Adventures in non-fiction

14 Jul

For a long time, my reading habits were strictly limited to the fictional. At school, I was a literature boffin, rather than history or science, and in order to stay one, ravenous reading of the classics was required. There were a couple of strays; our wonderful English teacher, Mr F,  frequently pushed our texts beyond the bog- standard curriculum. During sixth form, we were introduced to Freud and  D.W. Winnicott and I remember attempting to read the whole of George Steiner’s After Babel, as well Stephen Pinker’s The Language Instinct. I did not succeed. My earliest forays into non-fiction included the Vagina Monologues and the Sexual Diary of Catherine M, which looking back, make me seem rather one-track minded in my interests, a bit like Catherine M.

I branched out a bit at university, although mainly reading for my studies. I was astounded to find that The Road to Wigan Pier, despite being about the coal industry and miner’s living conditions, was a fascinating read. A testament to Orwell’s impassioned yet clear prose. When I started my Art History masters, I figured I should give Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World a read, in order to get me up to speed the contemporary art scene. I was surprised it so readable – the short sections, packed with interviews, had an informal feel that made it seem like a light read, despite covering such a vast range of topics.

But while I was flirting with the non-fiction genre, the majority of my reading was fiction-based. I began to experiment with the transgressive, genre-straddling fictionalised biography. My first was The Pornographer of Vienna, a great read that covered the life of Austrian painter Egon Schiele; his worship of Klimt and his obsessive relationship with his sister. Bret Easton Ellis’ Lunar Park billed itself as a biography, but I quickly realised it wasn’t when things started getting weird, and creepy. Another bio-fic book (that’s right, I just coined that. I think.) that I recently enjoyed was Paula Mclain’s The Paris Wife, about Hadley Hemingway, Ernest’s first wife. With Ezra Pound and Scott Fitzgerald making regular appearances, it painted a vivid picture of Paris during the turbulent Lost Generation years.

But somehow, non-fiction took hold of me. I think Patti Smith’s Just Kids was the game-changer for me. Not only was her writing down to earth and emotionally resonant, but the New York music and art scene blazed through the page into reality. CBGB’s, Warhol’s Factory, Smith and Mapplethorpe’s studios… I became enchanted by all these places and the stories that unfolded within them. Now I find myself just thinking of people whose biographies I can read. Jean-Paul Sartre; Simone de Beauvoir; Jackson Pollock; Carson McCullers… and I’m still going with Ginsberg: Beat Poet by Barry Miles. Of those that I have enjoyed, their common thread tends to be the portrayal of a scene, usually an arty-farty one. This was why I enjoyed Minor Characters, by Kerouac’s one-time girlfriend, Joyce Johnson. It had that New Yorky feel, and like Just Kids, was very much grounded in the gritty East Village, albeit ten year earlier. This makes my current choice, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon, a rather big step. It’s quite scholarly, and well beyond my usual terrain; 16th century Italy rather than 20th century America or Britain. I’ll have to pace myself.


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