17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars
Supreme in every genre spanned - biography, social history, musicology and literature, 6 April 2014
Let me say for a start that this is the only volume of the proposed 3 I want to read. The greater the longevity of the achievement, the more the detailing becomes a series of lists. In the next 2, if I look at them at all, I'll be diving into the index to see what Lewisohn has to say about certain lurid and celebtrated characters ... but (post propter hoc) I find all I did in fact want to know, and am still contemplating every day in a little part of my imagination and memory, is this part of the story.
Let me pay tribute too to what everyone else has noticed: the weaving of the stories. Deftly sliding into the footnotes and then gradually surfacing in the texts, the secondary characters make their appearance - Linda, Jane, and dozens of others. The moment Linda's family perished is attached by footnote to a key moment in the text, and a strong plausible narrative connection is made.
Jane's flaming red hair is greatly admired by the McCartney brothers as they watch the seasoned 15 year-old actress going through her paces on "Juke Box Jury", the very television programme one would have McCartney watch if one knew nothing about his television viewing in those years. The whole cast is established - Tolstoyan in its significance and detail - at the same time as the story is told, but most of the time there is no distinction between the introduction of characters one knows to be essential later on, and the unrolling narrative - epic in its magnitude as it is. What an extraordinary achievement that is.
As the story develops one notices the absences. This, I felt, was deliberate. Some appearances should not be pre-empted. Yoko Ono appears repeatedly in the appendices, where repeated tributes are paid to her assistance - which gives one astounded pause each time - and, most excitingly, Lewisohn alludes to new material he (of all people) was unaware of until she made it available to him. What can it be? Wait and see.
Her appearance and the explication, if any, of this matter, are what will make me read volumes 2 and 3. As things stand by the end of volume 1, though, Yoko in absentia is like Martin Seymour-Smith's wonderful evocation of Laura Riding, at the end of his biography of Robert Graves. Not having it to hand I paraphrase that she is like a standing-stone in a landscape casting a long, cold, ominous shadow over the hero's life; and anyone dealing with the poet must deal with the effect of the shade she cast.
Lewisohn's authorial voice is unique. He has to deal with very dark material and many years of penury, delinquency, deprivation, and downright cruelty and neglect. I expected his approach would be a consistent repudiation of Albert Goldman and take a side in the rather fatuous debate about how good or bad or pleasant or unpleasant a person Lennon was. Not a bit of it. He warmly accommodates and incorporates Goldman's views and Goldman's material, never disputing any of what shocked people so much about Goldman's book in 1988, but yet Lennon re-emerges as he should: complex, brilliant, intellectually ravenous, grief-stricken and essentially bitter.
" ... he never was a boy" remarks Lewisohn parenthetically in response to some comment made of Lennon at the time - some time before 1963 - and this is the style of the book - genial, compassionate, and reserving insights for when they are worth making, and then delivering them with apothegmatic brevity.
There is a sort of divine forgiveness and ruefulness flavouring the narrative which would be horrible were it not so nuanced. Just as they have always been, these savages - bloody-minded, wilful, randy, grossly sexist and often downright gross are shown without any apparent extenuation one can easily identify, and yet one feels that such an almighty effort of understanding, and analysis and presentation of context (for some reason I was particularly taken with the handsome ttribute to Bessie Braddock MP and the awful munching of labour-camp grub in the form of "Scollops") takes one beyond liking or disliking and temporarily into a place where people are seen as they were. Beyond judgement and into understanding.
Having said this, the immediate impression one has of the style of writing is its humour. This is what moves the enormous project along so deftly " ... where Miss Powell showed she was not a nun", and many other little touches of the kind, which lead one to picturing Lewishn as ribald and somewhat Falstaffian, chuckling as he writes. Yet note how that comment spares a gesture towards Cynthia's point of view - that she trounced the posturing male, not that she fell a victim to any manly charm (of which there is little enough on display at any point.)
His most serious moments are reserved for anlaysing the music and tracing the fractured threads of sound and inspiration in their fragile web of connections. Much of this is vanishingly slight and unclear, because this music in its origins is the equivalent of oral history - unacademic and extremely informal, but Lewisohn's passion convinces you again and again that it is worth doing. He points forward to the moment that an uncertain, ill-defined half-phrase will be consummated in some unimaginably distant and ebullient masterpiece.
Anyway, night after night I read it, my vision slowly filling with a giant screen full of a rich black-and-white cinematic magnum opus, until it was more or less the most important thing in my life. Not Proust, I'd say, but Tolstoy, and if a film, Renoir.