Kai Althoff goes with Bernard Leach
until January 10th, 2021
One of the fashions in contemporary exhibitions is for the catalogue to give a scholarly description of everything which can be learnt about the creation of the exhibits and no indication as to what makes them worth looking at (the catalogue for the Artemisia show as the National Gallery was a notable exception). It’s as if nineteenth century connoisseurship – which at least answered the question, why should I look at this? – has finally been buried beneath the scholar’s need to have solid materials to work with. Anybody who hankers for those nineteenth century days should take themselves off to the Whitechapel Gallery and experience a show without physical descriptors (limited notes can be found via the gallery’s app.).
It is a deliberately disorienting show. Althoff (1966 – ), born in Cologne, now living in New York, is an enfant terrible, even by the standards of contemporary artists. Famously he peed on his early works which did nothing to harm his reputation or sales. We are not told whether any of the 100 exhibits in what is his first show in the UK were similarly treated.
Most of the pictures at the Whitechapel Gallery are of pairs or groups of figures. They draw on German Expressionism and Symbolism and are made with highly coloured matt paint and ripped fabrics. They hint at the miseries of Dix and Grosz and the folksiness of Chagall. There is a strong sense of each picture as part of its own story, though what that story is is never made clear. The draughtsmanship varies from the accomplished to the crude. Like Tate Britain’s Nineteenth Century hanging, the pictures are piled up on one on top of another and so crowded as to discourage a discriminating view. Maybe that’s the point. It’s quite possible to walk round most of the show without realising it’s actually begun.
However, even the visitor who is not attuned to the contemporary art world will recognise when they enter the section devoted to Bernard Leach (1887-1979). Leach was the great British studio potter of the last century and even if his theory of potting represented a school of pottery rather than the whole truth of ceramics his influence was immense. Later contemporaries such as Lucie Rie and Hans Coper, or today’s celebrity potters such as Grayson Perry and Edmund de Waal represent a richer tradition, but anyone who has bought a slablike, earthenware mug has probably bought into the Leach style.
Althoff has written of his deep-rooted love of Leach and that if he hadn’t become the artist he is he would have been a potter. It’s a little difficult to see what the two have in common. There is a japonisme in some of Althoff’s later work and Leach both spent long visits to Japan and saw himself as the fusion between the best of the traditions of both cultures. Of course, Leach’s immersion in Japanese culture was primarily with a group Europhile upper middle class æsthetes. Their appropriation of European culture and Leach’s appropriation of Japanese culture fell out of favour in 1930s Japan, but Leach remained open to Japanese influences, and the show gives examples of how he combined a Japanese æsthetic with the native English slipware tradition to achieve his ideal of ‘truth to materials.’
Althoff’s selection of work by Leach shows a sound knowledge of the range and quality of Leach’s career. It is presented in a series of metal and glass vitrines, the metal painted a dull, modernist grey which works well with Leach’s muted tones. The vitrines are of differing lengths and widths, and are lined with woven checks created by Travis Josef Meinolf. They are an uptodate, slightly industrialised take on Leach’s Arts and Crafts heritage and work well.
The ceramics themselves include the tiles and crockery which kept Leach in business, a working man’s tankard (which in the best Ruskinian tradition no working man could afford), and bowls and plates illustrated by Leach (most of the actual potting was done by local lads and trainees from the art colleges). The best works are Leach’s take on Sung ware. Whether that’s because Sung ware is so special or because Leach so effectively imbibed its spirit is not clear. It doesn’t matter, the black pots which punctuate the displays radiate force and character. The more domestic work which radiate a sense of Festival of Britain teashops may yet return to fashion.
None of this makes clear what is the spirituality which Althof admires in Leach. It certainly wasn’t anything worked out in fear and trembling, or prayer and fasting. Maybe Leach was at root an orientalist who, like the decadents of his youth, detected an Eastern spirituality in Japan whose main point was it wasn’t Western. Maybe Kai Althoff will enlighten us in the future about how he sees his kinship with Leach. In the meantime, the case for well documented and signposted exhibitions is made in East London.
