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“These regular anthologies ... are becoming essential volumes for fans of short fiction.”

— Scott Pack

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And Nothing Remains

While the love of a favourite author can sustain a reader’s interest through a more in-depth biography (for example, I wouldn’t give up my copy of Ian MacNiven’s 800-page monster on Lawrence Durrell for the world), it’s not really practical to read one of these for every author who takes your interest. You can get some information from Wikipedia but—potential inaccuracies aside—there’s only so much detail you can get from a web page (and you can’t read them in the bath, or on the beach). Enter the new Brief Lives, a series of bite-sized author biographies from Hesperus Press…

Brief LivesTaking a leaf from the OUP’s Very Short Introductions, the Hesperus Brief Lives neatly fill the gap between Wikipedia entries and breeze block biographies. Following the Hesperus tradition of short, snappy reads, each volume comes in at just over a hundred pages. They’re written by academics, translators, and other specialists in their respective fields, and they provide a superb introduction to the writer, along with a context for their work. The first three titles deal with Charles Dickens, Anton Chekhov, and Oscar Wilde, with upcoming titles looking at Jane Austen and others. (I can’t tell you which others because the Hesperus website is being redesigned. But once that’s finished, you’ll find the information here. I expect there will be one on Virginia Woolf, as the Hesperus list these days occasionally resembles a partwork of her lesser-known writings…)

These launch titles are—and should be—a mixed bag: the Chekhov is simultaneously the most interesting of the three and the one most in need of editing; the Dickens is the most successful and polished; and Richard Canning’s contribution on Oscar Wilde mysteriously accuses previous biographer Richard Ellman of “a lack of subtlety in respect of homosexuality”, which doesn’t seem entirely inappropriate, given the subject. But each has its own merits, and is different enough from the others to make each book an interesting read, almost regardless of your level of interest in the author in question. They’re also attractive editions, but that goes without saying; they’re from Hesperus.

Roll on the next books in the series. (Personally, I’ll be waiting in the hope of Mikhail Bulgakov, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, George Bernard Shaw, T. S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh…)

14 Comments on “Brief Lives from Hesperus Press”

  1. Darren Says:

    Does it say who did the covers? That style looks familiar but I can’t place it.

  2. Darren Says:

    There you go! He did some covers for the Introducing books too. I said he looked familiar. 🙂

  3. Rob Says:

    The illustrations are credited to “Piero”. Google reveals: with an early version of the Dickens cover here.

  4. Ellie Says:

    Thanks so much for this, Rob, and I’m so glad that you enjoyed the books. The titles forthcoming for the series this year are on Jane Austen, Conrad, Balzac, Flaubert and Pushkin, with Goethe, Zola, Wilkie Collins, E.M. Forster, Tolstoy and de Sade to follow next year. Your suggestions, though, have been duly noted. On the subject of Bernard Shaw (I fear the repercussions from his estate if I use the dreaded ‘George’), in November of this year we’ll be publishing a brand new selection of his political writings under the title of ‘On War’, with a foreword by Philip Pullman, about which we’re very excited indeed.

    All the best,

    Ellie, Hesperus Press

  5. Ellie Says:

    Silly me – forgot that also on the list this year is Stendhal.

  6. Rob Says:

    Hi Ellie!

    Looks like a good list. And there’s no Virginia Woolf there, which shows me right for being smart.

    I didn’t know the “George” was controversial… just another titbit from the not-yet-upcoming Brief Life of [ ] Bernard Shaw…

    (Unrelated: According to the OED, titbit is the British spelling, while tidbit is American—and closer to the original, which derives from tid, a dialect word for tender. I always wondered, and now I know…)

  7. SG Says:

    Quite interesting — definitely something to look into!

  8. Petulia Says:

    I really enjoyed reading the Oscar Wilde one. Great job Hesperus Press.

  9. Richard Canning Says:

    Hi there. Perhaps I shouldn’t be writing here at all, but, assuming it’s allowed… Writing the Wilde book was a big thrill. Thanks so much to Petulia for the kind words. In respect of the original article’s mention of my criticism of Ellmann’s book, there seems to be a confusion between frankness and subtlety here. I commended the frankness of Ellmann, which is entirely necessary and appropriate, but the way he understood and wrote about gay relationships – of the day and in general – wasn’t subtle; rather, it was often improbable, sometimes unarguable and at times in terms of evidence simply misconceived. Still, notwithstanding all his errors, his is naturally a work of great scholarship which I pay full tribute to in my little book. Anyhow, the reviewer did esteem something in all the titles, and of course I remain grateful for that. I’m doing E M Forster next for Hesperus, which I hope will interest some of you. Happy reading!

  10. Rob Says:

    Hello Richard. It’s certainly allowed, and thanks for taking the time to comment!

    I see what you’re saying about Ellmann’s book (although I should be clear that I’ve not read it), but maybe “lack of subtlety” is a slightly coy way of saying he was “misconceived”, “uninformed” or plain “ignorant” in this area?

    But let’s not get hung up on a single phrase in your book, which Petulia and I both enjoyed. I’m looking forward to your book about E M Forster too; I’m actually revisiting him at the moment. The Longest Journey is waiting on my bookshelf.

  11. The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle by Russell Miller Says:

    […] before on The Fiction Desk that I’m partial to reading the odd literary biography. The Brief Lives from Hesperus are handy little books, but nothing quite matches the satisfaction of a bulkier, blow […]

  12. Rimbaud by Edmund White Says:

    […] published in the US as part of the Atlas & Co series of author biographies—think the Hesperus Brief Lives, but written by established writers in their own right, told from a slightly more personal angle. […]

  13. Gordon Bitney Says:

    The Brief Lives Series is a great idea. I am trying to track the release date for ‘Emile Zola’ by Anthony Cummins and how to buy the book in Canada. Can you advise me?

  14. Rob Says:

    Hi Gordon,

    From what I can see, the Zola Brief Life is due for publication at the end of October. When it’s out, you could order it from somewhere like the Book Depository; alternatively, they do have distribution in the US and Canada, so if you pop into your local bookshop, they should be able to order it for you.

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