The latest releases reviewed
W. B. Yeats: A Life II - The Arch-Poet By R.F. Foster . Oxford University Press £16.99
On the cover of the new paperback edition of Roy Foster's life of the poet, volume two, Louis le Brocquy's image of Yeats arises out of ghostly vagueness into bristling clarity. In a comparable elucidation, the chronological narrative brings the genius of Yeats into focus, and his great, weird life - the visions, the many women, the passionate politics, and the heroic meditations on death. Extracts from reviews of the hardbound Arch-Poet have been added to this edition. Some 30 writers, working apart after its publication in autumn 2003, came in with one verdict, "great", or one of its breathless, blurby synonyms, "magisterial", "classic", etc. Foster has been in a lot of fights down the years, over revisionism and all that, and literary critics might have been expected to say the job could have been better done by one of themselves. The consensus of praise is a tribute of course to Foster but also to surprising fair-mindedness on the part of his judges.
Himself Alone: David Trimble and the Ordeal of Unionism. Dean Godson. Harper Perennial £15
This is the most expansive of the three fine biographies of the former Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble. It presents him as something of a political eccentric; as an ambitious, intelligent man skilled in the mastery and deployment of detail; and as a fair-minded, thoughtful person. Trimble is a Belfast-born civil servant turned academic turned politician, and he is the unionist without whom the 1998 Belfast Agreement could not have been produced: rightly or wrongly, he thought it time that unionists made a deal, and he believed that Irish republicans could be won over to peaceful inclusion in a reformed Northern Ireland. Dean Godson is a Daily Telegraph journalist who has opposed the Belfast Agreement, but he has written fairly and fully of that agreement's most significant unionist supporter.
A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists. Rachel Cohen. Vintage £8.99
A massive Venn diagram of major figures on the American cultural scene between the civil war and the civil rights movement, A Chance Meeting reads like a real-life version of Tom Stoppard's Travesties. Writers and artists appear as dinner guests, mentors, drinking buddies, business partners and lovers forming links in the chain of the American cultural elite. They are as disparate in background and style as they are important, including Mark Twain, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Charlie Chaplin and Edward Steichen. Cohen's research is impressive without being overbearing and she uncovers so much pleasing trivia and personal anecdotes that her occasional narratorial meandering into the rocky biographical terrain signposted by "perhaps" and "would have" seems unnecessary.
Intimate Letters: Leos Janacek to Kamila Stosslova. Edited and translated by John Tyrrell. Faber and Faber £9.99
In 1917, the composer Leos Janacek fell in love with Kamila Stosslova, a married woman more than 40 years his junior. The Janacek scholar John Tyrrell has meticulously edited their 11-year correspondence, which charts their budding relationship; a love story set against the backdrop of postwar Europe made all the more poignant because it was ultimately one-sided. Their relationship coincided with the most exciting period of Janacek's career. His passion fired his creative genius, and the last decade of his life saw him heralded by fame and fortune. Janacek aficionados will take particular pleasure in the light that the letters shed on the music. Kamila emerges as the inspiration behind all of the later operas, but her influence is most felt in the beautiful string quartet, Intimate Letters, which provides a fitting title for this volume.
Gods and Monsters. Peter Biskind. Bloomsbury £8.99
Peter Biskind, author of the brilliant Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, returns with a collection of articles and essays culled from a career spanning more than 30 years. His hard-nosed writing style combined with an acute understanding of the theoretical ensures he delivers a heavy punch. He compares Michael Cimino's much-vaunted Vietnam movie The Deer Hunter to Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi epic Triumph of the Will, dismissing it as propaganda and claiming it ". . . embraces the very worst aspects of American culture, those that led to Vietnam in the first place". He is no less kind to George Lucas's Star Wars trilogy or Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones, whose infantilism, he believes, paved the way for the growth of the new right. He saves his best for a piece of reportage about the erratic but brilliant Terence Malick.
Free World: Why a Crisis of the West Reveals the Opportunity of Our Time Timothy Garton Ash. Penguin, £7.99
In an introspection on the condition of post-Iraq European-American relations, Ash contends the enlarged Europe is engaged in "the argument of the decade" between the forces of Euro-Gaullism and euro-atlanticism and a sequence of events that could decide the future of the West. As an examination of the history of European and American identity, it scrutinises otherness as a stumbling block to stability and chronicles the vagaries, deceits, foreign policies and economic might of both sides. This is an insightful analysis of old and new Europe, European unification, American hegemony and the Islamic question as a backdrop to the notion and aspiration of a free and well-fed world.