling Stone was an expression of Wenner’s pursuit of fame and power. He reinvented celebrity around youth culture, which equated confession and frank sexuality with integrity and authenticity. The post 1960s vision of celebrity meant that every printed word of John Lennon’s unhappiness and everything Bob Dylan said or did now had the news primacy of a State of the Union address. It meant that Hunter Thompson could make every story he ever wrote, in essence, about himself. It also meant that climbing into bed with Mick Jagger was only worth doing if you had a Nikon handy. Self-image was the new aphrodisiac.”

One cannot help but wonder how Wenner himself might actually feel about (a lot of) what’s written herein being published. One can only surmise that he has some kind of rawhide skin, that is surely thicker than that of the likes of Stalin.
Or that which ought to be allowed…
For instance, how might he feel upon reading the following, which was said by Bill Graham – ”the thick-browed Holocaust refugee turned rock promoter who was regularly demonized as a ”profiteer” in Wenner’s newspaper” – to Rolling Stone writer Tim Cahill, ‘: ”Let me tell you something about the dishonest, slimy little paper you work for, mister, and that…evil…slimy little cunt, your editor. There are only a few people I’d like to take out to the street and kick the shit out of […].”

Having met Bill Graham whilst living in New York, I do have to say he struck me as a very reasonable sort of fellow. Opinionated maybe, and never short of a word or two; but quintessentially fair-minded and bullshit free. So I am inclined to wonder what, other than the profiteering quip, Wenner might have done to warrant such wrath.

Suffice to say, one beckons for things to resolutely be told as they’re resolutely meant to be told; and so far as Sticky Fingers is concerned, there really is no beating about any literary bush. None whatsoever.

If the above opening quote – which is an actual letter Lennon wrote to Wenner – isn’t enough to endeavour coming to terms with (let alone live down), then how about the following, which surely substantiates Lennon’s anger: ”Before the Lennon interview was published, Wenner told Alan Rinzler that ”Lennon Remembers” might make a great book and that Rinzler should ”put it up for bids” once the interview was published. But there was one little problem: John Lennon had specifically said he didn’t want the interview published anywhere but Rolling Stone. In fact, Lennon told Wenner that he owned the interview. And Wenner had agreed. Rinzler waved away the promise, unmoved by Wenner’s handshake deal. He told Wenner that the book was a surefire moneymaker for the 1971 holiday season, mentioning a publisher that would offer big money for the book rights.”

As the late great Kurt Vonnegut used to say: ”and so it goes.,” on and on and on and on, throughout all twenty-four chapters (spread across Books I, II and III) of dire discrepancy and rock’n’roll revelation.

A certain facet of revelation, which, if you really think about it, makes for terrific, tittle-tattle type reading on the one hand; although profoundly disturbing reading on the other.

Either way, compliments to the author.

David Marx

Milosz – A Biography

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Milosz – A Biography
By Andrzej Franaszek
Belknap/Harvard University Press – £25.95

There is too much talk about what poetry ought to be and too little about what poetry ought to be and too little about what it is. It is primarily a contradiction to nihilism. Like an apple in a Dutch painting […] because it refers to something that is particular. An author of rhyming introductory articles can be a fairly good poet for a while, because he uses his observations as resources, but he has to shout much louder… because this is the price for moving away into a desert of ideas. One real tree, one real droplet of dew, are enough to destroy him and reduce him to nothingness.

          Czeslaw Milosz (‘Poetry and Diadectics – 1951’)

What equipped him for his truth-telling role was the incomparable quality of his intellect and poetic skills, which enabled him to endure and, much later, process imaginatively experiences and sufferings which might well have destroyed a less driven individual.

          Seamus Heaney (Introduction)

In order not to kill himself, he sought any argument that could dissuade him from such an act, although the most important and hardest to pinpoint was something deep within him. Faith and piety? To be more precise, it was the belief that the world was not based on a void, that there was a higher authority which did not allow anything to occur by chance.

