Alec Ash, a journalist for the internet magazine, The Browser, recently asked me to pick five biographies, and I decided to choose ones that push the boundaries of the genre. http://thebrowser.com/interviews/lyndall-gordon-on-biographies
What made me fall in love with books was the flair of my mother, Rhoda, in reading aloud to her children growing up in Cape Town. She read Katherine Mansfield’s New Zealand stories, where the children lead lives like ours at the Cape and, reading dramatically – taking multiple roles - the whole of 'A Tale of Two Cities' in a room darkened against the sun when I had measles.
That year, aged eleven, I objected to her bedtime choice of 'Treasure Island'.
‘It’s a boy’s book.’
‘You don’t have to listen’, she countered.
Crossly, I stamped out of the room and banged the door against the sight of her and my brother under the lamplight. Her voice carried faintly into the passage, as sinister Long John Silver arrived on the scene. It was so compelling that, though I was too stubborn to give in, I tiptoed to the door and stood with my ear pressed against it.
So, in childhood, I heard the pulse of language: the throb of the Dickens sentence (‘It is a far, far better thing...’); the humorous pathos of Afrikaans phasing in the folk life of the veld in 'The Little Karoo' by Pauline Smith, which Rhoda pronounced with the intonations of a native speaker (she grew up in Klawer on the edge of Namaqualand), pausing to recall the country-folk of her own childhood; and I heard too the arduous plod of Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’ – that spiritual journey like Rhoda’s own. She taught me how to see and feel; my perceptions are in truth hers.
I have particularly enjoyed Alice Mattison's novel Hilda and Pearl about two Jewish sisters of her mother's generation, putting the domestic affections at the centre of existence - as I feel they should be rather than the horrors of aggression and power - and her interlinked stories of a Jewish family in Brooklyn, In Case We're Separated. The latter has been chosen by The New York Times as one of a hundred most notable books of the year. At the Edinburgh Festival in August, I picked up Candia McWilliam's novel, A Little Stranger, an absorbing read, drawing us into a relationship between a pregnant woman who is eating compulsively and a too-perfect nanny. McWilliam's extraordinarily fertile vocabulary brings out the nuances of strange situations. After that I read her stories with the same intent pleasure in her siftings of character in distinctive Scottish settings. Lynn Freed's collection of autobiographical essays about Leaving Home, published by Harcourt, my favourite being the trauma of a schoolgirl from South Africa who comes to America on a field service scholarship and, being Jewish, is assigned to a Jewish family whose tastes and habits are totally incompatible with those of her own literate theatre family back in Durban: I loved Lynn's treatment of this hilarious mismatch, but more important is the deep, bonding subject of expatriation.
"You wouldn't last a day", my daughters used to assure me. They were referring to an adversarial tone - scoring and bullying - at an Oxford girls' school fixated on results. Reading my mother's letters, I am struck by the tone of women's friendship in the 1930s, when young women, breaking with the habits of their mothers, were venturing into the professions. As I read, I contrast the expressive love of Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain with the fifties' style of supportive intimacy (a girls' world preserved at school and distinct from our destined gender roles) as I was growing up in Cape Town. This expressive love has a fearless sound - less heard now because the boundaries between love and friendship are perhaps too distinct.
I interviewed Elinor Sisulu in Birmingham as part of an "African Visions" tour of England. She has published a biography of her parents-in-law, Walter and Albertina Sisulu (Abacus). As a South African, I'd known them as heroes of the Struggle; what I didn't know was Sisulu's domestic tenderness - his capacity to listen, rare in political leaders - a capacity sadly lacking in the disastrous wars of Blair, Bush, Sharon, and those Muslims who turn the bodies of their young into weapons against innocents, calling it religion. In the brutal present-day contexts of Iraq and Sudan, it's heartening to learn of a man who could be gentle and modest as well as effective. I asked Elinor Sisulu about her decision to do a dual biography - to include a wife along with a more famous husband. Instead of the expected feminist reply, she said that the marriage had survived all those years of Walter's imprisonment (alongside Mandela at Robbin Island) because of his extraordinarily loving character.
One of the most innovative biographies of the last three or four years has been invisible in bookshops, despite outstanding reviews: Reading Chekhov by Janet Malcolm. It shows the work growing out of the Russian landscapes. Chronology proves less important than forays into the inner life in its physical surroundings. Slid into the book is a critique of the genre: Malcolm shows up six biographers who give different versions of the facts of Chekhov's death. How slippery, how hard-won is truth.
The time scale that Alice Munro packs into her stories through flash-backs and startling flash-forwards have something of the pathos of Hardy who takes the reader close to an individual like Tess, and then shocks you with a long-shot of two girls crawling like flies across a grey landscape --motes in creation. Munro gives us this continuum of existence, its humanity and tragedy. Her stories are unlike others because their extended time-scale - the scope for characters to develop over time - packs the experience of reading a novel into a short space.
