On the Bookshelf
Muriel Spark, Liz Claiborne, Herman Wouk, and more
Celebrities with outsize personalities may make the people around them miserable, but, God bless ’em, they keep biographers in business. In Muriel Spark: The Biography (Norton, April), literary scholar and Evelyn Waugh biographer Martin Stannard describes the celebrated author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as an eternal exile: “She belonged nowhere, was determined to belong nowhere and to no one.” Her Jewish father, Barney Camberg, worked in an Edinburgh rubber factory and married a woman who had been raised Christian but was willing to wed him in a synagogue. Their daughter felt ambivalent about her half-Jewishness, at best: She famously converted to Catholicism, for one thing, and also refused to attend her own son’s bar mitzvah ceremony—though she paid for it, with money won in a newspaper’s Christmas short-story contest.
Like Spark’s father, Art Ortenberg also married a non-Jewish woman, a young comer in the garment trade like himself. In 1976, 19 years into their marriage, they established their own company and named it after her, rather than him. Within a decade, Liz Claiborne Inc.’s annual revenues topped $800 million. Ortenberg offers a biographical treatment of his wife in Liz Claiborne: The Legend, the Woman (Taylor, April), covering everything from her impact on the fashion industry to her ultimately unsuccessful battle against cancer.
The man born Leo Krausz in 1907 in Trieste lived one of those astonishingly cosmopolitan 20th-century lives, as Jean-Paul Sartre biographer Annie Cohen-Solal makes clear in Leo & His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli (Knopf, May). Raised in luxury in Central Europe, in a family of Jewish merchants and bankers, Castelli distinguished himself as a snappy dresser in interwar Bucharest while earning his keep as an insurance salesman. He married well, immigrated to the U.S. in 1941, and returned to Europe as an American solider during World War II. In the decades after the war, he established himself as one of the most influential art dealers in New York, a major force in the development of postmodernism. Through his gallery, he fomented the movements of abstract expressionism, pop art, and minimalism and advanced the careers of Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jasper Johns, among many others.
Who knew that the world of theoretical physics could be every bit as contentious as that of art? In Manjit Kumar’s Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality (Norton, May), two of the most influential scientific minds in human history clash on the subject of quantum physics. Or, in other words, two nice Jewish boys who took home the Nobel Prize in Physics in consecutive years—both of whom would eventually hightail it out of Europe to escape from the Nazis—have a little spat about electrons and such. Kumar covers not just this controversy, but the other developments that led to quantum theory, featuring a broad range of famed physicists and their attempts to explain the universe.
If you can’t wrap your mind around the finer points of theoretical physics, you’re in good company: Herman Wouk, author of bestselling entertainments including Marjorie Morningstar and The Caine Mutiny, has not entirely figured it out, either, despite having physicist Richard Feynman attempt to explain it to him. (To be fair, Feynman is also on the record as having remarked, not unreasonably: “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”) In The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion (Little, Brown, April), Wouk recounts his many run-ins with scientists and his sense that an appreciation of secular knowledge need not undermine faith in God. Sure enough, at 95, Wouk still often studies a blatt of Talmud and has a taxi pick him up each morning to take him to shul.
In Neoconservatism: The Biography of a Movement (Harvard, May), Justin Vaïsse demonstrates that an ideology can have just as prickly a personality, and can be just as dynamic, as any celebrity. A Frenchman who serves as senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Vaïsse has written several studies of United States history; the new book, published in Paris in 2008 with the subtitle “le triumph de l’idéologie,” has been translated by the heroically industrious Arthur Goldhammer. Surveying not only the political and cultural contributions of icons Norman Podhoretz and William Kristol, but also less frequently discussed figures such as Eugene Rostow and Bayard Rustin, Vaïsse presents an influential and deeply polarizing set of intellectuals evenhandedly.
In this age of tell-all memoirs, one needn’t be terribly famous to justify publishing a book-length study of one’s experiences; one needs only to have lived through a gruesome enough tragedy to earn oneself a book deal. The poet Louise Nayer fits into the former category; when she was 4, her parents were disfigured in a fire, and in her new book, Burned: A Memoir (Atlas, April), she recounts the shock and lasting family trauma that resulted from that accident. Like Spark, Nayer was the product of an intermarriage—in her case of a couple of New Yorkers who sent her to the famed Little Red Schoolhouse in Greenwich Village as a kid—and she now calls herself “both Jewish and Christian.”
Another time-tested way to get a memoir published: hobnob with monsters and perpetrate unspeakable crimes and then write all about it. That worked for Otto Dietrich, a high-ranking Nazi functionary who composed his memoirs while serving the seven-year sentence meted out to him during the Nuremburg trials. His memoir, originally translated into English in 1955, returns to print as The Hitler I Knew: Memoirs of the Third Reich’s Press Chief (Skyhorse, May). Which goes to show, once again, that disturbing personalities do at least as much as sympathetic souls to keep the biography business going strong.
Frank Schiffman made the Apollo Theater into the premier venue for African American musicians