Cautious chronicles of famous faces

24th October 1997 at 01:00
Pocket Biographies:Alexander the Great By EE Rice Jane Austen By Helen Lefroy

Sigmund Freud By Stephen Wilson

Scott of the Antartic By Michael de-la-Noy

Mao Zedong By Della Davin

Rasputin By Harold Shukman

Marilyn Monroe By Sheridan Morley and Ruth Leon

Beethoven By Anne Pimlott Barr Sutton Press All #163;4.99

Biography nowadays has become so prurient and personal that the tradition of "biographical notes" and accounts of the "life and work" which used to have a short chapter or even an addendum on "personality" has almost died out. Luckily, those kind of writers who prefer to take refuge from the personal in a chronicle of achievement are still around and some of them have been snapped up to write contributions to this new series.

E E Rice, a specialist in military history of the ancient world and a Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, is at the apogee of this kind of craft. Her dry assessment of Alexander the Great's probable homosexuality throughout his life and possible mania at the end of it is as cautious as only those can be who have spent the past 20 years studying the Hellenistic period of ancient Greece (and even then, ignoring the smutty bits which people like Plutarch were keen on). As a competent boiling down of available facts and sources, this biography, like Lefroy's work on Jane Austen, although published for adults, would be a reasonably quick read for 11 to 14-year-olds.

The choice of the first seven subjects for the series reinforces the sense of orientation to the school market, with only Monroe not immediately in the GCSE essay bag, and even she a favourite for media studies. Most of the authors write with the ease and balance which comes with authoritative knowledge. Stephen Wilson on Freud, for instance, dismisses in a few well-chosen sentences the controversy over whether or not Freud did renounce his discovery of the sexual abuse of children in favour of the unconscious drive theory that interpreted testimony of abuse as the voicing of the child's own sexuality. Too few and too well-chosen, in fact, since this debate encapsulates both changing attitudes to Freud and to women and children, as well as to politics with the psychoanalytic movement, and passing over it gives a false impression of unanimity among present-day psychoanalysts.

Perhaps one should not cavil at writers airing their own biases, but one could at least ask for these to be stated. De-la-Noy's Scott is the heroic figure of legend, but by failing to situate that legend within a time of the breakdown of Empire and constant media assertion of the need for heroes, de-la-Noy does not really do Scott's quixotic bravery justice. Likewise, Della Davin's chronicling of the events of Mao's life oddly focuses on his military and personal life without going into his political theory. Yet without his political theory, Mao would have had no grounding for his life's plan.

When it comes to Rasputin, however, whose life is so bizarre as to defy exaggeration, it is impossible to avoid prurience and the personal. Son of a peasant, possessed of extreme sexual magnetism and charismatic second sight, Rasputin's involvement with the Russian Imperial family was the catalyst which precipitated the collapse of the Tsar's authority and opened the way to the revolution's forces. You wouldn't really guess this from Harold Shukman's narrative, which is a discreetly lip-smacking canter through personal excesses. Like Marilyn Monroe, Rasputin was not in control of the forces which he rode; like her, he was a screen on which were projected the sexual fantasies of the populace and of the ruling classes. Marilyn's affairs with the Kennedys were as destructive to her as were most of her relationships; the big question which still remains is how pressing an embarrassment or danger she represented and whether "They" took steps to deal with her as final as the steps Prince Yusupov took to deal with Rasputin. Sheridan Morley and Ruth Leon, who describe Monroe only as tragic orphan and doomed beauty, dismiss these kinds of speculation in favour of nifty cobbling together of the cuttings.

The route which Anne Pimlott Baker takes to describe Beethoven goes a little deeper. She points to the tension between his desire for company and yearning for romantic love on the one hand, and the consuming demands made on his time and psyche by his art. That kind of suffering seems to find expression in Beethoven's later work, which for so many has spoken for so much in the human condition. But whether Beethoven's seems a tragic life or not probably depends on your definition of happiness: Ode to Joy is definitely not the testament of a victim.

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