Enduring lives;Books for Christmas;Reviews

17th December 1999 at 00:00
KARL MARX. Michael Duffy on writers' biographies By Francis Wheen. Fourth Estate pound;20. THACKERAY. By DJ Taylor. Chatto amp; Windus pound;25. LAURIE LEE: THE WELL-LOVED STRANGER. By Valerie Grove. Penguin pound;20.

In 1883, when Karl Marx was laid to rest beside his wife, just 11 people mourned his passing. In the city where he had spent more than half his life, the newspapers gave his death only the merest mention. But his lifelong friend and patron, Friedrich Engels, was more perceptive. "His name and work," he promised, "will endure through the ages."

Engels' statement must have sounded paradoxical in Highgate cemetery that day, but as Francis Wheen shows in this new biography, paradox and contradiction were always Marx's hallmarks. The driving force of history and of economics, he wrote, was the clash of opposites. In the man himself, that law held true.

In sparkling prose, Wheen uncovers the built-in contra-dictions of his larger-than-life persona. Marx was a gentle hater, a gregarious loner, a generous scrounger, an intellectual thug, an unworldly plotter. He was a would-be proletarian who was at heart a bourgeois patrician, and a brilliant pamphleteer, whose serious writing even Engels found to be "dreadfully tiring and confusing". Without Engels, who funded him for years with fivers filched from the family cotton business, he would never have finished neither his Critique of Political Economy nor his massive Capital. Without Jenny, his near-heroic wife, he wouldn't even have started them.

Set as it is against the hopes and dreams of 1830, 1848 and 1870, this is a powerful and compelling story. Wheen tells it briskly, stripping away ideology and myth to reveal Marx's humanity and his real achievement. Marxism may be dead, but, he warns, Marx's analysis of global capitalism certainly is not. We diminish him at our peril.

In 1863, when Marx's near-contemporary Thackeray died, 2,000 people packed Kensal Green cemetery to mourn him. After Dickens, Thackeray was the most prolific and popular of Victorian authors, yet within 20 years his reputation was declining. Now only Vanity Fair is widely read.

But as D J Taylor's biography shows, his journalism and the descriptive episodes and digressions of his novels are rich in sharp-eyed reportage, especially of what Taylor describes as "the club-lounging, prize-fighting, rat-catching side of early Victorian life". They are redolent, too, of a distinctively Victorian snobbery.

What is so enjoyable about this book is that the story it tells mirrors so precisely the sort of stories Thackeray loved to write, full of well-born but slightly raffish characters who are fallible, ambitious and endearing. We follow him in these very readable pages from a wenching and gambling youth to Grub Street journalism, from the founding of Punch and his first big novels to "upper society" (which he loved) and substantial and self-indulgent wealth. "How much do you think my next 12 months' earnings will be?" he crowed in 1860. "pound;10,000!! Cockadoodlleoodloodooodle!!" It was serious money and it helped to kill him - at the time of his death of a heart attack aged 52, he was drinking a generous brandy and soda for breakfast and two bottles of wine a day.

Thackeray's funeral, crowded as it was, was a conventional Victorian occasion. When Laurie Lee died in 1997, the sense of loss was more widespread. Millions of people had read him, seen and heard him on TV, and studied him with pleasure at school. Because everything he wrote was rooted in his present or his past, they had come to feel they knew him. Yet even among those who loved him, no one - except, possibly, his mother - really knew him. Even to himself, he was always something of a stranger.

But his life, like the slightly different life he wrote about in Cider with Rosie and the books that followed, makes a captivating story, and Valerie Grove tells it wonderfully. Drawing on Lee's own journals, and the letters and memories of his countless friends, she reconstructs for us not only how he made himself a writer - effortlessly gathering friends, absorbing experience, recording delight - but how he lived and then recreated a sort of golden youth.

There was something of the Peter Pan about him that women especially found hard to resist ("I was thin, hungry and gorgeous"). Not least of the pleasures of this book are the letters and poems he wrote to women who loved him, and their memories and replies.

But there are lots of good stories too. The Laurie Lee presented here was generous, tender, passionate, funny, selfish, and always good company. But underneath that was a darker side, a sense of regret. Sensitively and convincingly, Valerie Grove teases out its causes.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable and often moving story. Few literary biographies will give more pleasure to young readers, and few will tempt them, as this one surely will, to write themselves.

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