Prospect’s best books of 2021—biography and memoir

From Edward Said to Stephen Hawking, this year’s biographies get behind the myths
December 9, 2021

Three years after his death, Philip Roth still haunts American letters. Over 900 pages, Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth: the Biography (Jonathan Cape) charts every rivalry, bust up, breakdown and affair. Disapproval of his official biographer’s indulgent attitude to Roth’s womanising-—“you used to be able to sleep with the girls in the old days,” Roth told Saul Bellow, “and now of course it’s impossible. You go to feminist prison; you serve 20 years to life”—turned toxic when Bailey was accused of rape and his book withdrawn from sale in the US. UK readers can still make up their own minds. 

By contrast, for Speak, Silence (Bloomsbury) Carole Angier was forbidden from investigating the family life of the German writer WG Sebald. Which is ironic since, as Angier reveals, Sebald’s own work liberally filched the stories of people he knew—with intriguing twists. Many of the models for his Jewish characters were, like Sebald, not Jewish themselves: their traumas personal, not world historical. Nonetheless, these acts of reverse cultural appropriation produced resonant fiction.

Edward Said wanted to write about his divided identity—Palestinian-American—in novels, but lacked the gift. Instead, as related in his former student Timothy Brennan’s loyal biography Places of Mind (Bloomsbury), he poured his angst into an influential theory of western misconceptions of the orient—and activism for the Palestinian cause. Few intellectuals could teach Joseph Conrad by day and draft speeches for Yasser Arafat by night.

Another figure who became an icon in his own lifetime was Stephen Hawking. Charles Seife’s Hawking Hawking: The Selling of a Scientific Celebrity (Basic Books) is a sceptical take on the cult of the astrophysicist, who died in 2018. Hawking’s obsessive need for media attention meant he discarded his collaborators and attacked younger researches who questioned him. He was often admired for his lack of self-pity over his disability, but perhaps more introspection might have done him—and those around him—some good.

Amartya Sen is impressively reflective about his life in his hypnotic memoir Home in the World (Allen Lane). Educated at a progressive school in west Bengal, he rose through western academia to win the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on social choice theory. Always keen to get different sides of the argument speaking to each other, Sen is the most conversable of sages. 

As president of the Supreme Court, Brenda Hale brought together her fellow judges to condemn Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament in 2019. Her memoir Spider Woman (Bodley Head)—named for the brooch she wore while delivering that judgment—reveals how she has challenged the male-dominated legal profession. Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning is often overshadowed by her husband Robert. But in her biography Two-Way Mirror, (Profile) Fiona Sampson tells, in her words, “a story about absolute determination to be a writer: wilful, brave self-invention.” Robert Douglas-Fairhurst followed up his first life of a Victorian writer, Becoming Dickens, with another innovative portrait. The Turning Point (Jonathan Cape) examines how the Great Exhibition of 1851 changed Dickens’s fiction. 

In a year when grief has touched so many, two memoirs stood out. First, Notes on Grief (Fourth Estate) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in which the Nigerian novelist charts her reaction to her father’s death. Thousands of miles away in the US, Adichie weeps as she watches her father’s face, “relaxed, beautiful in repose,” on Zoom. “I have mourned in the past,” she writes, “but only now have I touched grief’s core.” Arifa Akbar’s older sister Fauzia, who had a long history of eating disorders and poor mental health, died unexpectedly of tuberculosis at the age of 43. In Consumed (Sceptre), Akbar explores complicated family dynamics with candour—never sentimentalising what was often a difficult relationship, nor smoothing over the ugly side of dying. “I am glad now,” she writes, “that Fauzia didn’t bear her suffering graciously.”

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