Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Jane Austen's facts and figures – in charts

by Adam Frost, Jim Kynvin & Amy Watt


July 18, 2017

Two hundred years after her death, readers are still enchanted by her novels. Adam Frost, Jim Kynvin and Amy Watt do the maths on her enduring appeal.


Monday, July 17, 2017

Jane Austen's on the new tenner – but her influence spreads far wider than that

by David Barnett


July 17, 2018

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a beloved writer celebrating a notable anniversary must be in want of a news feature.

But where to begin with Jane Austen? Died 200 years ago today, aged just 41; author of six major novels (Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Emma and Persuasion); combined Regency grace with biting social commentary; insanely popular the world over to this very day.

Why should we care, though, about this Oxford-educated daughter of a rector, swanning around in her long frocks and bonnets? What relevance does all this old literature have on our lives today? What, indeed, has Jane Austen ever done for us?

She’s on the new £10 note, which is released into the wild by the Bank of England today, the anniversary of her death, though it’s likely to be another couple of months before the new polymer tenner finds its way into your purse. Since Winston Churchill replaced Elizabeth Fry on the fiver, it means that Jane Austen – accompanied by a quote from Pride and Prejudice, “I declare after all there is no enjoyment but reading!” – will be the only woman apart from the Queen currently on British legal tender.


Sunday, July 16, 2017

Jane Austen's Novels

Jane Austen (1775-1817)

Sense and Sensibility (1811)
Pride and Prejudice (1813)
Mansfield Park (1814)
Emma (1815)
Persuasion (1818, posthumous)
Northanger Abbey (1818, posthumous)
Lady Susan (1871, posthumous)

Jane Austen Wasn’t Shy

by Devoney Looser

New York Times

July 15, 2017

It is a fiction that should be universally acknowledged: The old yarn that Jane Austen hid her writing, and was reluctant to claim credit for it, is an improbable story based on flimsy evidence. “Private,” “secret,” “mysterious” and “hidden” stick to her legacy like a wet white shirt on Colin Firth’s torso. In this, the bicentennial of her death, it’s time we tossed them out.

Interest in Austen is once again waxing, with devotees organizing celebrations of her fiction, life and legacy on almost every continent as the 200th anniversary of her death on July 18 approaches. It’s no wonder. She’s one of the best (and for some, the best — period) of our classic novelists. She’s among the most revered authors writing in English who also happens to be female.

Whether or not you think calling her a woman novelist is a good idea, her gender matters deeply. Austen was the female face selected for new British coins and bills, after feminist activists pressed for the change. In elementary schools, costumed Jane Austens are found alongside another inaccurately mythologized historical giant, George Washington, on ever-popular “impersonate a famous dead person” days. Children share the famous story of Austen’s hiding her writing, still included in many juvenile biographies, despite the fact that its status deserves to be downgraded to that of cherry tree chopping. The myth of a great woman writer’s overwhelming dread of being caught in the act of writing shouldn’t outlast a male president’s supposed childhood confession of hatcheting a tree.


Saturday, July 15, 2017

Which is the greatest Jane Austen novel?

by Margaret Drabble, Tessa Hadley, Hilary Mantel, Ian McEwan, Joyce Carol Oates, Claire Tomalin & Ahdaf Soueif


July 15, 2017

Hilary Mantel

Jack and Alice and other juvenilia

Charlotte Brontë did not like Jane Austen because she thought she was mimsy, with a fenced-in imagination. But the teenage Jane was ruthless, well read, exuberant and scathing. She understood the cult of sensibility, and sniggered at it. She parodied the gothic, long before she wrote Northanger Abbey: horrid secrets, fulminating infatuations, astonishing coincidences, catastrophic lapses of memory, road traffic accidents and the theft of £50 notes. Every “coroneted carriage” contains a long-lost relation. Orphaned babies – perfectly able to relate their sensational histories – are discovered in haystacks. In Henry and Eliza, two hungry children bite off their mother’s fingers.

If there is no logical connection between the actions of her early characters, it’s not because she’s child-like, it’s because she’s clever. She has understood that in genre fiction the conventions of the form overrule reason: so whenever the plot defeats itself, or the author loses interest, “Ah! what could we do but what we did! We sighed and fainted on the sofa.”

That is from Love and Freindship [sic], one of the longer stories. Some of the early ones are only a few lines long. But Jane’s shorthand is savage. No cliche goes unmolested. If her mature novels elicit a knowing smile, the juvenilia makes you laugh out loud. These squibs, remnants and broken stories, incised with glee between the ages of about 11 and 17, show how deep her art goes into her early life: and how aware she is already of the techniques and tropes that will later produce her popularity.

