Housekeeping note: as I said recently, I’m concerned about how I review books by living authors. This is a non-fiction book so the example isn’t entirely applicable, but I’ve tried to go about the review in a different sort of way, with a far stricter focus on the objective and a more direct and less detailed examination of my own feelings. Hope it’s useful.
What is this book?
A humourous non-fiction (but anecdotal, so probably not entirely reliable) collection of 101 stories about meetings between famous people, mostly within the twentieth century. Each story is exactly 1001 words, and the stories together form a loop – X meets Y in one chapter, then Y meets Z, then Z meets A, then A meets B, and so on all the back round to X (who in this case, inevitably, is Adolf Hitler). Each event is supposedly a real occurance, as described by one or more witnesses – the source texts are all listed in an appendix, and at times when there is particular disagreement on the facts, the author sometimes allows us to contrast two conflicting accounts.
What is this book good for?
The chief virtue of the book, it seems to me, is its humour. Although Brown’s reputation is as a fairly bitting satirist, his book doesn’t seem to be written as flat-out comedy – he puts the facts, and the people, ahead of the humour – but he does write with an amusingly wry tone and has a great eye for absurdity and irony. It’s also an informative book – although it doesn’t give much in the way of explicit history lessons (which sometimes I regretted, as my knowledge of 20th century celebrities is not always the best), it does round the reader’s understanding of eras by showing us the people that the names represent, and how they acted in the company of other celebrities, as well as being a treasure-trove of amusing anecdote and little-known fact. The book is at its best, however, when making use of its structure to maximum effect, contrasting how differently a person acts in two different meetings (an avuncular old Kipling vs the young Kipling come for the blessing of an old Mark Twain, for instance, or the modesty and indecision of the young and beautiful Isadora Duncan, who, despite both general libido and individual attraction, loses her nerve at the last minute and fails to lose her virginity to Rodin, vs the plump and middle-aged Isadora Duncan, who walks around town in a scarlet negligee, picking up sailors from the docks in between her affairs with lesbian poets, and who is described by another well-travelled lady as ‘a great flowing river through which the traffic of the world could pass’ (she starts a foodfight at a birthday party MCed by Jean Cocteau, initiated by her refusal to undrape herself from the seventeen-year-old birthday boy)), or how similarly (the echoes between the murder trial of Phil Spector and his behaviour with Leonard Cohen thirty years before), or when emphasising the parallels between different meetings (in one excellent sequence, we skip back through time, as young Salinger meets Hemingway, before young Hemingway meets Ford Maddox Ford, and then young Ford meets Oscar Wilde).
The range of celebrities covered is broad – there are many musicians (from Jagger to Tchaikowsky), some film stars, authors, politicians (I particularly liked Stalin’s meeting with HG Wells and his visit to the deathbed of Maxim Gorky), artists, a philosopher (Lord Russell crashes a bicycle into George Bernard Shaw in the 19th century, and slides a hand up the thigh of a young actress in the 1960s) and some people known primarily as recorders of other people’s celebrity (the diarist Cecil Beaton, for instance, or celebrity interviewer Simon Dee) – and the time-span is similarly expansive, as is the tone of the incidents (Tom Driberg’s comically direct lechery, for instance, is a very different read from Stalin’s pleasant menace as he hands out candy, or the pathos of the collapse of Dee’s career, or the uplifting story of Martha Graham showing the blind Helen Keller the joys of dancing, or the horror of Prince Youssapoff murdering Rasputin). As a result, most readers should find something here to fit their tastes.
What problems does the book have?
The structure is inherently arbitrary, so there is little sense of direction, and frequently I was more interested in the footnotes and the glimpses of alternative directions than I was by the path the book actually took. I was disappointed more use was not made of the potential of the structure – too many people who lived long lives were shown in two meetings only months or a few years apart, and I’d have prefered more attempts to link stories up with overarching themes (as was done a few times, but not often). Long sequences were spent rattling around small sounding-chambers of closely-related figures (particularly the 1960s counterculture), when I’d have prefered more startling, long-range connections.
Also, although I did learn a lot more about the people of yesteryear, I mostly learned that they were completely obsessed with, and to modern ears shockingly open about, sex. Often this is funny; sometimes, as when Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin (both of whom have just released their first album) meet in a hotel elevator and spend the night together (she is making the most of her sudden fame, and has already slept with Jim Morrison and Jimmy Hendrix so far that autumn), this can seem tragic (Joplin dies of a drug overdose three years later, prompting Cohen to write a song about the incident). Often it’s a valuable counterbalance to the prim and marble images we have of the past – when in reality the Chelsea Hotel of 1967, in which Janis Joplin offers herself to men in elevators, is little different from the Garden of Allah in 1931, where Tallulah Bankhead strolls stark naked around the pool. And yet, taking the book as a whole, sometimes I just wished that these people could get on with, I don’t know, writing novels or ruling the world or something? It’s not that I’m a prude (I don’t mind admitting I quite enjoyed the titillating anecdotes, which are told with a refreshing absence of both prurience and prudery – the sex (like the drugs) is largely presented as a wholesome and natural thing, albeit sometimes not always healthy for some individuals who grow too dependent on it), and really the point I’m making isn’t actually about the sex. It’s more that in stripping back the celebrities to the ‘real people’ within, we tend to find that they’re all pretty similar, and rarely inspiring. Perhaps it’s just prejudice, but I particularly found the procession of mid-twentieth-century counterculture pop figures to be entirely lacking in depth or interest as people, and was constantly longing for more Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, or, yes, even Stalin – people whose ‘genius’ was the product of really interesting psychologies. It’s not bad of course, per se, to show that many celebrities are perfectly ordinary people, but the dreary similarity of everybody becomes a bit monotonous.
For all these reasons, while I thoroughly enjoyed the book as a whole, I think it’s probably best suited to be read chapter at a time, rather than en masse. That way, the similarities and lack of direction would not be so distracting.
Pleasantly amusing, mildly interesting. A bit formless, and if you read a large chunk in one go you may find it becoming quite repetitive.
I’m not going to give the scores I normally do, because this isn’t a fiction book, and I don’t think it makes sense to evaluate it as one. I think that I’m going to give non-fiction books a mark out of eight – up to four marks for reading pleasure and up to four marks for informative or thought-provoking content.
Reading Pleasure: 3/4. Generally amusing throughout, generally well-written, and occasionally extremely funny, while now and then being emotional. A fun book.
Information and Provocation: 2/4. Not a lot of depth or context, and almost entirely anecdotal, but if you’re interested in modern lives there are a lot of interesting details here, and from time to time provoking some thoughts.
Overall: 5/8. A book I’m glad I read, and enjoyed reading. I’m not sure I’ll read it again, but I’m pretty sure I’ll refer to it again to remind myself what so-and-so said to such-and-such – and I may choose to dip into it occasionally in future to read a chapter here and there. Particular kudos to the author for the conceit, which is in its own right a brilliant idea.