Katherine Mansfield, The Montana Stories from Persephone Press: puts together, in chronological order, the great stories of her last months. My favourite is the frieze of family scenes in her longer New Zealand story At the Bay, a sequel to Prelude. My mother, a devotee of Mansfield, read this story aloud when I was a child - a mirror of our own family: sporting father, dreaming mother, beside the sea.
Lynn Freed's collection from Harcourt, The Curse of the Appropriate Man. Praised discerningly in the New York Times. As South African expatriates at Columbia, Lynn and I met in a chilly Trilling seminar on Wordsworth in 1967 (described in Shared Lives). Freed's story of a Jewish girl arriving in New York and finding herself misplaced with a Jewish family, and then misplaced again with a WASP family, is a deliciously comic take on being new and alien in America.
My all-time favourite is Dr Johnson on Detractors. The most damage to reputation is done not by the "Roarers", nor even by more dangerous "Whisperers", but by that "most pernicious enemy", the "man of Moderation" - he who "discovers failings with unwillingness, and extenuates the faults which cannot be denied… Such are the arts by which the envious, the idle, the peevish, and the thoughtless, obstruct that worth which they cannot equal."
I delight in the honesty and self-mocking humour of New Yorker Phillip Lopate, have read every one of his essays, and wish there were more. All writers should read his essay on the stages by which an author becomes aware that his book is being killed by its publisher before publication.
I constantly reread Jane Austen, relishing her perfect ear for language.
Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart, by prize-winning poet (the Olive Schreiner award) and novelist, Finuala Dowling, is a delightfully comic and rueful story of a night-time radio communicator who, in different ways by night and day, lends herself to other lives and carries them on. The epic heroism of the mother and carer is sung at last, and without bravado. A wonderful flair for the absurdities of dialogue, especially the self-absorption of unpromising men on blind dates. I finished this novel sorry to stop living with these characters. This novel is as great as the author's previous novel, Flyleaf, where we see through the experience of a divorced and struggling language teacher the impact of words on our lives.
Zakes Mda, The Madonna of Excelsior (Oxford/ Farrar Straus). A novel based on an incident in 1971 in a South African dorp. Under the notorious laws of apartheid, leading citizens were charged in court with "immorality" - sleeping with local black women who worked as servants in their homes. This novel transcends its sensational origins; it celebrates an African tradition of generosity and mutual support - offering a vision of hope for the new South Africa in the face of political corruption and the neglected ravages of AIDS.
Anne Tyler is always perceptive about people on the margins, wives in particular, as in my favourites amongst her novels: Breathing Lessons and The Ladder of Years.
Maggie Gee, The Flood (London: Saqi) Brilliant interplay of urban reality and apocalyptic allegory. Stands out as a daring, ambitious book.
Anita Brookner, Rules of Engagement. I like the Jamesian intentness on states of mind; the steady gravity; the elegant prose, an instrument for cumulative awareness.
A little boast: Persephone books took up my suggestion that they reprint Hilda Bernstein's domestic memoir of a woman's political life at the height of apartheid, The World that Was Ours. It's published (2004) with a new foreword by the author, bringing out what she and other determined women achieved, through protest in prison, during the Treason Trials of the late fifties. A review by Albie Sachs notes how well this book endures to speak to a new generation. The fact is Hilda Bernstein can write. Her calibre reminds me what Eliot said: there's no substitute for being very intelligent.
There has been a surge of memoirs on the impact of the holocaust on the second generation: I admired Eva Hoffman, After Such Knowledge. Deep, enlightening, eloquent. I was gripped too by Lisa Appignanesi's portrait of her mother, a Jew who passed as Polish and used this advantage with extraordinary instinct and daring to preserve her family throughout the war.
Susan Cheever, Treetops (Washington Square Press). Great-grandfather (co-inventor of the telephone), grandfather (founder of the Yale School of Medicine), and father (the writer) were achievers; their promising wives were sidelined by domesticity - it's the wives' and daughters' stories that tell here, narrated with matter-of-fact restraint. That control of tone is especially admirable when it comes to the sexual humiliations and damage of Susan's aunts as girls when the Whitneys enter the family.
At night, when I can't sleep for thinking about the fate of books, it's cheering to read Pope's "Essay on Criticism" (1711) with its distilled judgement - What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd.
Isobel Dixon looks at creatures with a dazzling, playful eloquence in The Tempest Prognosticator. Her 'Postcard from the Colonies', playing out an image of a monkey with the face of one-time foreign minister, Malcolm Rivkind, is haunted by the contours of the Africa colonials encountered and imprinted with their weird ways. It recalls the first poem of hers I read, a surreal, intrepid swim from England to South Africa, which spoke to me strongly of expatriate separation and dreaming. I loved too the tenderness of 'Meet My Father' in a previous collection, A Fold in the Map.
The unpublished poems of Faith Williams, a school librarian in Washington DC, blend the largest issues with domestic life in a quirky, edgy, humorous way that's reminiscent of Emily Dickinson.
Kieron Winn: unpublished collection - unafraid of the big subjects. A refreshing contrast to a stale fashion for small ironies.
Rhoda Press - unpublished. My mother's visionary poems, a spiritual journey emanating from illness and the African landscape.