Part of the fun of professional sports are the preposterous records one can run up. Be it Usain Bolt’s 9.58 second 100 meter sprint, Don Bradman’s stunning 99.9 batting average, Lewis Hamilton’s 92 career F1 wins, or my personal favourite, the 52 beers drunk by David Boon, captain of the Australian Cricket Team, during one 38-hour flight. The sheer immensity of these numbers attest to the lengths to which the human mind and body (and in the case of Boon, the liver) can go, with a bit of grit and hard work.
The Dynasty is a phrase used by American Football fans to refer to the period from 2004-2018 in which the New England Patriots appeared in 11 Super Bowls, winning 6 of them. On its own, winning six Super Bowls is pretty impressive, with only one other team (the Pittsburgh Steelers, who at time of writing have a pretty good chance of doing it again this year) having taken home so many rings. The Steelers, however, won their first Super Bowl in 1974 and their most recent in 2008. The Patriots have won all of theirs within my lifetime.
What makes this particular feat more impressive is that the National Football League is rigged aggressively against any one team becoming dominant. The majority of revenues raised by each team are split between them and the other 31. There is a strict salary cap which teams cannot go over. New players enter the League (almost always) by being drafted from quasi-professional college teams, with the worst teams picking first and the best teams last. With only a few exceptions, a team has struggled to get back to the Super Bowl after winning the year before, and some completely imploding having exhausted themselves trying to even get to the big game.
And New England did this six times over. With all the attempts by the League to force equality between teams, the only way for a team to be so dominant is with a potent combination of solid ownership, genius head coaching, and tenacious quarterbacking. The New England Dynasty had just that in owner Robert Kraft, head coach/general manager Bill Belichick, and quarterback Tom Brady.
This book is really their story more than it is anything else. The nitty-gritty of ‘play calling’ and football philosophies is left to the side, despite a major part of Belichick’s brilliance being his particular system of code he uses to communicate with his players. The first third or so of the book barely features any football at all; it is really the story of Kraft trying to work the collapsing Patriots franchise into an efficient fighting machine. Indeed, in terms of giving you a glimpse at what happens off-field, it’s a pretty fascinating book.
Sometimes these glimpses give odd impressions of the characters. Whilst it’s certainly true that every week, Belichick stands at the side-lines in Foxborough glowering at the field like a displeased gargoyle, he’s painted to be almost quite mean by Benedict, which seems unlikely for a man whom we know to have friends and family and a life outside football. Likewise, Brady is painted as having a perpetual chip on his shoulder for not being drafted by San Francisco, his local team as a boy (although, for those of us who watched him going absolutely apoplectic at his offensive line for getting him sacked in September, this might explain a few things).
On one level, this book is an amusing romp through 11 years of a dominant sports team. On another, it asks questions about what people are like in a way that only the high-stakes world of professional sports can. Tom Brady is the most successful football player of all time and holds the most Super Bowl rings. And yet, he’s never satisfied. Even today in 2020, we still see him howling at his team on the side-lines, despite his new team’s successful run.
What are we, as Christians, to make of a man like this? What are we to make of the man who seems to have the whole world at his feet? What should we make of the practicing Catholic so keen to keep on imposing his will on the world, despite having achieved more than anyone could ever dream? Perhaps these are the questions we’d one day have asked of successful knights. But now, we have Tom Brady. And if I can’t understand him, perhaps I’ll never quite understand myself.
Making space for God:
Nicolas Stebbing CR & Philippa Edwards OSB
Mirfield Publications 2019 £6.50
ISBN 978-0-902834-48-4 112pp
‘Don’t just do something; stand there!’ By reversing this common saying the authors capture the standing still of monasticism in the midst of the world’s busyness. Nicolas CR and Philippa OSB use the image of making space to capture the invitation to stability, conversion of life and obedience in the Rule of St Benedict. This short book would suit enquirers about the religious life as well as those having more general spiritual questions. As joint authors from different denominations, Sr Philippa and Fr Nicolas open up a big picture rooted in stories of their vocations which trace back to South Africa and Zimbabwe respectively.
‘Conversion of life’ has resonances of change in belief or state of life as when somebody enters a monastery. The authors draw out its universal sense: ‘trying to discover how our lives need changing and doing what we can to put those changes into effect.’ The book describes how monks and nuns actually live, exploding widely held misconceptions of fanaticism or escapism. It recognises Christianity as the pathway to a deeper humanity, and the struggle against poverty and racism, which is a powerful sub-theme of this volume. Religious life is presented as an icon of the communal ideal set out for us in the Acts of the Apostles, which is chiefly lived out in families and parish churches.