It’s as if she is mocking her own work before she’s done it. In The Visit, a short play, diners sit in each other’s laps for want of chairs, and the menu offers the absurdist version of supper with Mr Woodhouse in Emma. “Sir Arthur, taste that tripe. I think you will not find it amiss.”


See also

Thursday, July 13, 2017

In Jane Austen’s Pages, Death Has No Dominion

by Radhika Jones

New York Times

July 13, 2017

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen’s third novel, ends with the felicitous union of its heroine, Fanny Price, and her cousin Edmund Bertram, and so well deserved is their happiness that they might be forgiven for achieving it over someone’s dead body:
Equally formed for domestic life, and attached to country pleasures, their home was the home of affection and comfort; and to complete the picture of good, the acquisition of Mansfield living, by the death of Dr. Grant, occurred just after they had been married long enough to begin to want an increase of income and feel their distance from the paternal abode an inconvenience.
How ruthlessly Austen does it, sandwiching Dr. Grant’s last breath between the merits of Fanny’s and Edmund’s life — “country pleasures,” “affection and comfort,” “the picture of good” — and that pesky “inconvenience” of a lesser-paying job farther away from Mansfield Park than they would like. Dr. Grant exists to be dispensed with; in the end, he is nothing to Austen and her characters but an administrative hurdle. Death may have him, and he must suffer the indignity of being killed off in an aside in the novel’s penultimate sentence to boot.

The celebration of Austen this year, two centuries after her death at 41 on July 18, 1817, masquerades seamlessly as a celebration of her life, in part because she has proved immortal, and in part because as a writer she had so little time for mortality on the page. What was death to Jane Austen? We readers feel its inconvenience most acutely in material terms; had she lived longer she might have written six more novels, though the six she completed have amply sustained 200 years of entertainment, analysis, multimedia adaptation and, lately, zombie attack, which is more than one can say for Fanny Burney.

Austen covered sufferers of chronic illness: Mrs. Smith in Persuasion, Anne Elliot’s confidante, wise and infirm before her time; the invalids of Sanditon, Austen’s final, incomplete manuscript. She excelled at hypochondriacs: Mrs. Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice, with her nerves; Mr. Woodhouse, in Emma, ever vigilant against a chill. Nor were her characters deaf to the rumble of time’s winged chariot: Anne Elliot’s vain father, Sir Walter, entertains a theatrical horror of aging. To him, crows’ feet and sun-damaged skin spell social suicide, a fate worse than — well, you know.


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Jane Austen’s Stuff, and What We Learn From It

by Amy Bloom

New York Times

July 12, 2017

“Where shall I begin? Which of all my important nothings shall I tell you first?”
A letter from Jane Austen to her sister, Cassandra

“And a friend of mine, who visits her now says that … till ‘Pride and Prejudice’ showed us what a precious gem was hidden in that unbending case, she was no more regarded in society than a poker or a fire screen.”
A letter from Mary Russell Mitford to Sir William Elford, April 13, 1815

Jane Austen at Home is more than just an account of pokers, fire screens, writing desks, Jane’s round spectacles, handsome carriage sweeps in front of handsome houses, some very good and some very disappointing apple pies, the elm-lined walks of the Steventon rectory and the flimsy doors and uneven stairs of a rented house in Bath. But it’s not a great biography, and if it hadn’t been described as one on the cover, I would find even more to praise in these pages.

It may not be possible to spend days reading Jane Austen and reading about Jane Austen without writing phrases like “I would find even more to praise in these pages.”

Lucy Worsley is a British historian the way Julia Child was an American cook. She is history on the BBC. She’s been popularizing innumerable aspects of it on British television, everything from “If Walls Could Talk: The History of the Home,” “Dancing Through the Blitz,” “Empire of the Tsars” and “Mozart’s London Odyssey” to “Reins of Power: The Art of Horse Dancing.” This last program focuses on manège, the royal art of making horses dance, a subject she encountered while researching her Ph.D. thesis on William Cavendish. (The project is, in Worsley’s own words, “bonkers.”) She has done these shows with a bright, impish smile, a wealth of information and open delight in dressing up and re-enacting.


