RaveThe Spectator (UK)I was flicking through an old copy of The Spectator the other day, one of the issues containing contributors’ ‘Christmas Books’, and there was a comment of Jonathan Sumption’s that ‘as a general rule, biography is a poor way to learn history’. It is primarily a matter of approach rather than simply subject of course, but if one was drawing up a shortlist of men who might qualify as exceptions to the rule, then Philip Mansel’s King of the World, Louis XIV, would surely be very near the top ... On a scale suitable to its subject, King of the World is in one way an extended moral fable, the story of how this ‘kind and modest boy’, intelligent, hard-working, courageous but naturally cautious, became the self-destructive monarch who savagely persecuted his Huguenot subjects, ravaged whole swathes of Europe, and taxed France into starvation, misery and revolt.
MixedThe Spectator (UK)A reader is not going to get very far with Daisy Dunn’s new biography — the opening four lines, in fact — without a sinking sensation that the author has landed herself with the wrong Pliny. It feels very much as though this book was originally conceived as a dual biography; and even in its finished form, the figure of Pliny the Elder — soldier, administrator, admiral, naturalist, inexhaustible encyclopaedist and most famous victim of Vesuvius — looms large enough in the background to make his decent, rather timid and mildly self-congratulatory lawyer of a nephew seem pretty dull fare ... the book is full of sharp, well-made judgments — but if this biography cries out for one thing it is for a bit of good old-fashioned pedantry. In her preface Dunn writes that she has followed ‘the spirit of both Plinys’ in eschewing a strict chronology; but it might be truer to say that what she has eschewed is the measured and carefully edited tone of the Younger for the scatter-gun digressions, abrupt shifts and free-range curiosity of the uncle ... Dunn is a trained classicist, knows her subject inside out and is equally at home with the letters or the Renaissance cult of the Plinys — but that is in a sense the problem. It is possible that Pliny specialists could successfully navigate these waters, but for general readers who, at any point in the book, are likely to find themselves swept up on a tide of associative ideas that might range in just a handful of pages from a Pliny dinner party and the prophylactic powers of lettuce to Cowper, Montaigne, Hadrian’s Wall, Hadrian’s wife, Suetonius, giant oysters and Sigmund Freud, there is a real danger of feeling not just at sea but heading towards Pompeii on a particularly bad day in AD 79.
PositiveThe Spectator (UK)... urgent and moving ... I don’t know if Lebrecht actually buys into so simple a description of scientific progress, or whether it is just a good, combative kick-off to a book, but either way the main thrust of the argument is inescapable ... There are moments when the hunt for the Talmudic in anything and anywhere from Proust to Einstein’s relativity can feel a bit remorseless, but Genius & Anxiety is as much an act of witness as narrative, and name after name rises out of the gathering darkness of Lebrecht’s pages to answer Steiner’s question.
Janet L. Nelson
RaveThe Spectator (UK)It is not often that a book’s blurb gives any idea of what’s inside, but Helen Castor’s endorsement — ‘a masterclass in the practice of history’ — is as good a description of this brilliant new biography of Charlemagne as we are likely to get. The broader contours of the life will be familiar to many readers, but what we have here — pace Janet Nelson — is less the ‘old-fashioned’ biography that she claims but a wonderfully generous sharing of knowledge that combines the conversational tones of the ideal classroom with the intensity of the trained anatomist, poised, knife in hand, to reveal the musculature beneath the skin.
RaveThe SpectatorMoore has found himself the perfect symbols and focus for that ‘mini epoch’ of push, ambition and ‘endeavour’ that coincided with the ship’s chequered 14-year existence ... He never loses sight of the vessel, but it is the wider context that brings a familiar story to life ... the same brave wind that filled Endeavour’s sails blows through this book and it is hard to resist.