In lockdown I have been drawn to the online worship of Fr Nicolas’s Community of the Resurrection to refresh the celebration of the Divine Office which helps structure my Christian life. ‘Making space for God’ has good insight on the spiritual disciplines. It reminds us how the English Reformation renewed the Office, making it more accessible to lay people as well as secular clergy, leaving a Benedictine impress upon the Church of England which its religious houses fill out. These also serve retreatants like myself as places which guarantee silence to do business with God, as well as providing invaluable spiritual accompaniment. May this book bear fruit, amongst it a deeper understanding of the religious life as the challenge and encouragement it is to the whole Church.
Through a Glass Darkly
ISBN : 978-1529327601
Hodder & Stoughton
I had intended to begin this review with a flippant reference to unconscious bias. I soon realised – in fact by page 43 – that this would be futile, as McGrath had introduced the topic himself, summarised in the phrase ‘Whether consciously or not, we bring theoretical pre-commitments to our reading of nature.’
That is one example of his ability to express so many of his ideas in language accessible to the ‘general reader’ – whoever that may be. I must admit that I did come to this book with absolutely conscious bias; I had been captivated a few years ago by his biography of C S Lewis, which for me had superseded an earlier one by A N Wilson, another writer whom I usually enjoy.
The biography made it clear that – like C S Lewis – he was surprised to be converted to the Christian faith, and that studying his life had been influential in his journey of faith. This seemed to me particularly surprising as – although one of my close Christian friends is a scientist – I had often assumed science and faith to be in opposition. The late Chief Rabbi’s book, ‘the Great Partnership’ had been helpful in this respect, but it was encouraging to encounter similar views from a Christian perspective.
One of the interesting points about McGrath is that he was not just a scientist, he was a committed atheist in spite of being educated in a Methodist school in Belfast, which compelled pupils to go to church. His portrayal of a happy, enthusiastic and active childhood is endearing; his fascination with science was elicited by looking at the stars and – unlike some child prodigies – he seemed able to make the most of his intellectual ability with the minimum of anxiety. In this he was blessed by sensible parents. He realised quite early in his schooldays that he could pass exams easily with the minimum of effort, enabling him to pursue his extra-curricular activities. His parents realised that his high intelligence could lead him to academic idleness and enrolled him as a weekly boarder, so that his ‘homework’ studies would be supervised.
This had the desired effect, so that his academic career leaves one awe-struck with the huge amount of work which he seemed able to cram into twenty-four hours. His massive appetite for work, aided by an always-questioning mind, led him to wonder whether science gave a full and adequate account of human life, or whether there were many aspects which it could not explain.
He says that he regularly found himself challenged by what he would now call ‘liminal experiences’ – a feeling of standing on the edge of a new world which he could not fully understand. This echoes C S Lewis’ feeling of longing towards the North and Norse mythology; something desirable and interesting which can’t be fully explained.
This feeling is sometimes evoked by reading novels, such as ‘Coromandel’ by John Masters. As there have been frequent discussions in our household along the lines of ‘you can learn more about human life from reading novels than from reading non-fiction’ I was pleased that McGrath supported my argument.
He continues to describe his journey of faith in similar terms with which it is easy to identify; ‘insight seemed to leapfrog over rational dissection’; a neat turn of phrase which leads to helpful metaphors of the ‘island of faith’ and the ‘thorny verbiage’ of the Creeds.
This slightly novelistic way of writing is interspersed with philosophy, explanations of science for the unscientific, and alarming statements such as ‘I had taught myself Greek before going to Methody (his boarding school).’ He was thirteen at the time, and he did this by using some Greek school textbooks from the 1920s.
When he had been a Christian for some years, he began to explore ordination, and many readers of this review will probably sympathise with some of the views expressed in this section, for example that ‘the Church of England was showing signs of disengaging from serious public discussion of theological issues and their wider significance.’
After ordination he was excited to be invited to a conference including workshops on mediation and contemplation. ‘I do not think that anything quite prepared me for the disappointment that lay ahead.’ In this, he may express the feelings of many recent ordinands.