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Austen Legacy: Why and How We Love Her, What She Loved

by Jane Smiley

New York Times

July 11, 2017

Every few years, I reread a Jane Austen novel, and I’m not alone, according to Among the Janeites, Deborah Yaffe’s playful exploration of Austen obsession. In fact, if I were a true Janeite, I’d be handstitching my empire-waisted gown and perfecting my country dancing, and I’d enjoy it, as Yaffe does when she decides to go all out for a Jane Austen Society of North America (Jasna) convention. What I might not enjoy are the members’ competing opinions about who Jane was and what she would be thinking about every little issue, personal and political. And the Janeites are not all women: Yaffe interviews quite a few men. Perhaps the most peculiar is Arnie Perlstein, a conspiracy theorist convinced that Austen buried in her apparently conventional novels a “radical critique of 19th-century patriarchy” that he has “spent more than 15,000 completely uncompensated hours devising.” Other Janeites don’t need compensation. Among the most fascinating is Sandy Lerner, one of the founders of Cisco Systems who, along with her boyfriend-then-husband-now-ex-husband, gave you the router that allows you to sit up in bed and read this review on your computer screen. After Lerner sold her stake in Cisco, she bought and refurbished Chawton House, where Jane’s brother Edward Austen Knight lived, and where (in the nearby village of Chawton) Jane herself spent the last eight years of her life. Lerner then installed a large library of women’s literature written between 1600 and 1830 in Chawton House and opened it for study by students and scholars.

Yaffe’s tone is light but precise. Her “journey through the world of Jane Austen fandom” is amusing and sometimes mind-boggling. Every avid devotee has her or his very own Jane, whether secretly abused or coolly observant or a revolutionary in disguise. One fan Yaffe meets is the scholar Devoney Looser, author of The Making of Jane Austen. Looser goes to Jasna conferences and participates in Janeite projects, but what she’s really interested in is how the Jane Austen whose books were first published simply as “by a Lady” became the ubiquitous cultural presence she is today.

Looser begins by asserting that “she was not born, but rather became, Jane Austen,” which might have been a surprise to the Lady, given the self-confident wit and psychological perceptiveness of her novels. What Looser is actually after is what has led to Janeite-ism. To this end, she offers a good survey of the landscape of books in the 19th century: how they were presented to buyers and readers, how they were illustrated, which authors were popular and why. If the chapters on illustrators suffer, it’s only because Looser gives us too few examples to view. (She does point out that for much of the 19th century Austen’s characters were portrayed by illustrators as contemporaries of their readers; it wasn’t until roughly 70 years after Austen’s death that the characters depicted in the novels began wearing Regency gowns.)


Monday, July 10, 2017

A Jane Austen Fit for the Age of Brexit

by John Sutherland

New York Times

July 10, 2017

The year 2016 belonged to Shakespeare; 2017 is Jane Austen’s, the 200th anniversary of her premature death. Her face has been chosen to appear on Britain’s 10-pound note (the same amount she was first paid by a publisher). There has been, and will be, a spate of commemorative events, festivals and, of course, books like this. We are, as the witty television series put it, “Lost in Austen.”

Helena Kelly’s publisher got her kicks in early by scheduling the British release of her book last autumn. And kicks they are. Jane Austen: The Secret Radical sets out to raise hackles. As she asserts, almost everything we think we know about Jane Austen is wrong. There has been, according to Kelly, only one person who has ever read Jane Austen right. That would be Helena Kelly. Moreover, that unique reader is closer to “Jane” (as she chummily calls her) than anyone since Cassandra, the sister with whom Jane shared a bed. (“Was Jane Austen Gay?” asked Terry Castle in a mischievous essay on the subject of that sleeping arrangement. It too sparked ructions.)

Kelly’s chapters open with biographical fantasias of Jane’s stream of consciousness at key moments. Inwardness is the essence of the book — and bossiness. Kelly ends with the schoolmistress instruction: “Read Jane’s novels. … Read them again.” Perhaps, enlightened by her, we can do something about our failing grade.


Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Perennial Student

by Julian Bell

New York Review of Books

July 13, 2017

What is a shadow? Nothing in itself, you might say: a mere local lack of light, in a space that is otherwise lit up. Light, which allows us to see and know the world, is the normal precondition for picturing things. Cast shadows may help us interpret a picture by indicating where light comes from and where objects stand, but if you survey art history, you find the majority of painters giving them minor parts at most. A minority, however, turns these assumptions upside down, treating shadow as the preexistent condition and light as its shock interruption. If Giotto, Bruegel, or Courbet present worlds to be seen and known, the seventeenth-century masters of chiaroscuro and their nineteenth-century sympathizers—think Manet’s Olympia—forsake solid fact in favor of dazzle. But once you open up that second possibility, a third emerges. Take shadow and light as opposite ends of a scale, and the tonal notes lying between them offer a means to compose pictorial music. The landscapes of Claude Lorrain or of Jean-Baptiste Corot show ways that such music might be played.