          Andrzej Franaszek
           (‘A Story of One Particular Suicide Case’)

What is it that drives a person to such incomparable lengths as to endure, and as a result, be capable of delivering occasional work that is (almost) beyond description? Beyond depiction? As Seamus Haney clearly states, perhaps its a mixture of acute gift and suffering.

But gift and suffering alone, do not necessarily make for terrific, enlightening and what’s more, in-depth writing. One need only ask Vladimir Nabakov, Ted Hughes or indeed W. H. Auden. All three of whom somehow, inadvertently subscribed to the ideological thinking of ”One real tree, one real droplet of dew, are enough to destroy him and reduce him to nothingness.”

It is just such open-wound-like, regal realisation on the part of Andrzej Franaszek, that accounts for this book being such a spell-binding and all round invigorating read. As Adam Zagajewski has since written: ”Franaszek is well suited to his subject.” To be sure, Milosz – A Biography might well be considered as being many things to many people; one being that it could nigh well be deemed a cleansing of the intellect…

Just one of the (many) reasons being – apart from the huge body of extraordinary work it traverses – is that Milosz, surely one of the most unquestionably important poets of the last century, simply bypassed all folly, all insincerity, all hypocrisy.

And if such weren’t enough to fully engage with both Milosz and Milosz – A Biography, then I really don’t know what is.

Once again, returning to Zagajewski: ”Franaszek’s outstanding biography of Czeslaw Milosz narrates one of the great lives of the twentieth century and does not shy away from recounting the more private side of the poet’s loves, moods, victories, and defeats. Milosz was an artist who was also a political thinker, who stood in the centre of the ideological debates of his time, who was an incredibly industrious writer and on top of all this had a sublime gift for poetry:

My generation was lost. Cities too. And nations.
But all this is a little later. Meanwhile, in the window, a swallow
Performs its rite of the second. That boy, does he already suspect
That beauty is always elsewhere and always delusive?
Now he sees his homeland. At the time of the second mowing.
Roads winding uphill and down. Pine groves. Lakes.
An overcast sky with one slanting ray.
And everywhere men with scythes, in shirts of unbleached linen

(‘Diary of a Naturalist’)

When Zagajewski writes about the author not shying away from ”the poet’s loves, moods, victories, and defeats;” as much is rather evident within the fine selection of black and white photographs contained herein – where many a picture does indeed paint many a thousand words.

Each of these 470 pages (excluding Maps, Chronology, Notes, Bibliography, Acknowledgements, Illustration Credits and Index) lends the reader with a most refined window into one of the most understated, misunderstood, greatest of (Polish) poets to have ever graced the blank, yet seemingly troubled, page.

Edited and translated by Aleksandra and Michael Parker, I can honestly say that Milosz – A Biography opens many, many an invigorating and (already preordained) invigorated window.

David Marx

Hemingway at War

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Hemingway at War –
Ernest Hemingway’s Adventures as a World War II Correspondent
By Terry Mort
Pegasus Books/W.W. Norton 

Money can be easy to come by, especially and obviously when it’s inherited; integrity is not.

This is a terrific book.

Apart from being very readable and very honest – not to mention flawlessly written – its fifteen chapters take the reader on a perilous journey through wartime Europe, as brought to bear by that equally perilous and utmost of seemingly blokey characters, Ernest Hemingway. Yet even if you’re not into Hemingway, which admittedly I am, it’s the sort of book that’ll have you turning the pages with all the great haste regularity of a curious gazelle.

There again, we are talking about Ernest Hemingway; who not only led one of the most interesting and colourful lives this side of Oliver Reed and Keith Moon, but is perhaps someone, many would consider as among the first rock’n’roll writers of his generation. He was after all, married four times, was something of a rebel rouser (to put it mildly) and enjoyed a pint. All of which is painfully, yet marvellously captured throughout Hemingway at War – Ernest Hemingway’s Adventures as a World War II Correspondent.

Indeed, so far as Hemingway’s spell as a most reticent reporter during the Second World War is concerned, Terry Mort (whose previous books include The Hemingway Patrols, The Wrath of Cochise and The Monet Murders) has herein left no stone unturned.

