Reading List September 2004

Mirror, Mirror

Astonishing memoirs by (and about) deeply repellent people

Liber Amoris: or, The New Pygmalion, by William Hazlitt (1823).
The hilariously squalid (and strangely affecting) record of the great nineteenth-century critic's erotic obsession with his landlady's daughter. Mother and daughter conspired to milk him for everything they could get. No one has written better about falling catastrophically in love with someone you know is completely unworthy of you.

A Disgraceful Affair: Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Bianca Lamblin, by Bianca Lamblin (1996).
A Jamesian parable set among Left Bank glitterati. Though not ostensibly written "out of revenge or retaliation," Lamblin's book is in fact a sapphic J'accuse! directed at Simone de Beauvoir. In the late 1930s, when Lamblin was a mixed-up lycée student, the Turbaned One seduced her ("both intellectually and sexually") and then handed her off—with breathtaking nonchalance—to her lover Sartre. He was just as vile, and not much to look at either. Quel bordel!

A Madman's Manifesto, by August Strindberg (1895). Strindberg intended this scabrous roman à clef about his tormented marriage to the actress and feminist Siri von Essen to serve as a suicide note. He got cold feet about killing himself but decided to humiliate her anyway by publishing this devil's banquet of unseemly allegations. (He accused Von Essen of promiscuity, drunkenness, and lesbianism.) A more loathsome yet absorbing example of misogynistic dementia would be hard to find.

Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper, by Art and Laurie Pepper (1979).
An American genius going down the toilet. Some think Pepper the greatest jazz saxophonist after Charlie Parker. His chronicle (dictated to his last wife) of thievery, heroin addiction, balling dumb chicks, and serving five years in San Quentin is a rhapsodic riff on self-destruction. It is also one of the greatest, saddest autobiographies ever written.

Forgotten Fatherland: The Search for Elisabeth Nietzsche, by Ben Macintyre (1992).
The intrepid Macintyre took a boat trip into the Paraguayan jungle in 1991 in search of the surviving inhabi-tants of Nueva Germania—an abortive "Aryan" colony founded in the late nineteenth century by the ghastly Elisabeth Nietzsche, racist sister of the philosopher. He found a weird village of unreconstructed white supremacists—inbred, half mad, many of them still speaking a kind of zombie German—and heard some curious and frightening stories about Josef Mengele. A true-life Heart of Darkness.

Presented by

Terry Castle is a professor of English at Stanford University. Her books include Noël Coward & Radclyffe Hall: Kindred Spirits (1996) and Boss Ladies, Watch Out!: Essays on Women, Sex, and Writing (2002).

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