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December 4, 2011 9:27 PM

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The Passionate Reader: December 4, 2011

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow opined in "A Psalm of Life" in 1838 that "Lives of great men all remind us/We can make our lives sublime/And, departing, leave behind us/Footprints on the sands of time." While both writers and readers today take...

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow opined in "A Psalm of Life" in 1838 that "Lives of great men all remind us/We can make our lives sublime/And, departing, leave behind us/Footprints on the sands of time." While both writers and readers today take a much more skeptical, critical approach to the lives of the great than they did 173 years ago, biographies -- the more unvarnished the better -- have, if anything, an even stronger appeal. And this is a particularly good moment for books about important figures in the arts, among them Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway and Spencer Tracy.

books001.jpgThe facts of Van Gogh's life as they're generally understood have long been familiar. But that doesn't mean that these details are written in rock. One of the most remarkable revelations in "Van Gogh: The Life" (Random House) by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White -- who also wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Jackson Pollock" -- is the writers' claim that, rather than committing suicide with a gun, the painter, who had been enduring bouts of mental illness, was probably shot by a local boy, Rene Secretan, who had been teasing him. Van Gogh, the writers infer, "in a final act of martyrdom" protected his assailant, although the painter took several days to die. This sprawling (950+ pages), magisterial tome, written with access to materials from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam which have never before been studied by biographers, is both readable and fascinating. It brings to life many hitherto-unknown characters in the artist's life, such as his mother, Anna, and sheds new light on his famous relationship with his younger brother, the art dealer Theo. Among the many riveting details: His mother disliked his work and always disposed of any paintings he gave her; Theo tried endlessly, in many different ways, to try to get Vincent to change his painting style. The details of Dutch history and the writers' insights into its citizens' national character are also highly revelatory.

books006.jpgIn "Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life and Lost, 1934 - 1961," (Alfred A. Knopf), Paul Hendrickson, who won the National Book Critics Circle Award for his last book, "Sons of Mississippi," in 2003, traces the life of the legendary writer through the story of his boat, Pilar, which he used in Florida and Cuba, and eventually left in Cuba. Much of what has been written about Hemingway in the past two decades has focused on what was least appealing about him as a person; Hendrickson's sympathetic approach is intended partly as a corrective to that. While Hemingway was certainly an easy-to-caricature figure in life, that shouldn't erase his contribution as the author of "A Farewell to Arms," "The Sun Also Rises" and "A Moveable Feast." But what are most novel in this biography are the extensive passages about one of his three sons, Gregory Hemingway, a complex character who was a doctor, father of eight children, a transvestite and transsexual. Ernest Hemingway's interactions with him were mixed, but at times surprisingly sympathetic. Gregory, aka Gigi, wrote the 1976 book "Papa: A Personal Memoir," and eventually died of a heart attack in jail in Florida after an arrest for indecent exposure.

books003.jpgSerf's up! Rosamund Bartlett's "Tolstoy: A Russian Life" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is the first new biography of the writer in 20 years. This remarkable book aims to examine the author of "Anna Karenina" and "War and Peace" in his role as a political figure and philosophic thinker who had a tremendous influence on Russian life; he was more respected than the czar at the time of his death. His philosophical ideas, though, were sometimes implemented at a cost to his wife and children; the towering writer and secular saint was no deity at home. As Bartlett notes, in certain ways Tolstoy's attitudes remained very much those of an aristocrat of his time. On the question of women, for instance, he did not side with John Stuart Mill (who wrote, "The Subjection of Women"). When Tolstoy's wife, Sonya, wanted to stop having children, he disagreed with her utterly, and won the day. "It was not just that Tolstoy could not conceive of marriage without children -- he regarded a woman's main vocation as being to bear children, breast-feed and raise them, and was therefore horrified at the thought of his wife avoiding future pregnancies," she writes. Life at his provincial estate Yasnaya Polnaya and in the dusty property he attempted to settle in far-off Samara were not at all utopian for her. Bartlett also points out that "Anna Karenina" was inspired by the death of a real person, Anna Pirogova, a relative of Sonya's, who, after her lover told her he was marrying another woman, had committed suicide by throwing herself in front of a goods train.

books004.jpgA.N. Wilson, who published "Tolstoy: A Biography" in 1988, has just come out with "Dante in Love" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Wilson, who has been reading Dante for most of his life and who has a daughter named Beatrice, wrote this book, he says, to place the great Italian poet in the cultural context of his time. "It is important to recognize that autobiography is a form of fiction," Wilson writes. "Dante the pilgrim in the 'Comedy' or even Dante the 'I' of his 'Vita Nuova' or his Canzoni or Ballate is not a police witness on oath. He is a literary creation. Of course, he is based on a real-life person of the same name who lived at a particular time, and in a particular series of places in history. But we don't get very far if we start thinking he has something to hide, or that he should be writing about his wife rather than Beatrice and this other 'gentle' lady. That is not the point of what he is doing. And one of the things he is doing is expanding the Augustinian idea of confession  -- that deeply personal thing -- as a reflection upon the general condition of human sinfulness." And by the way, as for Beatrice, Dante barely knew her. Wilson carefully and fluently reviews what we know and do not know about the poet and his work -- which should have the effect on the reader of inspiring a visit to the primary sources.

books005.jpgMeanwhile, with effortless erudition, Paul Johnson brings to life the world of the great philosopher in "Socrates: A Man for Our Times" (Viking). Socrates did not leave his own written record, so Johnson relies on those of others, including, of course, his star pupils Plato and Xenophon, along with Aristophanes, Diogenes, Herodotas and others. Among his deductions: that Socrates was a good soldier, fighting in the Athenian winter retreat from Potidaea when he was 46, during which he saved the life of his friend Alcibiades. Wilson also excoriates Plato for misrepresenting Socrates' ideas, then explains in painstaking detail the episode of Socrates' life that is probably most puzzling to moderns: his conviction in a trial for corrupting the youth of Athens and impiety, which ended in his being forced to drink poison. Wilson notes that, during a time of considerable unrest in Athens, many leading figures were convicted of crimes, exiled or both; Socrates was apparently convicted because of guilt by association with a trio of very unpopular government figures who were all already dead. Wilson states that the philosopher did not flee abroad, which he could easily have done, didn't take any legal counsel, and argued his own case in a way which was likely to make him seem arrogant and antagonize the jury of commoners. It did.

books002.jpgIn "Spencer Tracy" (Alfred A. Knopf), James Curtis delivers a remarkably balanced and comprehensive view of the great actor, whose work clearly speaks for itself, but whose life has been distorted, Curtis argues, in a series of books that portray him inaccurately in a variety of different ways. Curtis benefited from the cooperation of Tracy's daughter, Susie Tracy, who gave him access to everything she could without suggesting that she be consulted on the final product. Curtis presents both the actor's long marriage to his wife Louise and his long relationship with Katharine Hepburn in great, but dispassionate, detail, making sense of the roles that these two commitments played in his life. The Hepburn-Tracy romance, in particular, has been sensationalized elsewhere. Curtis also illuminates Louise Tracy's role at the John Tracy Clinic, named for her deaf son, pointing out her substantial role as a pioneer in the education of the deaf, for which she was widely recognized and honored. And the writer, who had access to the actor's datebooks, points out that his storied drinking bouts were punctuated by long periods of sobriety -- which, of course, makes perfect sense -- because, otherwise, how could he have had the career he had?
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