The author has unearthed his subject with as much truth, daring and research as is surely possible.

For instance, as the outset of chapter two, Mort touches on Men at War – which Hemingway spent much of 1942 editing and to which he also contributed three selections from his own novels – which, in and of itself, could well trigger an abundance of debate among Hemingway aficionados: ””This book will not tell you how to die.” That is Hemingway being Hemingway, but not the best of him […]. And in what surely is an unintentional visitation of irony, he writes that Mussolini’s bluster and military posing were designed to cover up the fact that he had been fearful, even terrified, during World War I. Surely Hemingway would be enraged to know today that that is almost exactly the criticism that was, and is, levelled at him, in some quarters. Worse, that same criticism is also used to question his sexual identity – does a hairy chest conceal some different needs! He would not have liked that, either. And in fairness, that sort of analysis – the defence mechanism argument – is facile and in some cases has a whiff of agenda-driven criticism. But if you, meaning Hemingway, are going to use it, you cannot be surprised when others do it to you.”

Suffice to say, the above is loaded with what many could well assume to be high-octane ambiguity; especially from the stand-point of ”Mussolini’s bluster” and Hemingway’s chest quite possibly concealing ”some different needs.”

It’s all relative conjecture of course; although in historically literal terms, there is needless to say, no smoke without fire. Or in this particular instance, no cover up without the most boisterous need to both subvert and divert.

Assorted light is further shed on such thinking in chapter eleven, by which time, Hemingway, who was involved in the Liberation of Paris, was staying at the Ritz Hotel. Mort writes of Hemingway having initiated a reunion with his old friend and occasional benefactor, Sylvia Beach. Quoting from her memoir: ””There was still a lot of shooting going on, and we were getting tired of it, when one day a string of jeeps came up the street and stopped in front of my house […]. I flew downstairs; we met with a crash; he picked me up and swung me around and kissed me while the people in the street cheered.

We went up to Adrienne’s apartment and sat down. He was in battle dress, grimy and bloody. A machine gun clanked on the floor. He asked Adrienne for a piece of soap, and she gave him her last cake […].”

The author then goes on to (perhaps clarify?) by writing: ”Beach’s account of the meeting suggests strongly that it took place as Hemingway was entering the city. His ”bloody” and ”grimy” appearance does not suggest the appearance of a man who had just spent the night at the Ritz. And you would think he would not need a bar of soap – surely the could Ritz provide that. (Although there were shortages of everything after four years of occupation and rationing).”

The mere fact that Terry Mort writes of such open ended conundrum, is just one aspect of what accounts for Hemingway at War being such a valuable and weighty, if not quasi-inflammatory read.

Naturally, not all of the 263 pages (excluding Introduction, Endnotes, Bibliography and Index) lean toward such supposition, as the following direct Hemingway quotation from a 1958 edition of the Paris Review – one among many – surely substantiates: ”All you can be sure about in a political-minded writer is that if his work should last, you will have to skip the politics when you read it.”

It’s not often a book will have one reading on the edge of one’s seat – but hey, this Hemingway. Replete with bluster and braggadocio.

David Marx

Ali – A Life

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Ali – A Life
By Jonathan Eig
Simon & Schuster – £25.00

     To be great you must suffer, you must pay the price.

                                                                             (‘No Quarrel’)

     I am America. I am the part you won’t recognise. But get used to me. Black, confident,           cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.

                                                                             (Preface)

    I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.

                                                                             (‘No Quarrel’)

     The image he fashioned was both romantic and thrilling: a young man who believed             that if he worked hard enough he could become the world’s heavyweight champ, that             he could have it all.

                                                                             (‘It’s Show Business’)

Reading this altogether terrific book on the life of Muhammad Ali by Jonathan Eig, really is something of a literary, topsy-turvy ride through the wide-open, abstract abeyance of nigh everything potentially great about the United States. As well as perhaps everything not so great. Like Elvis Presley, that other American icon whose life and work traversed both language and time, Muhammad Ali was, and will continue to remain an acute, if not infinite representation of America’s (current) seething, troubled, political waters.

