Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness it might be, but in the world of books things are rather more as intense publishers gear up for Christmas and begin releasing the titles they hope will most tempt readers and present-givers. This year, there’s a particularly strong concentration of memoirs and — perhaps prompted by the topicality of The Sopranosin which he played consigliere Silvio Dante — my ear was drawn towards Stevie Van Zandt’s Unrequited Infatuations (White Rabbit, 14hrs 26mins).
Naturally, he reads the memoir himself; that distinctive New Jersey growl is too familiar and powerful for him not to. And he has a compelling story to tell, encompassing his musical career with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, his late blossoming as an actor — Sopranos creator David Chase wrote him into the series despite him never having acted before — and his work as an activist, in particular in the fight against apartheid.
Now 70, Van Zandt — aka Little Steven or Miami Steve — seems to have lived numerous lives and to all his incarnations, and to this narrative, he brings a striking fearlessness, an apparently unquenchable appetite for new challenges. This is just the stuff to keep the doldrums at bay.
As is Miriam Margolyes, whose memoir This Much is True (John Murray, 15 hrs 7 mins) reinforces the idea that successful autobiographical writing — perhaps especially, if read aloud — relies on candour, intimacy and a commitment to revelation: not in the sense of gossip, though there is much delicious tale-telling in this account of the actor’s life, but the willingness to open up one’s personality in all its aspects and contradictions.
Thus Margolyes — who is as prolific as she is beloved — explains not merely how important it has been to her to speak openly about her sexuality throughout her life but also the pain that it caused in her relationship with her parents, and the regret she still feels about that.
Margolyes is, of course, a natural comedian, and the chuckle that seems embedded in her voice is delightfully cheering. But there is also something impressive about the clarity and quiet passion of her enunciation of her; she is determined, she informs us, to tell the truth, and her ringing tones of her persuade us that she is doing her level best to deliver on that promise. Her memoir de ella came about as a lockdown project — she wrote it in Tuscany over the course of a few months — yet there is no sense of rush or constraint about it.
A brief mention for two other beguiling memoirs: first, Bob Mortimer’s AndAway. . . (Simon & Schuster, 7 hrs 59 mins), in which the actor, comedian and celebrated fisherman reflects on the serious heart condition, discovered a few years ago, that set him on the path of self-reflection and taking stock.
And secondly, a book on which I sought a second, expert opinion: Jackie Weaver’s You Do Have the Authority Here! (Hachette Audio, 2 hrs 41 mins), in which the country’s most famous clerk — thanks to a high-drama Zoom council meeting that went viral — dispenses her advice on, essentially, how to stand your ground when people are misbehaving. I made a pal, who is herself a PC, listen in between her duties monitoring traffic cameras and taking minutes and she pronounced it invaluable.
Autumn also sees the release of some exceptional fiction. Top of my list are two novels that imagine the lives of two creative powerhouses. Colm Toíbin’s The Magician (Penguin Audio, 16 hrs 37 mins), read by Gunnar Cauthery, takes us through the life of the German novelist Thomas Mann, Nobel laureate and author of Magic Mountain and Death in Venice. The challenge of the narrative is to capture the complexities of Mann’s character — he was a writer at the heart of society who nonetheless only came fully alive behind his study door, a man attracted to other men who married and had six children, and a reluctant symbol of German intellectualism through two world wars.
Cauthery proceeds with a less-is-more style, allowing the extraordinary details of Mann’s life — which included exile in California and, in a bizarre turn of events, the acquisition of WH Auden as a son-in-law — to build slowly. The listening experience becomes one of gradual accretion, as the great triumphs and considerable pains of Mann’s long life unfold.
We know far less — indeed, virtually nothing — about the life of Marie de France, the medieval nun who left a series of spellbinding Breton lays and fables. Lauren Groff gives herself full license in the captivating, concise Matrix(Penguin Audio, 8 hrs, 52 mins), read brilliantly by RSC actor Adjoa Andoh, most recently seen as Lady Danbury in Bridgerton.
Andoh’s cleverness is to show how Marie’s powerlessness — a half-sister by marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, she was also a despised bastard child, the result of a rape — mutates into an insatiable will to power, as she turns the abbey she has been I felt into a fortress of self-reliance and prosperity. At times we pity Marie; at others we fear her. It’s a breathtaking novel, and a breathtaking performance.
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