Being Prez: The Life and Music of Lester Young
by Dave Gelly (Oxford)
An innovative musician, accompanist extraordinaire, and proto-modern hipster, Lester Young remains a lesser light in the jazz firmament. Some of the reasons are obvious: although he dressed with conspicuous cool, he chose a spotlight-shunning artistic trajectory (he’s best known as a sideman, for Billie Holiday, Count Basie, and others), and he was shy, subtle, and sensitive—traits not usually associated with world- beating. Fortunately, Gelly puts everything in its proper place. Tracing an odd life and elusive legacy with exactitude, the British critic (and saxophonist) writes with a rare reserve—a concision and perception, really—that his subject would have appreciated. In so doing, Gelly shows his own modernist stripes: playing only the right notes, embracing contextual space, emphasizing the song above all else.
Nureyev: The Life
by Julie Kavanagh (Pantheon)
Anyone who’s read Julie Kavanagh’s dance criticism or her intuitive biography of the great British choreographer Frederick Ashton won’t be surprised at her ability to evoke the balletic artistry and physicality of Rudolf Nureyev. But the mercurial Russian superstar presents her with a much wilder character and a liberated libido far removed from Ashton’s closeted loucheness. Kavanagh proves as adept at writing about the netherworld of Manhattan’s leather sex temples, the Mineshaft and the Anvil, as about the rehearsal rooms and stages of Covent Garden. Never prurient, she has her biographical priorities straight, and so, in a way, she tells us, did Nureyev. “To Rudolf,” she writes, “sex was sex, and only dance warranted any form of consecration. ‘Stage is a cathedral,’ he once said, and morning class was his rite of purification.” Artistically this was undoubtedly true, for he remained a spellbinding performer for decades despite all the carousing painstakingly documented here. Sadly, however, that carousing undoubtedly led to his death from AIDS at 54, when he was apparently on the verge of beginning a new career as a conductor. Brilliantly analytical but consistently stylish and knowing, this is among the most satisfying biographies of the year.
Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life: The Public Years
by Charles Capper (Oxford)
The story used to be told that the dyspeptic Scotsman Thomas Carlyle, upon learning that the American bluestocking Margaret Fuller had declared, “I accept the Universe,” replied, “Gad!! she’d better.” But it turns out that their relationship was far more complicated than this lecture-room caricature suggests. Indeed, nearly everything we thought we knew about Fuller is more complicated and interesting than the books said. With the completion of Capper’s award-winning biography (the first volume appeared in 1992), our understanding of one of the most original and consequential “men of letters” in 19th-century America—this country’s first modern feminist—is as complete as the art of biography allows.
Swimming in a Sea of Death
by David Rieff (Simon & Schuster)
A devoted son writes a wrenching account of his mother’s determined but ultimately unsuccessful struggle against a hideous form of cancer. A recipe to move an audience, you’d think, but there’s an overarching sense of arrogance on the part of both writer and subject. Susan Sontag “came to being ill,” writes Rieff, “imbued with a profound sense of being the exception to every rule.” The way she flouted medical protocol, even when there were good reasons for it, becomes a cautionary tale about how not to behave in a terrible situation. Her actions led to suffering far more horrendous than it had to be. Sontag’s hubris was such that she seems to have believed that she would even be the exception to the universal human condition of death. Goethe harbored a similar belief, and although her talent wasn’t equal to his, her egotism was.