A man mired in suave solipsism, along with a sporting prowess like no other, he who did indeed float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, was many things – for which read: many a contentious soul – to many people. An idiosyncratic, if not inflammatory issue, Eig has fundamentally brought to bear at the end of the chapter which gleans its title from the very same, notorious dictum which the boxer himself oft asserted: ””For when Cassius Clay declares, ‘I am the greatest,’ he is not just thinking about boxing,” wrote Alex Poinsett in Ebony. ”Lingering behind those words is the bitter sarcasm of Dick Gregory, the shrill defiance of Miles Davis, the utter contempt of Malcolm X. He smiles easily, but, behind it all…is a blast furnace of race pride” (Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee’).

”A blast furnace of race pride” is surely something of a colossal understatement, that among other things, Ali – A Life makes abundantly clear throughout.

As although these 539 pages (excluding Preface, Acknowledgements, Notes, Appendix and Index) are compartmentalized into three distinct parts, the underlying and not so much subliminal thread remains the fact that Ali was black.
And America was at war with itself. Still is.

At war with/over the current, contentious, high-octane yet persistently pertinent issue of race. Or, to put it a little more bluntly, racism.

In relation to the impending fight between (Ali’s so-called slave-name) Clay and Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston in the book’s tenth chapter ‘It’s Show Business’ for instance, the author writes: ”Writing in the Chicago Defender, the nation’s most influential black newspaper, columnist Al Monroe tried to rally support for Liston, saying that the prejudice of white reporters contributed to the champs reputation as a menace to society. Monroe offered examples of Liston’s sharp wit and intelligent answers to questions […].

”What fans want is a champion they can look up to,” wrote Monroe.”Will Cassius Clay prove to be such a man outside the ring?” Clay’s taunting of Liston was ”most unbecoming of a champion,” Monroe continued. ”Would Clay hold the title with dignity or would he be merely a king’s jester and not a crowned head with the sovereignty that the position calls for?”

That the author – by way of Monroe – has the overt pertinacity to shed light on what is or isn’t ”becoming of a champion,” does, in and of itself, trigger an array of predominant US social and ideological questioning. The sometimes dark density of which, Jonathan Eig himself goes on to succinctly yet wholeheartedly regale.

A quality which further substantiates this book’s more than anchored political gravitas. So much of which is underlined by the subject’s ever increasing politicism during the early to mid-sixties; as so sanguinarily fought through the gloves of Clay becoming the Ali becoming ”the greatest.”

Most notably, that of the then Civil Rights Movement, which throughout these fifty-six chapters, the contributing writer to The Wall Street Journal most rightfully brings to the fore on numerous occasions: ”All over America black activists were organizing voter-registration drives, marches, and sit-ins to improve living conditions and promote equality. The unemployment rate for black men was double the rate for whites, these activists reminded people. School integration was still being impeded in many southern states. In the fall of 1962, James Meredith needed a force of 320 federal marshalls to reach his dormitory as he enrolled as the first black student at the University of Mississippi. President Kennedy called for calm but didn’t get much as armed mobs attacked the federal troops in what historian C. Vann Woodward called ”an insurrectionary assault on officers and soldiers of the United States government and the most serious challenge to the union since the Civil War.”

Hmm, sounds like (relatively) recent events in Charlottsville.
Lest President Donald Trump equate ratings with the inexorable ideology of Burn Baby Burn.
Surely not?

Surely the handsome and ferociously witty, intelligent, Ali, would’ve made an out and out mockery of the unspeakably odious Trump? After all, he did once declare: ”I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”

Now there’s a pugilist philosophy made in satirical heaven; which, given the conclusion of the above quote with regards the Civil Rights Movement – ”They said white America would never give up power unless black America made them do it – does kind of make one think. Especially in light of the degree to which Ali evoked ”a sense of merriment and mystery, an irresistible combination for the media […].”

