Paperback choice

9th October 1998 at 01:00
The biographer's craft may be a monomaniacal toil, but the results are increasingly popular and varied in subject and approach. Of the crop of recent biographies in paperback, Alex Kershaw's Jack London, A Life (Flamingo Pounds 8.99) is the one that immediately catches the attention. London was one of those male American writers - larger-than-life in a way that only male American writers seem to have the knack of being - who cried out to have his biography written. Indeed, he retold his own myth often enough during his short life.

But in his case it was all true - the seafaring, gold-digging in Alaska, socialism, drink, prison, women, literary stardom and finally exhaustion. His was the classic one-act American life.

Alex Kershaw does a first-rate job in his first book - making no portentous literary claims for the novels, not getting too bogged down in the historical background, and simply reporting it as it was. That is enough, for it was extraordinary.

Someone else who burned across the American scene - if without the ferocity of London - is the subject of Donald Spoto's Notorious. The Life of Ingrid Bergman (Harper Collins Pounds 8.99). From being a wartime icon for the American public, the star of Casablanca and some of Hitchcock's finest movies was cast into outer darkness when her marriage broke down and her Swedish husband was awarded custody of the children. A marriage to the maverick pioneer of Italian post-war cinema Roberto Rossellini went the same way. Spoto, who has written books on Hitchcock and Olivier, among others, is sympathetic to the occasional point of gooeyness; his book is a reply to all the vilification heaped on Bergman when she was alive.

What comes over most memorably is the dedication and intuitive intelligence, as well as great beauty, she brought to the craft of film acting.

It's a far cry from these two books, which both have individual psychology at their heart, to Michael White's Isaac Newton, The Last Sorcerer (Fourth Estate Pounds 8.99). About Newton's emotional life we know next to nothing. Even his closest and most longstanding relationship, with John Wickins, remains a mystery. When Michael White does chance his arm to say something about Newton the man, it seems like the imposition of 20th-century conceptions on a distant culture. In fact, White is primarily a science writer, and his great contribution is to highlight the importance of the more "esoteric" aspects of Newton's work - the radically heterodox, spiritualist theology, and, above all, the years he devoted to the mystical and drudgingly practical work of alchemy. Michael White's conclusion:

"Newton's researches in alchemy (were) the key to his world-changing discoveries in science. "

If we know almost as little about Daniel Defoe's personal life, that is partly a result of deliberate secrecy. As Richard West recounts vividly in The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Daniel Defoe (Flamingo Pounds 8.99), Defoe had good reason to watch his back. Pilloried and jailed for his religious and political principles, perpetually harried by creditors, employed as a spy - he was constantly at the centre of the action, if strangely invisible.

Such a public life is inevitably also a history of the times, and Richard West has done this admirably, drawing on a wide range of contemporary sources. The result is an engrossing panorama, and a fitting tribute to one of the first and finest masters of reportage.

Adam Lively

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