English-born, witty and ambitious, Tina Brown landed in New York to become editor of Vanity Fair in 1984, the year “Miami Vice” began offering television viewers montages of men in Ferraris spliced with rock videos, and Madonna launched her hymn to affluence, “Material Girl”. Ronald Reagan, on his way to a second term, handed out tax cuts to the wealthy as if they were jellybeans and Wall Street was as much a language as a licence to print money. Junk bonds, arbitrage and mergers and acquisitions were the era’s bons mots as well as its beat. Brown’s diaries thrillingly recount all of this in hilarious detail.
In the decade to 1989, 2,500 new magazines were launched in America, and Brown came to queen it over them all. Money, royalty, politics and Hollywood were the ingredients she most liked to play with, and what a cocktail they made. She signed up the finest writers and photographers, and many of the profiles they produced are still remembered today: Princess Diana (“The Mouse that Roared”), Gloria Thurn und Taxis (“Princess TNT”), the smooching Reagans and Demi Moore, pregnant and naked but for her diamonds.
The Vanity Fair Diaries is the perfect stocking filler for any social x-ray who yearns to wallow in nostalgia. But even students of our own time will find the prescience of Brown’s observations a source of amusement. The decade’s greatest symbol, she observes, turned out to be not a person but a building: Trump Tower, “the very definition of ersatz with its fool’s gold façade, its flashy internal waterfall, its dodgy financing”. Lucky she was there because you couldn’t make it up. ~ Fiammetta Rocco
Turning and turning
Acclaimed for his dystopian satire, his sombre mysticism and for sinuous unbroken sentences that unspool with hypnotic power over scores of pages, László Krasznahorkai, winner of the Man Booker International prize in 2015, rewards readers not with the comfort of escape but the thrill of discovery. The World Goes On is the closest the Hungarian spell-binder has come to light reading. In 21 inter-linked stories, as bleakly funny as they are sad, a narrator who yearns “to leave the Earth behind” embarks on a sort of spiritual pilgrimage that takes in Shanghai, Varanasi, Venice, Kiev and outer space. From out there, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin looks back at our lovely planet and understands that “paradise really exists”. The urge to flee the “universal, all-consuming, infectious chaos” of modern life wrestles with a rapturous immersion in the world’s strange beauty. Krasznahorkai can delve into Buddhism, preached by “the ascetic prince of philosophers”. He can also deliver a mordantly comic take-down of sleazy foreign bankers in Ukraine. Under his dark star of melancholy, nostalgia for the sacred haunts our godforsaken age. ~ BOYD TONKIN
Water, water, everywhere
This rediscovered classic has a back-story almost as uncanny as its mood. A journalist in Naples, Nicola Pugliese, published Malacqua, his only novel, in 1977, as the violence, strife and corruption of Italy’s “years of lead” threw a grey blanket of dread over daily life. “Malacqua” sold fast and won praise, but then Pugliese mysteriously withdrew the book from circulation. It reappeared after his death in 2012 and has only now been translated. It describes a four-day deluge in late October that floods the streets of Naples and swamps people with fears and doubts. A dank air of foreboding wraps the city as the rain opens sinkholes and collapses houses. It feels “as if a siege had its grip on Naples”.
Inexplicable phenomena trouble the citizens. Hidden dolls scream in the council chamber; five-lire coins begin to sing. These supernatural touches aside, Pugliese follows ordinary Neapolitans – a journalist, a bar-owner, a watchman, a schoolgirl, a secretary – as the unremitting downpour prompts an “obscure apocalyptic question” and a “presentiment of misfortune” darkens their sodden days. The skies clear, but the mystery lingers in this clammily unsettling tale. ~ BT
Being Norwegian, Karl Ove Knausgaard is good at winter. The second volume of his autobiographical quartet based on the seasons is even more beautiful than the first: the Moon, cold, fireworks, snow and snowdrifts, bonfires, atoms, toothbrushes and sexual desire – nothing is too mundane or too private for consideration and reconsideration.
The daily scribblings and meditations that make up Winter are addressed to his unborn daughter, his fourth child. They are bookended by two typically original Knausgaardian observations. The first is that the various stages of fetal development resemble the human species’ own evolution from “prehistoric shrimp-like creature” to fully fledged human. The second is about the wonderment of doing things for the first time. When you are young that happens all the time (first steps, first swim, first day at school). As you grow older it happens less and less. “In my life that almost never happens any more,” he writes. “But soon it will. In just a few months I will see you for the first time.”
Hauntingly translated by Ingvild Burkey, “Winter” will reward every curious reader. Insightful, giddy and full of energy, Knausgaard’s memoir throbs with the miraculous imminence of new life and the thrill of just being. ~ FR