Exceedingly readable, this almost un-put-downable book packs one hell of a powerful punch, right unto the beige face of many of its mediocre contemporaries. As the American filmmaker, Ken Burns, has said: ”Finally after so many works focusing on this fight or that, the whole, is presented here.”

To be sure, this rather exemplary book will do Ali’s memory (and everything he stood for) proud. There again, we are talking about a best selling author whose previous books include Luckiest Man and Opening Day. While subject wise, we are talking about one of the sharpest and most charismatic of total, total talents, to have ever walked the earth.

For Ali was the champ – and probably always will be.

David Marx

 

Kissinger

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Kissinger -1923-1968: The Idealist
By Niall Ferguson
Penguin Books – £16.99

If you want to know who has influenced me the most, I’ll answer with the names of two philosophers: Spinoza and Kant. So it’s curious that you choose to associate me with Machiavelli. People rather associate me with the name of Metternich. Which is actually childish. On Metternich I’ve written only one book, which was to be the beginning of a long series of books on the construction and disintegration of the international order of the nineteenth century. It was a series that was to end with the First World War. That’s all. There can be nothing in common between me and Metternich.

                                                                                                          Henry Kissinger

This too famous, too important, too lucky man, whom they call Superman, Superstar, Superkraut, and who stitches together paradoxical alliances, reaches impossible agreements, keeps the world holding its breath as though the world were his students at Harvard. This incredible, inexplicable, unbearable personage, who meets Mao Tse-tung when he likes, enters the Kremlin when he feels like it, wakens the president of the United States and goes into his bedroom when he thinks it appropriate. This absurd character with horn-rimmed glasses beside whom James Bond becomes a flavourless creation. He does not shoot, nor use his fists, nor leap from speeding auto-mobiles like James Bond, but he advises on wars, ends wars, pretends to change our destiny, and does change it.

                                                                                                          Oriana Fallaci

I really cannot remember the last time I read such an all-engrossing, brilliant biography as Kissinger -1923-1968: The Idealist. According to The Independent’s Marcus Tanner, it’s ”definitive” and ”reveals his subject as nothing like the calculating cold fish of legend.”

To be sure, having read these 878 pages (excluding Preface, Acknowledgements, Notes, Sources, Illustration Credits and Index), he known throughout the planet as Henry Kissinger comes across as many things – although ye ”cold fish of legend” most certainly isn’t one of them.

Might this be the case, because this most absorbing and altogether outstanding book, delves into every crevice of the subject’s life? And I really do mean nigh every nuanced area; which, given the fact that this is Volume I and concludes in 1968 – at the height of what many might consider to be the nadir of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War – is quite something.

Quite something, simply because by this book’s end, we’re only half way through what is among other things, clearly, a worldly and politically, uber-jam-packed life. A life that never once, not even for a micro-second, ever teetered on the precipice of perhaps being a tad dull. There again, Niall Ferguson (whose previous books include Paper and Iron, The House of Rothschild, The Pity of War, The Ascent of Money and The Great Degeneration among others) has herein written a biography, that in and of itself, alters the occasionally perplexing parameters of biographical literature.

Reason being, the author has probably delved deeper and researched unto the point that research was no longer possible. Thus, by default, raising the stakes by (perhaps) inadvertently raising the bench mark itself.

An exceedingly good example of this comes in the very first chapter ‘Heimat’ (the German word for homeland), where, apart from researching Kissinger’s family tree, Ferguson also goes some way in researching the Jewish induced history of the subject’s place of birth: ”There had been a Jewish community in Furth since 1528. Thirty years before, Nuremberg had followed the example of many other European cities and states by expelling Jews from its territory. But Furth offered a refuge. Indeed, by the late sixteenth century, Jews were being encouraged to settle there as a way of diverting trade away from Nuremberg. Already by the early 1600s, Furth had its own rabbi, a Talmudic academy, and its first synagogue, built in 1616-17 and modelled on the Pinkas synagogue in Prague.”

