Christmas books 2018: biography – the good, bad and the ugly

Royal biographer Tom Bower
Royal biographer Tom Bower Credit: Reuters/Reuters

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There was a time when, barring the odd unreliable memoir or experimental novel, the category of fiction felt clearly distinct from the category of biography. Novels were about imaginary people, and biographies tended to be cradle-to-grave life stories of a formidable length.

Now it's all muddied up. Novelists have become more like memoirists, writing books narrated by characters who share their name, like Michael Chabon's Moonglow, or even their life story, as in Karl Ove Knausgaard's autofictional epic series My Struggle. And since most of the cradle-to-grave lives we might conceivably want to read have already been written, biographers need more artful ways to dish up their material - either a new cross-section through a life, or an untried combination of characters. In other words, they've been forced to learn a trick or two from the novelists.

To add to the confusion, some of the year's best memoirs were written by off-duty novelists. Outstanding was The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton, £12.99), a miraculous little book, the second instalment of her "living autobiography", in which she picks apart the strange business of ending a marriage and starting a new life at the age of 50, avoiding the script of self-pity laid out for women like her and instead savouring her "walk through the black and bluish darkness" of it all.

Each sentence is exquisite, but not in an insipid way. "To separate from love is to live a risk-free life. What's the point of that sort of life? [...] I stopped by the fountain, only to find it had been switched off. A sign from the council read, This fountain has been winterized. I reckoned that is what had happened to me too." Over the last decade, new books as a rule have become noticeably woollier. Levy's crispness is a reminder that it doesn't have to be that way.

More baggy and bitty, but still enjoyable, is Pops by Michael Chabon (Fourth Estate, £10). In these assorted pieces of journalism about parenting, his voice is a pleasure to hear, as he recounts, for instance, how becoming a father made him realise his capacity for damage. When one daughter, aged 14, gets an "out-there" haircut, she asks how it looks. Distracted, he takes a few seconds to click into action. "'Beautiful,' I told her, but I knew it was too late: she had a crack in her now, fine as a hair but like all cracks irreversible."

Rose Tremain, author Credit: Clara Molden/The Telegraph

A surprising disappointment was Rosie (Chatto & Windus, £14.99) by the usually excellent Rose Tremain. The early part, nostalgic to the point of fruitiness, records childhood in an Edenic Hampshire, until her cold mother sent her to boarding school, where she was underfed. The trouble is, she overdoes the upper-middle-class self-pity. Of her own mother's homesickness at boarding school before the war, Tremain writes: "Surely Charles Dickens in his blacking factory can scarcely have been more miserable than my mother was at this young age."

If only Tremain had waited for Christie Watson's The Language of Kindness (Chatto & Windus, £14.99), the novelist's memoir of her years as an NHS nurse, and a masterclass in how to count your blessings when really you feel like crying, or Dave Eggers's rags-to-riches tale The Monk of Mokha (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99), a biography of Mokhtar, raised in a rough bit of San Francisco, who braved a civil war in his native Yemen to make a business selling Yemeni coffee to Americans. Eggers's tacit aim - of presenting the American dream embodied by a Muslim - is noble, but the writing lacks the sparkle of his novels.

Christie Watson, author Credit:  John Lawrence/ John Lawrence

A pair of mammoth books completed the publication of two poets' entire correspondence. There was, unhappily, more in the way of drama in The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume II: 1956-1963 (Faber, £35), written in the last seven years of her short life, compared to the astonishing uneventfulness of Larkin's, as recorded in his Letters Home: 1936-1977 (Faber, £40). But both books give us a covetable feeling of intimacy with two poets who, for all their differences, had in common a complete command of the language, observational brilliance, an allergy to pretension and great personal charm.

Patrick Leigh Fermorhad three of these four qualities, and the occasional pretentiousness of his voice in his books is quite absent from his private correspondence, a second trove of which has been collected by Adam Sisman in More Dashing (Bloomsbury, £30). (One letter ends, characteristically, "with many anaconda hugs".)

