If you lack the stamina to slog through another 600-page fact-fest but retain a taste for biography and admire good writing, Penguin Books is publishing the ideal series for you. When Penguin first announced that they were launching the series, the volumes of which weigh in at 150-200 pages, a few curmudgeons were heard to mutter words like McBio. Au contraire. These little books read not as Reader's Digest summaries, but as thoughtful, extended essays by literary writers who understand their subjects. Both the subjects and their biographers are surprising.
Frequently they are an inspired match, as with the first two volumes, which came out in January Edmund White's Marcel Proust and Larry McMurtry's Crazy Horse. Any series of biographies is an acknowledgment of human diversity, and this one certainly celebrates it. Out this month are two more in the series, Peter Gay on Mozart and Garry Wills on St. Augustine. Later this year Penguin will publish Edna O'Brien's James Joyce and Jonathan Spence's Mao Zedong. Slated for the future, appearing at a rate of six per year, are such appealing combinations as Jane Smiley on Charles Dickens, Patricia Bosworth on Marlon Brando, Marshall Frady on Martin Luther King, Jr., and Karen Armstrong on the Buddha.
If you aren't familiar with the life of the author of Remembrance of Things Past, you'll be in for some surprises in Edmund White's Marcel Proust. Did you know that the asthmatic aesthete left his cork-lined fortress of solitude and challenged several men to duels when they dared to suggest in print what everyone already knew that he was a homosexual? White elegantly weaves an analysis of Proust's sex life into the many other strands that made him such a complicated figure, from illness and emotional dependency upon his mother to his natural historian's passion for dissecting every subspecies of class status. Meanwhile, at the opposite end of every kind of spectrum you can imagine, there is the life of Crazy Horse. Larry McMurtry, thoughtfully piecing together shards of a story, is quick to point out how little we really know about the man we call Crazy Horse. Still he recalls to life the ghostly, mythical figure that hangs over our memories of one of the great tragedies of American history, the relentless genocide that a solitary man was forced to battle and which ultimately killed him. Resisting the myths, yet first drawn to Crazy Horse because of them, McMurtry employs his vast knowledge of the era and his considerable narrative gifts in a curious performance, and an oddly moving one.
Peter Gay seems perfect to probe the mind of one of the great geniuses of Western music, and he does so with his usual expertise and style in Mozart. The life of Mozart, he begins, is the triumph of genius over precociousness. Who would not keep reading after that gauntlet of a first sentence? Along the way Gay reevaluates the influence of Wolfgang's famously tyrannical father. Historian Garry Wills looks a bit farther back into history than usual with his St. Augustine. Naturally the ever contentious Wills questions some of the standard myths of Augustine's life, such as his early sexual excesses. His combined analysis of the man, the leader, and the writer is fascinating. The Penguin Lives series is off to an impressive start.
Michael Sims is the author of Darwin's Orchestra (Henry Holt).