With this most informative background in mind, only a few pages later, Ferguson touches on the author, Jakob Wassermann, who, when ”asked by a foreigner, ”what is the reason for the German hatred of the Jews?… What do the Germans want? His reply was striking:

I should have replied: Hate…
I should have answered: They want a scapegoat…””

That these words were published in 1921 – a mere two years before the birth of Henry Kissinger himself – does much to trigger just some of the tonality of what’s to come. The undeniable thread of which is undeniably inter-laced with the idealism of Kissinger’s very own hypotheses of history and philosophy.

Or, an undiluted amalgamation thereof.

To be sure, Kissinger’s wartime mentor, Fritz Kraemer, once described his protege as being: ”musically attuned to history. This is not something you can learn, no matter how intelligent you are. It is a gift from God.”

Suffice to say, the manifestation of what said protege chose to do, and how to implement (t)his ”gift from God,” remains wide open to debate. A debate, that if nothing else, can and will no doubt, be further enhanced (if not exasperated) by what has been exceedingly well written within these twenty-two chapters.

That’s twenty-two chapters of the most readable and realistic, realpolitik. A literal quality, which in the final analysis, accounts for Kissinger – 1923-1968: The Idealist, being a veritable tour-de-force to be reckoned with.

David Marx

Cowboy Song

lynott

Cowboy Song –
The Authorised Biography of Philip Lynott
By Graeme Thomson
Constable – £9.99

”A Scottish guy that was drinking too much and Phil shouting at him all the time because he was constantly out of tune – this did not make for a happy session. But Brian added a tremendous amount. It would never have happened, Jailbreak, without Brian Robertson. When he was on, he was great. Unfortunately that came with a price.”

The above is something of a revelatory insight; as having met both Thin Lizzy bad boys – Phil Lynott and Brian Robertson – one really wouldn’t have thought such a tempestuous undercurrent lie beneath the surface of the band’s terrific break-though album Jailbreak.

And what a timely, not to mention superlative piece of work it was and remains: all street-suss-savvy, thundering guitars and bolero-tongue in cheek lyrics. There again, Cowboy Song – The Authorised Biography of Philip Lynott, is a most thoroughly well-researched and quintessentially honest of rock’n’roll biographies.

Indeed, simply riddled with much acute, regal revelation, these 348 pages (excluding Acknowledgments, Notes and Index) are on occasion, perhaps a little discomforting to read.

Let alone take-in.

Lest we remind ourselves that the truth is quite often painful to read – of which the following from Part Three’s ‘Sun Goes Down’ perfectly illustrates: ”Depression. Boredom. Disappointment. All that downtime, from Inverness to Bremen. Nature abhors a vacuum. Heroin fills it with cotton wool. Lynott wasn’t the only one suffering. On 7 March 1982, in Porto, Scott Gorham went on stage unable to play and barely able to stand. He was unceremoniously bundled back to Britain the following morning to address his own addictions. Sean O’Connor filled in during his absence, playing out of sight behind the backline equipment to maintain the illusion that Thin Lizzy remained a functioning band.”

As a result of it’s raw and perhaps, rather loaded depiction (”It is a story with an unhappy ending. Lynott did not always behave well, nor did he always make the smartest choices. In later life his addictions and insecurities made him a difficult man to be around, and ultimately they overpowered him”), Graeme Thomson has herein written and compiled a book that is as compelling to read, as it is – in a literary car-crash waiting to happen sort of way – un-put-down-able.

As a journalist, I got to interview Philip Lynott shortly after he disbanded Thin Lizzy, and I have to confess, he didn’t appear in the best of health. Charming and chatty, he most definitely was; but I did get the uncomfortably distinct feeling that something was clearly awry. Six months later, he was dead.

As a result, I’ve often wondered how such a tremulous tragedy in waiting, would have and ought to have been approached and written. One of the many reasons being that Lynott’s life, has up until now (well for me at least), remained idiosyncratically inconclusive.

Thanks to Cowboy Song, such is no longer the case. As stated in the Irish Examiner: ”This is no eulogy, but an honest, often painful account of the price of star power.”

David Marx