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Sunday, December 5, 2021

The best new biographies to buy for Christmas 2021

Albert and the Whale by Philip Hoare (Fourth Estate, £16.99) was one of many biographies to cut down a big subject by yoking it to another. Hoare zones in on Albrecht Dürer’s quest to capture nature, scurrying all over Europe in his hunt to see a whale (“Leviathan”), but there is too much of Hoare’s musings – now rather a hackneyed trick. Napoleon: A Life in Gardens and Shadows by Ruth Scurr (Chatto & Windus, £30) is similarly flawed – always pleasant to read, but conceptually fluffy: there’s an awful lot about gardens but not Napoleon, and an awful lot about Napoleon but not gardens.

Rebecca Solnit’s superb Orwell’s Roses (Granta, £16.99), on the other hand, while it spins out even further, keeps its grip on Orwell tighter. Solnit makes us rethink “Orwellian” to mean not just what he was against, but what he was for: mainly, nature. When he was attacked by socialists for such sentimentality, he wrote: “Is it politically reprehensible to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song, a yellow elm tree in October [?] If a man cannot enjoy the return of Spring, why should he be happy in a labour-saving Utopia? What will he do with the leisure that the machine will give him?”

Josh Ireland’s Churchill & Son (John Murray, £20) cuts a brilliant cross-section out of an even-more-written-about life. Like a Russian novel, it traces the psychological burden passed from father to son: the coldness of Lord Randolph Churchill (who, when cornered by a bore, rang a bell to say “Waiter – please listen to the end of Colonel B’s story”), how it made his son Winston desperate for his posthumous approval, then spoil his own son, Randolph, as a consequence. The dialogue is a delight: “Stop interrupting me while I’m interrupting you!” shouts Winston.

For bons mots, however, nothing can beat Henry “Chips” Channon: The Diaries, volumes one and two (both Hutchinson, £35). He reports Lord Curzon saying to his much younger third wife: “I don’t mind the laughter of YOUR young men in YOUR boudoir; it is the little silences that worry me.” Later, “Fruity” Metcalfe consoles the widowed Lady Curzon: “They call him the Butcher’s Dog, because he sleeps with the meat but cannot have it,” writes Chips. A social mountaineer, Chips is a little monstrous, but redeemingly self-aware. 

These are the uncensored, unvarnished thoughts of one of the 20th century’s greatest diarists. By contrast, it is as a diarist that I like David Sedaris least: in A Carnival of Snackery: Diaries 2003-2020 (Little, Brown, £20), the great humorist is at his most misanthropic. And he’s a ray of sunlight compared to the 1,000 pages of bile that is Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks, ed Anna von Planta (W&N, £30), which should be available on prescription as a downer.

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