He was not however disappointed in the pastoral ministry, and continued to exercise this in tandem with an active academic life and the publication of many books. I was stunned to discover he also had time to marry and have a family.
I thought I would read this book quickly as it numbers only about two hundred pages, but I found it so appealing and illuminating that I spent some hours over it. Why not give a copy to a scientist you know – or an atheist?
How Do I Look?
SCM. 2020. 152 pp. Pbk £25.00ISBN 9780334060017
Dominic White, a Dominican Friar, begins this book with one of the icons of our age – the Selfie. Of course, it is not just the Selfie, but the obsession people have with photographing themselves against different backgrounds or with famous people in order to improve their self-image, to show how important they are. This obsession with self-image becomes destructive since the image we have never looks good enough compared with the idealised images we are given in advertising and the media. So, with current technology the self-image can be touched up, edited, made to look better before being displayed. This may fool those who see it but doesn’t fool the self. He or she knows what he has done. This contributes to the crisis of self-worth which is affecting the modern generation. The results are well known, the teenage depression, bullying, suicides and other forms of destructive behaviour which make ours probably the most anxious and unhappiest generation of young people the world has ever known.
As a way of understanding this phenomenon Fr White focusses on the gaze, that way people have looking seriously at other people and things. A gaze is not neutral; it can be warm, loving, welcoming, affirming, or it can be hostile, predatory, dismissive or destructive. He explores it through an engagement with various philosophers (Foucault, Sartre, Lacan, Levinas) but also with film, icons and painting. This helps us to understand what is going on when people look at each other or at themselves. It is a complex phenomenon. That reminds us that the modern young person’s obsession with appearance, image, self is by no means new and nor is it simple. It is not enough for people (like me!) to inveigh against it. We do need to understand it and help them to understand it.
Fr White rightly sees that there is no quick fix to this problem. He recommends workshops in which people talk together to understand what is happening. We ourselves need to understand this as much as the young people we are concerned for. It is an untidy process and will take time to yield results but is more likely to yield results that any theoretical ‘answer’ would.
There is, however, an urgency. Self-obsession and self-promotion is not new, but the internet makes it possible for it to multiply out of control. In the past young people could be left to discover its negative qualities for themselves. Now, however, an image or a comment which goes viral can destroy a person’s life or lead to suicide. We can’t sit around doing nothing. What we do need is a counter narrative about the good which proper seeing can do. That, as Fr White points out, is rooted in God, for God sees us all, all the time. His gaze is loving, affectionate, creative and healing. His judgement helps us to see what is wrong with ourselves and how we can put it right. His love is the ultimate answer to the feelings of inadequacy about our appearance or character that we all have. If He loves us does it ultimately matter what other people think?
Nicolas Stebbing CR
Book of the month
The confidential diaries of Alan Don, Chaplain to the King, Archbishop and the Speaker, 1931 -1946
SPCK, hardback, 506 pp. £30. IBSN: 978-0-281-08398-5
This latest book from Robert Beaken dovetails with his Cosmo Lang: Archbishop in war and crisis, a book nominated for several prizes. His other major work, The Church of England and the Home Front 1914 -1918, provides the editor with an in-depth knowledge of the conditions that shaped Don the priest. The success of the Lang biography generated correspondence from the nephew of Alan Don who was in possession of Don’s private papers; these with the diaries deposited by Don in Lambeth Palace library are the source of this fascinating book.
Alan Don (1885 -1966) was a proud Scotsman and, by his own description a ‘true Britisher.’ Born into an upper-middle class trading family in Dundee he was educated at Newbury and Rugby, reading Modern History at Magdalene, Oxford. Whilst travelling in Europe and working in the family firm his vocation continued to nag away at him and between 1909 and 1911 he was a member of a Bethnal Green mission and served as Bishop of Stepney’s secretary. In 1911 he began training at Cuddesdon and in 1912 was ordained by Lang in York to be curate of Redcar, in 1917 Don became vicar of St Peter’s Norton in Yorkshire. Don married Muriel O’ Connell in 1914 and his marriage forms a backdrop to the diaries, rather than an essential element. In 1921 he returned to Dundee to be Provost of St Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral. A conversation with his former vicar led to correspondence with Lang, the result of which was his appointment as one of the three chaplains working at Lambeth.
