The best of the year’s lives and letters

From The Guardian:

Shakespeare_main_2406463bWhat makes us curious to read about someone’s life? Hype is not always enough. Much of the noise surrounding the launch of Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton (Cape, £25) was the sound of backfiring, after his American literary agent made any lorry driver, bookseller or newspaper editor liable to $250,000 damages should a copy of the book (which champions freedom of speech) fall into the public’s hands before publication day. Once free to buy it for themselves, only some 12,000 readers responded. And yet, under the blanket coverage, a fine book was struggling to get out – overlong maybe, but also funny and painful.

Of course, it helps if the memoirist has a good enemy. Edna O’Brien’s Country Girl (Faber, £20) charts her escape from a succession of foes just as unyielding as the Ayatollah. First, the Virgin Mary – O’Brien was briefly in a convent; then her birthplace, Ireland, where she dug herself a “pestiferous, vile, slime-ridden pool of transgression”; then marriage, to a jealous rival who snarls: “You can write and I can never forgive you.” The early sections smack of the gilt-edged pages of O’Brien’s religious treasury. Words run away with her as she elopes with lover after hectic lover, and enters “the carnivore world of celebrity” on the arm of actors such as Richard Burton, whose diaries (The Richard Burton Diaries, Yale, £25, edited by Chris Williams) curiously omit their “mesmerised” encounters. But her account of bringing up two boys is extraordinarily affecting, and her understanding of the mystery of writing seems spot on: “It comes out of afflictions, out of the gouged times, when the heart is cut open.”

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