American lovers of musical theatre who blame Andrew Lloyd Webber for pretty much everything that went wrong on its stages, starting in the early seventies, will be chagrined to discover that he has written an autobiography that has all the virtues his music always seemed to lack: wit, surprise, contemporaneity, audacity, and an appealingly shrewd sense of the occasion. There is nothing pompous or pallid about his prose, which makes it all the odder that so much of the music that he wrote seems to have no other qualities. Given his reputation as the guy who dragged the Broadway musical from its vitality and idiomatic urgency back to its melodramatic roots in European operetta—while also degrading rock music to a mere rhythm track—is it possible that, as his memoir indicates, his work might be more varied and interesting than we had known? Could we, terrible thought, have been unfair to Andrew Lloyd Webber? The answer turns out, on inspection, to be a complicated and qualified Yes. Certainly, no artist as hugely successful as he has been can have struck a chord without owning a piece of his time.
I saw a biopic about Morecambe and Wise recently. The actors impersonating the comedians were not a patch on the originals — how could they be? You need a genius to play a genius. I often wonder if my own HBO Peter Sellers movie would have been improved if someone fiery, of the calibre of Gary Oldman or Sacha Baron Cohen, had been cast instead of Geoffrey Rush, who was muffled under prosthetic make-up. But my point is, biopics seldom come off, and nor do biographies.
Indeed, it is a reprehensible and misguided genre. Privacy is violated, creative achievements are explained away, and great men and women are unmasked as sneaky, predatory, cruel and ordinary. Humphrey Carpenter wrote all his biographies — of Auden, Britten and Ezra Pound — in this way.
"BBQ here [in Brooklyn] can be whatever you want it to be and your BBQ place can look like whatever you want it to look like," says Mylan. "In the last ten years Brooklyn has really loved taking something with a long tradition elsewhere and fucking with that trope, whether you're talking the dive bar, soul food, French bistro, Mexican cantina, diner, or BBQ. Results are variable and some things perhaps are better left unmolested, but, through Brooklyn (and NYC in general), a pathological desire to rework these tropes has given the rest of the world carte blanche to fuck with things like BBQ as well, and adapt that type of food to the local diners preferences."
There are philosophy books that break new ground, offering us theories or explanations of perspectives that have not appeared before. Other books of philosophy call us to a recognition of things that are right in front of us but that we have not yet fully grasped, or perhaps whose implications for our lives we have not grasped. The Meaning of Belief is of the latter sort. It reminds atheists that there are others out there who are (we would claim) mistaken but whose lives are enriched by those mistaken beliefs and their associated practices in ways that need not be subject to unrelenting attack. In particular, whatever religion is, it is not merely, as the New Atheists would have it, a simple combination of a fairy-tale belief in the supernatural and an archaic moral code. We atheists could do much worse than to bear this recognition in mind as we navigate our own lives through a world still overwhelmingly populated by believers.
The Immortalists is not just a novel about grief; it conjures characters with such dimension that you mourn them too, a magic rare enough to leave one astonished.
Like any one-sided love affair, Atlas’s entrapment of Bellow is familiar in its trajectory but entertainingly unique in its particulars – and an inspiration for compulsive biographers everywhere.