It is his arrival at Lambeth that marked the beginning of Don the diarist. He wrote through his ten years at Lambeth, whilst a Canon of Westminster and Vicar of St Margaret’s and put down his pen when appointed Dean of Westminster in 1946. It therefore covers his ministries as both Chaplain to the King (from 1934) and Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons (from 1936). Fr Beaken has presented these diaries to the reader in an unadorned way. There is an excellent, concise introduction to the main characters of the diary, Don and Lang. Footnotes are kept to a minimum, which aids fluency of reading, but there are excellent indexes of subject and biography for those who require a fuller background. There is also a fine bibliography. Illustrations are kept to a mere fourteen pages displayed in one section, I would have liked a few more, but this arrangement does give priority to the text and perhaps that is how it should be.
Don’s diaries develop in style and depth as they progress. It moves from short pithy notes and descriptions, to intense and eloquent passages. His accounts of the bombing of Parliament and Westminster Abbey (where he was a fire watcher) are very vivid and moving. They have elements of introspection, but they are characterised by an open-minded honesty of opinion and emotion. He certainly does not ‘get in the way’ of the people and the situations he records. He was very conscious that he was at the heart of the national life of both church and state. He is also aware of the historic times in which he lived, ‘have there ever been more turbulent times in the world?’ he asks at one point. ‘ These are times of great trouble and sorrow, but I have to say I am glad I have lived in them,’ he says at the height of the blitz. It says something for Don’s integrity that there is apparently nothing in the diaries that could cause a scandal.
Being part of the Lambeth Palace community, he became integral to offering hospitality to a kaleidoscopic range of guests; he complains that ‘we spend too much time sitting around dinner tables,’ but these meals provided an opportunity for in depth conversations and the building up of relationships. Don was described by one his fellow chaplains as a person of ‘complete congeniality’, he certainly had a gift for friendship and of making strong relationships with people of every walk of life. It is these people who make the diaries so readable.
They provide a rounded, three-dimensional picture of the Archbishop and his ministry. Being fellow Scots, and having known each other from Don’s ordination, helped create a strong bond between the two men. Don is credited for encouraging Lang to ‘take more care of himself’, and of being able to manage his mood swings. At the very end of Lang’s life, Don is there as a friend and admits that ‘I loved him.’ There is one very moving passage that stands out; on 13th December 1936 Lang broadcast an address on the BBC reflecting on the abdication during which he lamented at the waste of Edward’s gifts and dismay at those who ‘had led him astray.’ It was not welcomed in some quarters and it caused Lang much heartache. Don records that his fellow chaplain saw the Archbishop after he had written this address ‘on his knees by his desk side.’
Don met and talked with, and often dined with, major figures on the world stage. His impressions of them, and his record of other people’s opinions are fascinating. He tells us that most people judge that ‘Ghandi is not to be trusted’, and after meeting Dietrich Bonheoffer he describes his as ‘a nice young man’. Clearly some guests became indiscreet at the dinner table; Don recounts how ‘Lord Halifax said the trouble with Winston is that he always just wrong!’ After the Italian invasion of Ethiopia Emperor Haile Selassie was a frequent quest as were the Royal Family of Yugoslavia who fled to England for safety. Don does seem to have has ‘ministry of dining’ frequently lunch meetings took place at the Athenaeum and he recalls one baptism of an MP’s daughter that took place after lunch at the Ritz ‘ the drinking of sherry and the smoking of cigars is not a fitting prelude to such a ceremony – the sacraments of the Church are best divorced from such preliminaries.
Orthodox prelates from different jurisdictions were frequent guests at Lambeth. It is remarkable, looking back, how close relations were. On 23rd October 1939 Don tells of a letter from the Archbishop of Athens reporting on the decision of the Greek Holy Synod that ‘they would admit an Anglican priest to Orthodox orders without requiring re-ordination.’ Don points out this is not the same as recognising Anglican orders as ‘truly valid.’ In contrast relations with the Roman Catholics were more cautious. Don himself found Catholic liturgy ‘fascinating and distasteful’ in contrast to the Orthodox Liturgy, which he found ‘profoundly moving’. Cardinal Hinsley he describes as ‘matey’ but meetings between the two church’s representatives took place on the ‘neutral ground’ of the Athenaeum. As the war progressed there was a greater co-operation and partnership between the two churches, particularly over the calling of Days of Prayer and Thanksgiving.