Patrick Leigh Fermor Credit: Ulf Anderson/Getty Images

The curio of No Place to Lay One's Head by Françoise Frenkel (Pushkin, £16.99) - a 1945 memoir, recently unearthed in a jumble sale in Nice - is gripping for different reasons. We know little about Frenkel, a Jewish woman of Polish extraction, beyond what she tells us here of years living under the radar in occupied France. There is a gritty, informational appeal to learning precisely how the Nazis stifled her thriving bookshop in Berlin; the dwindling possessions she shunted around France; how she made her attempted escapesadam s

Agnès Poirier's Left Bank (Bloomsbury, £25) uses a wide-angle lens rather than Frenkel's extreme close-up to look at France's wartime experience, and postwar moral reckoning. The cast - Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, James Baldwin, Picasso, Miles Davis and many others - all wash up on the Left Bank of Paris, but Poirier keeps her book broader than its title, and the result (despite a bad introduction about "life-changing synergy") is one of the most entertaining of the year. We learn that Sartre's Being and Nothingness sold unexpectedly well in 1943, especially to housewives. "Since the book weighed exactly one kilogram, people were simply using it as a weight, as the usual copper weights had disappeared to be sold on the black market."

If it was a golden year for anything, it was for group biographies of bohemians. Martin Gayford's Modernists and Mavericks (Thames & Hudson, £24.95) took us from the Second World War to the Seventies, arguing (perhaps not successfully) for "a London School" in painting. As a portrait of the city, it is superb: we see Lucian Freud, in a condemned mews, bribing the demolition men with bottles of whisky to give him two extra days to finish his painting.

Martin Gayford, art critic Credit: Andrew Crowley

Christopher Howse's extremely funny memoir Soho in the Eighties (Bloomsbury, £20) shows us Francis Bacon late in life, in the Colony Room, with the proprietor Ian Board belabouring him with an umbrella, yelling "You can't f------ paint!" Board, who wouldn't serve lemon in drinks because he was too lazy to buy them and once told a woman with a crying baby to "Chuck the f------ thing out of the window", is just a minor exhibit in this "menagerie of monsters".

Bacon crops up in The Lives of the Surrealists (Thames & Hudson, £24.95), 32 idiosyncratic potted biographies by Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape, himself a surrealist painter who exhibited with Joan Miró in 1950. You can sense Morris's scientific brain (he parses surrealism into five strands, the usual two being insufficient for him) as well as his long training in television, which leads him to give such ample room to matters of the heart that his book could also have been called "The Affairs of the Surrealists". Diane Atkinson also used Plutarchian miniatures in Rise Up, Women! (Bloomsbury, £30), a visceral encyclopedia of those who fought for women's suffrage.

Royalists were well supplied this year, if not in quality, then at least in quantity. There were no fewer than two books by Andrew Morton - Wallis in Love and Meghan: A Hollywood Princess (both Michael O'Mara, £20), a feast of banalities; Tom Bower's catty biography of Prince Charles, Rebel Prince (William Collins, £20); and Robert Hardman's much more warm-hearted Queen of the World (Cornerstone, £25), drawing on interviews with the Royal family and household, who recall Nelson Mandela greeting the Queen with the cry: "Elizabeth, you've lost weight!

Queen Elizabeth II and Nelson Mandela Credit: Simon Kreitem/Reuters

For a fresh look at a much-mythologised woman, try People Like Us: Margaret Thatcher and Me (Biteback, £20) by Caroline Slocock, Mrs Thatcher's private secretary for her last 18 months in office. Although she did not agree with her boss politically, Slocock came to admire her profoundly, and asks why this trailblazing woman in power was sentenced by feminists of her day to "a kind of sexual excommunication".

Tyrannical social expectations were also a theme of Lara Feigel's Free Woman (Bloomsbury, £20). Partly a study of Doris Lessing, partly a brave confessional, it is too glib about Lessing's abandonment of her two older children, and it overstays its welcome. As Orson Welles put it: "If you want a happy ending, it depends on where you stop the story." The same goes if a writer wants a happy reader.

Laura Freeman's The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite (W&N, £16.99), about life as a recovering anorexic, also goes on a bit too long, but the reader is left sharing her hunger for "crumbling saffron buns on a walk with Laurie Lee" or "stirring whole milk into my porridge with the Swallows and Amazons". She nails the tonic effect of reading: "Stoke your appetite for new stories, pictures, landscapes," writes Freeman, "and the other appetites - for food, for friends, for life – will follow."