The art of Camille Pissarro—the subject of two current exhibitions in Paris, one at the Musée Marmottan Monet and the other at the Musée du Luxembourg—was rooted in this third tradition. Presenting his credentials to the Paris Salon in 1864, the thirty-three-year-old described himself as a pupil of Corot, even if his personal contact with that father figure to French landscape painters had been slight. Six years later Pissarro encountered other ways of doing landscape after he and his friend Claude Monet fled to London during the Franco-Prussian War. But when an English critic, shortly before Pissarro’s death in 1903, claimed that English art had radically enlarged their vision, the veteran painter, by now himself a father figure, indignantly reiterated that Claude Lorrain and Corot had been his mentors, and that
Turner and Constable, while they taught us something, showed us in their works that they had no understanding of the analysis of shadow, which in Turner’s painting is simply used as an effect, a mere absence of light.
What, then, might a shadow be, if it is not to remain a mere “effect” or an “absence”? A Pissarro canvas from 1873 that is now on view at the Marmottan suggests a possible answer. Oil painting can turn shadows from nothings into palpable somethings: slabs of rich color. The gently rising Île-de-France farmland depicted in Hoar Frost (Gelée blanche à Ennery) becomes an intricate weaving of russets, blue-greens, umbers, and pale yellows as morning sun shines on it from behind a row of poplars. As you approach the canvas, the bristles that have scuffed it with stiff, clotted brushloads seem to rasp your skin, and you are jolted into a poetry of chill January: a poetry sustained by close plein air observation and resolved with a scrupulous completeness.

At the same time, you may perhaps register the oddness of the operation. Those long stripes of shadow criss-crossing the ruts and country road are cast by no visible object. The colors of what’s sunlit and the colors of what isn’t meet in stout equivalence on the canvas, but for anyone on the scene—say that trudging peasant with his load of sticks—the former would have priority. We expect grass to be green more than we expect it to be blue. In effect, the shadows spook the comfortable farmland, nagging us with the consideration that a further unseen presence stands beneath the poplars, that of the observing artist.


Thursday, July 6, 2017

Henry James, a Pooh-Bah Who Painted With Words

by Holland Cotter

New York Times

July 6, 2017

“Nothing in the world hears as many silly things said as a picture in a museum,” said the poet Wallace Stevens, quoting a 19th-century French source, in a 1951 lecture at the Museum of Modern Art. Which pictures attract what kind of chatter will change somewhat with fashion. But the link between art and words persists over time. Poets and novelists have traditionally moonlighted as art critics. And some have found such multitasking beneficial to all the media involved.

Stevens did, potentially at least. He went on: “I suppose that it would be possible to study poetry by studying painting or that one could become a painter after one had become a poet, not to speak of carrying on in both métiers at once, with the economy of genius, as Blake did.”

One distinctly uneconomical genius who began as a painter, wrote as an art critic and produced more than 20 major works of poetic, book-length prose fiction, is the subject of the exhibition “Henry James and American Painting” at the Morgan Library & Museum. Organized by Colm Toibin, the novelist, and Declan Kiely, head of the Morgan’s literary and historical manuscripts department, the show is a cross-disciplinary jumble of painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, printed matter and manuscripts, with no single form dominant and with James himself as a kind of multiport power plug at the center.


Thursday, June 29, 2017

The guilty pleasure of reading Hollywood memoirs

by Carolyn Kellogg

Los Angeles Times

June 29, 2017

A friend and I were standing on a corner waiting for the light to change, talking about the FX series Feud. “Isn’t it great,” he said, “how much it winds up on Joan Crawford’s side?” Yes, but no, I started to reply, but before I could we crossed and the conversation turned away. I wondered if what we saw in the show was a kind of Rorschach test. Who’s the hero: Joan Crawford or Bette Davis?

Being Team Davis, when I stumbled across a paperback of her memoir, The Lonely Life, I bought it, brought it home and promptly started reading. As The Times’ book editor, you might expect me to be reading Plutarch’s Lives in my spare time — but Hollywood lives are far more interesting.

