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Saturday, December 28, 2013

Biographies of the year

Gabriele D'Annunzio On Horseback Italian poet and writer Gabriele D'Annunzio, subject of Lucy Hughes-Hallett's prize-winning biography The Pike. Photograph: Mondadori/Mondadori via Getty Images

Three kinds of biographies make ideal Christmas presents – the political or theatrical legend; the literary restoration; and the maverick life. This year has turned out to be a bumper one in all three of these categories. Despite widespread predictions about the death of biography, lives are back with a vengeance.

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume One: Not For Turning (Vol 1)by Charles Moore Tell us what you think: Star-rate and review this book

As momentous as the passing of Lady Thatcher was Penguin's publication, through its Allen Lane imprint, of the first volume of Charles Moore's "authorised biography" (some 860 pages) within days of her death. Margaret Thatcher: Not for Turning takes her life story up to victory in the Falklands in 1982. Moore has made an exemplary job of providing a lucid, sometimes thrilling, political analysis of Thatcherism, an oddly British fudge of theory and pragmatism.

Thatcher's indifference to the unexamined life gave Moore extraordinary freedom, and he's made the most of it. Few authorised biographies are as searching and candid. If, like many of us, you are one of Thatcher's children, and think you know it all already, you would be wrong. This is a biography full of revelations, large and small.

Moore is especially good on the transition from Margaret Roberts to the wife of Denis Thatcher ("not a very attractive creature … " she wrote, "but quite rich"). His account of the disasters of Thatcher's first administration, up to the leadership crisis of 1981, is superb. And, of course, he can hardly fail with Thatcher's conduct in the Falklands war, the event that transformed her into the Iron Lady and symbol of Britishness. Moore is an entertaining writer. Not many prime ministerial biographers would pay tribute, as he does, to his hunter, Tommy, an animal who "jumps everything" and is "essential to my sanity".

In another year, Philip Ziegler's Olivier, (MacLehose), the life of another British giant, might have excited more interest. There is plenty of theatrical gossip, some useful accounts of the starry high points, but (compared to Moore) Ziegler has not really got under the skin of his subject. Ziegler, a distinguished royal biographer, is less at home with greasepaint and the footlights, and it shows.

More entertaining is William Cook's account of the intertwined lives of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, One Leg Too Few (Preface), which might provide that impossible relative's seasonal gift.

From the political biography of the year to the literary life that everyone's talking about – Penelope Fitzgerald by Hermione Lee (Chatto) – is a short step. "Mops" Fitzgerald (nee Knox) and Margaret Roberts were near contemporaries. But Fitzgerald's life was, until her 60s, a succession of failures, a haunting tale of blighted hope, personal tragedy and rare, late fulfilment. Together with a brilliant portrait of a complicated, elusive woman, Hermione Lee's biography also holds up a mirror to the 20th century, casting memorable light on the literary world in the age of ink and paper.

A more conventional literary life is Andrew Lycett's biography of Wilkie Collins (Hutchinson), author of The Moonstone, the friend and contemporary of Charles Dickens. Credited with pioneering the detective novel, Collins has attracted many biographers over the years, drawn to his extraordinary life and work in the hope of levering open a new understanding of the Victorian psyche. Lycett, who has written excellent lives of Ian Fleming and Conan Doyle, is well-equipped to do this, but his subject gets away from him. Wilkie Collins certainly lived "a life of sensation" (Lycett's claim), but he remains the Macavity of literary Victorians, a mystery cat.

Among the bizarre and sensational, it would be hard to beat Gabriele D'Annunzio. The Pike by Lucy Hughes-Hallett (Fourth Estate), a life of the Italian poet and self-promoter, is the acclaimed winner of the 2013 Samuel Johnson prize for nonfiction, and a biographical tour de force.

Even by Italian standards, D'Annunzio is stranger than fiction. Bestselling poet, aviator, showman, war hero, libertine and fantasist, he was the proto-fascist manifestation of that strand in Italian life that flourished under Mussolini (whom D'Annunzio despised). But he was also a European phenomenon. James Joyce compared him to Flaubert, Kipling and Tolstoy. Hughes-Hallett has previously written about heroes and supermen. D'Annunzio is the subject for which she has long been in rehearsal.

Small, self-obsessed, with very bad teeth, D'Annunzio is not an appealing character. His treatment of those close to him was shocking. His ideas were ridiculous. Hughes-Hallett justifies her interest by claiming, perhaps correctly, that D'Annunzio's story illustrates how the glorious classical past can lead to the jackboot and the fascist manganello.

D'Annunzio was also obsessed with sex and with the smell, taste, texture, and sensation of his lovers' bodies. His letters are replete with detail which Hughes-Hallett, who revels in sensuality, has mined voraciously. The Pike, an off-putting title, is nevertheless a rich, voluptuous treat. She rightly says her subject is "half-beast, half-god". Confronted with an unreliable subject she has adopted a method more common to novels than biographies. The result is a triumph, the biography of the year.

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