The Church of England of eighty-plus years ago was strikingly different. Don had to deal with diocesan delegations complaining about old and ineffective bishops (there was no retirement age) particularly the ‘dead see of Norwich’. The appointment of senior clerics lay with the Prime Minister; Lambeth advised but sometimes appointments were colourful and surprising. This produced some challenging situations for the Archbishop particularly in the case of the ‘Red Dean of Canterbury’ Hewlett Johnson. There were a huge range of opinion on the episcopal bench from Barnes of Birmingham to Henson of Durham and all shades in between. Not so today I fear! Although ‘a gentle Anglo –Catholic’ Don shared Lang’s view of the leaders of the Anglo Catholic movement at the time of the Oxford Movement centenary ‘ wonderful people, full of enthusiasm and thoroughly enjoying the fun of being naughty.’ There were complaints that Anglo-Catholics never were appointed to ‘senior positions.’ Interestingly Lang when invited to lead a pan-protestant campaign for peace in Europe in 1930’s refused on the grounds ‘I am not a protestant but a catholic.’
Don has an awareness of a creeping tide of secularism. On the one hand he sees in the response to the calls to prayer during the war as the expression of ‘inarticulate religion’ and yet he is also aware that the national ‘spiritual capital’ is being used up.
This book a rich source of information and insight into some of the key events of the twentieth century, sacred and secular, liturgical and political, by someone who had a front row seat in the House of Commons for Churchill’s great speeches, for the funeral of a monarch and two coronations. All of these woven into intimate and personal events, vignettes of historic characters and the cataclysm of the blitz. There are very few people who will not find something of value and interest in this rewarding read.
Books for Christmas, Books of the Year
Simon Walsh looks at possible gifts and seasonal treats
Three Vicars Talking (SPCK) is the published transcript of conversations between celebrity clergy Richard Coles, Kate Bottley, and Giles Fraser. The first three on the ‘hatch, match, dispatch’ aspect were recorded in front of a small audience and broadcast via R4 to great acclaim last year. Their collective reflections on birth, marriage, and death were so well received that the BBC got them together for another couple of shows, on Christmas and Easter, recording them in November 2019. Events soon overtook being able to put out the Easter programme. The coronavirus had struck by then, and just before Christmas Coles had lost his partner, David, also an Anglican priest. It had to be redone, but this time over video call, and yielded extraordinary radio. Beyond the slight luvvie tendency, this is a delightful book. It reaffirms why our faith and feasts matter, and the conversations are articulate from sunny humour one moment to pathos and real life story the next. Their experience is interesting too. We learn about them, and about ourselves. It’s a fitting tribute to the recently-retired Christine Morgan as Head of BBC Radio Religion and Ethics who so skilfully steered the Today Programme’s ‘Thought’ over so many years. Her foreword brings the project together and sets it in context.
Fergus Butler-Gallie (author of our Christmas Quiz) caused a storm with his Field Guide to the English Clergy debut, a rundown of the mad, bad and plain odd in clerical history. He has followed it with Priests de la Resistance: The Loose Canons who fought Fascism in the twentieth century (Oneworld). The title is a little tongue-in-cheek; not all were canons or engaged in combat with fascists, depending on your definition. That said, these intelligent and perceptive portraits of people in holy orders who have fought the wartime forces of evil and oppression are compelling. There’s Canon Félix Kir, sometime Mayor of Dijon who gave us the ‘kir’ of white wine with crème de cassis, the Germans a hard time, and De Gaulle an even bigger headache. There’s Princess Andrew of Greece and Denmark, aka Mother Superior Alice-Elizabeth and the Queen’s mother-in-law. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and St Maximilian Kolbe feature, along with other hero-martyrs such as Don Pietro Pappagallo, St Edith Stein, Jane Haining. Butler-Gallie has a neat turn of phrase and a novelist’s eye for detail. His closing epilogue of theological reflection and further reading are both valuable. These are holy lives to inspire and sustain us.