You don’t have Los Angeles history without Hollywood history. The entertainment industry found a new home here led in part by theater business rascals slyly getting as far as they could from Thomas Edison in New Jersey, who was trying to enforce his motion picture patents. In Los Angeles, they found a safe distance, lovely weather and light that was particularly suited to the new film medium. You may know all that: It’s part of the many terrific, straightforward, deeply researched histories and biographies I’ve read.

Memoir is another matter. Idiosyncratic and biased, obfuscatory and boastful, even unctuous and vain, the Hollywood memoir is not going to portray the past in a clear light. But like Sriracha on the table, it’s going to bring the heat and make the meal better. So much better.


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A Life of Toscanini, Maestro With Passion and Principles

by Robert Gottlieb

New York Times

June 27, 2017

On the night of June 30, 1886, Arturo Toscanini — recently turned 19 — arrived, barely on time, at the imperial opera house in Rio de Janeiro, where the touring company for which he was the principal cellist was about to perform “Aida.” Pandemonium. The unpopular lead conductor had resigned in a huff. His unpopular replacement had been shouted off the podium by the audience. There was no one else. Toscanini, who was also assistant choral master, was thrust forward by his colleagues. “Everyone knew about my memory,” he would recall, “because the singers had all had lessons with me, and I had played the piano without ever looking at the music.” He was handed a baton and just started to conduct. A triumph! Typical of the glowing reviews: “This beardless maestro is a prodigy who communicated the sacred artistic fire to his baton and the energy and passion of a genuine artist to the orchestra.” For the remaining six weeks of the tour, Harvey Sachs tells us in his biography Toscanini: Musician of Conscience, the maestro led the orchestra in 26 performances of 12 operas, all from memory. No one offered him a raise, and it didn’t occur to him to ask for one.

It was almost 68 years later, in April 1954, that he conducted his final concert, an all-Wagner program, at Carnegie Hall. He was 87, and decades earlier had established himself as the world’s most famous conductor — the world’s most famous musician; a “genius,” in fact, alongside such names as Einstein, Picasso and, with a backward glance, Thomas Alva Edison. Nor was this a new notion: Back in the conservatory in Parma, his hometown, “Arturo’s fellow students teased him by calling him Gèni, the dialect word for ‘genius.’”

Genius or not, he unquestionably was a prodigy. At school he had been assigned the cello as his instrument, and he quickly mastered it — by the time he was 14 he was playing in the Parma opera company’s orchestra. He taught himself to play the piano, the violin, the double bass. He sang, he composed, he organized and led groups of his fellow students. Everyone was aware of his astounding photographic memory and his immense powers of concentration. In his final year he was named the school’s outstanding graduate, and he was liked as well as admired. “When I look back at the years of my adolescence,” he would reminisce, “I don’t remember a day without sunshine, because the sunshine was in my soul.”


See also

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Facing Off with the Old Masters

by Ingrid D. Rowland

New York Review of Books

June 21, 2017

One of the favorite sports of Renaissance artists was a contest called the paragone, the “comparison,” the age-old debate about the most expressive form of art. Like sport itself, the paragone never led to a definitive conclusion; the fun lay in playing the game with headlong passion, insisting that painting, or sculpture, or architecture reigned as queen of all the other arts. At the very least, the paragone sharpened its participants’ eyes and wits, though it must have led to the occasional tavern brawl as well. It also engendered endless repetitions of Horace’s ut pictura poesis, “poetry is like painting,” making the three-word phrase one of the sovereign clichés of the Renaissance.

In the real world, of course, the paragone rarely convinced an artist to turn down a good commission in any medium, be it architecture, embroidery, engraving, cannonry, or ceramic design. Filippo Brunelleschi started as a goldsmith and ended up an architect, shifting his scale from miniature to monumental. The sculptress Properzia de’ Rossi exercised her talents both in carving a crowd of saints’ faces into a single peach pit and in chiseling big blocks of marble. Giorgio Vasari designed temporary pageants and permanent structures, including the daring riverside Uffizi complex in Florence. He also painted, wrote, and helped to found the Accademia del Disegno, the state-sponsored artistic academy of Florence, where the paragone dominated discussion. For Vasari himself, disegno, which can mean both drawing and design, stood at the heart of every artistic enterprise and ruled them all.

