Curtis Cate (deceased) has been sometimes compared to Henry James. Born in 1924 in Paris, into a Bostonian upper-class family, he spent much of his life in Europe. A former boarder at Winchester College, he certainly lived by its motto: "Manners maketh man". His love for the language of Shakespeare was no doubt strengthened by his education in Magdalen College Oxford. Cate writes with a touch of nostalgia for by-gone era, and for his protagonist. In this biography, he knows what to put in and what to leave out, and he has a feel for language -- ever so important when writing about Nietzsche. As an outsider to the suffocating exclusivity of academia, he is free to be honest (e.g. in his treatment of Lou Salomé). He is also meticulous in his handling of data and therefore compares favourably with Hayman. Little surprise that Julian Young in his recent biography of Nietzsche (2010) has helped himself generously to the paragraphs of Cate's book, not even bothering with quotation marks.
This biography is very readable, and is valuable precisely because (despite the other review) it gives one a feel for Nietzsche as a person, rather than just being a biographical sketch, as are most books. However, I have some concerns.
First, given that Nietzsche has been claimed for just about every political and philosophical position known to exist, from fascist to communist to sexist to feminist, I feel a more honest biographer would acknowledge this fact and, being aware of it, let us know up front what their prejudice is, which will inform their interpretation. Mr Cate portrays a Nietzsche who is a reactionary conservative who thinks it a great shame we don't all speak Latin and Greek. But is this really Nietzsche, or is it (as I suspect, based on some rather unpleasant comments in the introduction) Mr Cate? We aren't told.
Other minor points which made me wonder just how well acquainted with the philosophical and literary world Mr Cate is. It is seldom one sees Lord Byron described as Scottish. It took me some while to work out that when Mr Cate wrote of Plato's 'Dinner Party' he meant the 'Symposium'. Similarly, Hesiod's great work is 'Works and Days', not (as Mr Cate has it) 'the Days'. Bracketing Shakespeare and Racine together in one literary pigeon-hold is inept. Oh yes, and a history of philosophy which raises Hegel on high and mentions Locke and Hume only in passing is so eccentric as to beggar belief. Putting all this together, one gets the feel of an author who doesn't really know his subject.
This book promises a great deal. It is written by a highly intelligent man who knows his subject, and who can write well. The introduction and the first couple of chapters appear to fulfil that promise. However, about mid-way through the book, if not long before, the reader comes to a realisation: this book is not much more than a glorified diary and travelog. Why? Because despite having a deep understanding of one of the most profound thinkers in humanity's history Curtis Cate manages to fill his book with the everyday details and vexations of a peripatetic philosopher's life. His relationships, his thoughts and his whereabouts are covered in detail, but in unsatisfying detail: the journeys and problems of accomodation and difficulties with a publisher receive 6 pages to the philosophy's one. There is one thing a book about Nietzsche never be, that is boring. (He never is.) But despite having the potential to be the best biography available about Nietzsche the author fails to provide us with the gold standard he so tantalisingly dangles in front of us, at times. Worth a look if you have an ardent interest in Nietzsche; if you are unacquainted with him don't read this book, read the man himself. A missed opportunity.
I enjoyed Cate's biography of Nietzsche. It's very comprehensive in its treatment of Nietzsche; his life and his philosophy are covered very thoroughly. However, those who are coming to Nietzsche for the first time may want to look elsewhere, since Cate's writing can be challenging in many parts of the book. Still, a very helpful biography.
Readers of this book would also like "Jenna's Flaw," a novel about Nietzsche, the death of God, the crumbling of Western civilization, and what the West can do to stop it.
Nietzsche, who despised the mediocre and pedestrian, would have loathed this book. Cate provides a wordy but thin description of the events of Nietzsche's life without having or providing any insight into his exceptional character. He summarises Nietzsche's writings, demonstrating its continuing relevance by references to such events as the death of Princess Diana, but without anywhere indicating why Nietzsche is such a major figure in contemporary thought. In attempting to write a popular biography Cate has produced something bland and unilluminating. There are better books about Nietzsche and better biographies.