Brexit may be almost behind us and a feature of new normality, but its’s not so novel as it seems. The Europeans: Three lives and the making of a cosmopolitan culture (Allen Lane) by Orlando Figes is an elegant and exquisite history of the nineteenth century’s middle years and says much about the European cultural project and a spiritual self-understanding of how we evolve and identify through music, language, literature and travel. His premise is brilliant and takes the lives of opera singer Pauline Viardot, her manager-husband Louis (businessman, journalist, art collector and author of travel guides), and Ivan Turgenev, a writer’s writer but never as fanatical as his Russian contemporaries. In 1863, the Viardots settled in Baden-Baden with their children, and Turgenev moved in with them. He and Pauline were close in age and embroiled in a relationship. Louis, 21 years older than his wife, was happier with affairs of the mind than heart by then and their personal story is deeply engaging. But Figes, who writes with poise and purpose, brings his great command of detail to tell the story of Europe. His introduction charts the 1846 ‘pioneering journey’ by rail from Paris to Brussels. The international train cut previous journeys which had taken weeks to days, and days to hours. The impact of this on the spread of ideas, literature, art, music (especially opera) and tourism cannot be underestimated. And industrializing Europe saw its socially mobile citizens careering about the continent with the facility of railway lines, reading, writing, going to performances, inventing the holiday, giving and taking wherever they went. Everyone is in this book, because many had something apposite to say, and the Viardot-Turgenev trio seemed to meet and know them all too. The two men in Pauline’s life both died in 1883; she lived until 1910, by when the world was about to turn on its axis again. This is a fabulous account, told with dexterity by a masterful historian.
Paris and personality also feature highly in The Man in the Red Coat (Jonathan Cape) by Julian Barnes. Some years back, Barnes was struck (as were many) by the portrait of a bearded, mysterious chap in the National Portrait Gallery’s Sargent show. The subject was one Samuel Pozzi, a successful society gynaecologist and gastroenterologist, blessed with charm and dashing good looks. Married to an heiress, he had numerous affairs, including with Sarah Bernhardt. He collected lovely things, was well connected and a darling of the Belle Epoque salons. This is another example of a moment in time being explored through a life in motion. The seasoned novelist Barnes writes with pace and imagination, and his expertise of France and Flaubert makes him almost uniquely qualified for this sleuthy memoir-biog, the author wishing himself into the scene. After medical service in the field during WWI, Pozzi met a bathetic ending, shot in 1918 by a patient disgruntled over his scrotal surgery. His portrait reappeared in 1990 in Los Angeles, and now we have his story.
Frederik Logevall’s JFK, Volume I: 1917-1956 (Viking/Penguin) is possibly the biography of the year. The first Roman Catholic to occupy the White House (Joe Biden being the second), it chronicles second-son ‘Jack’ from birth to his 1956 decision to run for the presidency. Logevall is a professor at Harvard and a Pulitzer Prize winner. He illuminates with the telling detail and marshals a huge amount of research to present what will surely be the definitive life of POTUS35 and whose legacy still holds today. In spite of ill health and chronic pain, Kennedy had some lucky breaks. The Democratic Party chairman commissioned a short film about the party in 1956. Governor Muskie of Maine was asked to narrate it but declined and the honour fell to young Senator Kennedy instead, who flew out to Hollywood for the job. When screened at the Chicago convention in August that year, it sent the place “roaring for the first time” and a star was born. ‘It was among the other states’ delegates and, even more, the television viewing audience that the narration really mattered, in an instant raising his profile in a way nothing had ever done before – not his books, not his dramatic 1952 Senate win, not even his Pacific war heroics. He had reached a new level.’ Or the description of his ‘astonishing seven months overseas’ in 1939 before resuming his studies at Harvard. ‘He had received communion from the pope and taken tea with Princess Elizabeth; had read high-level diplomatic dispatches in London and Paris; had been accosted by Nazi toughs in Munich; had flipped his car south of Paris and survived; had paid visits to Poland and Russia; had darted south to Turkey, North Africa and the Middle East; had travelled behind German lines in occupied Czechoslovakia and crisscrossed Germany in the immediate lead-up to war, before carrying a top-secret message back to London; had been present in the House of Commons for the historic session on September 3; and, to top it off, had made his debut as a public figure in response to the sinking of an ocean liner of the first day of Britain’s war…the kind of exposure and training that no future president since John Quincy Adams had enjoyed at so young an age.’ A rollercoaster ride, and it’s not over yet.