This spring and summer, the Florentine exhibition “Bill Viola: Electronic Renaissance,” organized around the work of the acclaimed American video artist Bill Viola, has brought the paragone into the twenty-first century. Centered in the massive fifteenth-century Palazzo Strozzi, “Electronic Renaissance,” which runs until July 23, also involves several other venues in the city, placing Viola’s videos alongside Renaissance works by the likes of Jacopo Pontormo, Michelangelo, and Paolo Uccello.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Matisse: The Joy of Things

by Claire Messud

New York Review of Books

June 20, 2017

Daily, I slice bread with my maternal grandmother’s bread knife. Neither beautiful nor valuable—its handle scored white melamine, its wide serrations still sharp—it connects me to my mother’s hands (that used this knife) and to my grandmother’s hands (smaller than my mother’s, arthritic already when I was born); to my grandmother’s kitchen, beloved in my childhood; and to the long-ago morning light that filtered through the sunroom into that kitchen, in a long-sold house, in a far-off city. All this is present when I take it up and tackle a loaf. No other knife will do.

Matisse, unsurprisingly, had similar feelings about the objects of his daily life. They delighted, inspired, or confounded him, in their humble ordinariness and in all that they evoked: a chocolate pot, a green glass vase, a pewter jug, embroidered hanging cloths (haitis) from North Africa, masks and figurines from sub-Saharan Africa, a brazier, a marquetry coffee table, a low-slung chair. Present in photographs of his studios over the years, they appear, too, in countless drawings, paintings, and sculptures; and they can now be seen in “Matisse in the Studio” at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, alongside the works that draw upon them, in a dance of recurrences and self-referential variations, spanning, chiefly, Matisse’s mature years.

These mundane items, the organizing principle for this exhilarating show, served as sparks for Matisse’s art. Assembled in the gallery, they also provide an occasion for fresh reflections and analyses by the exhibition’s curators. Essays gathered in the catalogue—by Ellen McBreen, Helen Burnham, Jack Flam, and others—illuminate various threads of Matisse’s oeuvre, including his interest (shared with Picasso, as well as with contemporaries such as Brâncusi and Man Ray) in African masks and sculptures, specifically the simplicity and directness of their forms. This fascination emerges in his paintings—notably, for example, in his painting Seated Figure with Violet Stockings (1914), a nude that, in style and stance, closely resembles a Fang-region reliquary figure that he prized; and in his heartbreaking portrait of his wife Amélie, the last for which she sat for him, although they were married for another twenty-seven years before separating. In this portrait, the mask-like set of Amélie’s features and her hollow black eyes echo the tribal masks he collected. He explored the mask effect also in his sculptures, as in the series of Jeanne Vaderin (a frequent model for Matisse around the time of World War I), her features ever more abstracted, their planes in each iteration fiercer and more simplified.


Friday, June 16, 2017

He Built Roads. He Oversaw Mines. He Shrank the Deficit. He Was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

by Michael Hofmann

New York Times

June 16, 2017

In many instances, the Germans have been content for the lives of their great literary figures to be written by Anglo-American biographers; there is a narrative flair, a curiosity, an animation, a love of character and anecdote, a juice, that it seems only the English provide. Biography may be the true vice anglais. Frances Wilson’s De Quincey and Ruth Scurr’s Aubrey (both published last year) are clever, considered and brilliantly unorthodox books; Richard Holmes’s lives of Shelley and Coleridge are masterpieces on any terms; would it have occurred to anyone but an Englishman or an American to call a life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan “Uncorking Old Sherry”?

And so, some early biographies of Kafka and Thomas Mann were written in English; the outstanding recent life of Brecht was by Stephen Parker; while in 1991 and 2000 the Cambridge scholar Nicholas Boyle brought out the first two volumes of what will surely be the definitive life of Goethe (1749-1832), at 800 and 950 pages; with luck, Boyle will live to Goethe’s age (82) or beyond, and complete the third and concluding volume. When Boyle tells you in his first paragraph that “the mail from London to Edinburgh took over a week, Moët and Chandon had begun to export the recently invented champagne, and a pineapple cost as much as a horse,” I for one signed up for all two or three thousand pages. Against such a background, the appearance in English of Rüdiger Safranski’s “Goethe: Life as a Work of Art” is a bit perplexing. (Happily, the cringe-making subtitle is utterly disregarded in the text itself.)

Safranski’s book (a best seller in Germany) is aimed squarely at a German readership of Bildungsbürger, educated and tolerant of abstractions and paraphrases. It doesn’t feel the need to locate Goethe for a non-German readership. Safranski is an energetic writer, without much refinement or subtlety. Dozens of obscure names scoot past the reader’s eye with nary a word of introduction or presentation. There is little sense of the tiny, mad ferment of the so-called Age of Genius (the 1770s) — as if a nation had acne — the thing that Penelope Fitzgerald caught so miraculously well in her novel “The Blue Flower.”