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Living Biographies of Famous Novelists - A Review

March 22, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 212

The title is a bit of a misnomer, all these writers are dead, and yet I was unable to put down this little gem that I picked up at a library book sale for fifty cents.

The writers covered in this volume lived from the early 14th century to the early 20th century and range from Boccaccio to Hardy. One could argue that in today's world the little chapters on each of these writers could be gleaned from Wikipedia and other Internet sources. But the spirit that the writers Henry and Dana Lee Thomas infuse into this book is what makes it special. I did not feel so alone and neglected as a writer while reading about these "greats" who had plenty of neglect, suffering and loss during their lifetimes. Some of them had climbed dizzying heights of success during their lives; others had only stared into the abyss.

Let see, Rebelais, Cervantes and Defoe had a distrust of the law and their writing was artistic but flawed in craft; they all served prison sentences and flirted with bankruptcy and madness. Swift's satirical solution to ending poverty was to have all one-year old children of the poor classes be eaten as food. Scott made a fortune in his writing and lost it all on his printing business then repaid his huge debts by writing more. Balzac was eternally broke and Flaubert died unrecognized. Hugo was successful as an author but his entire family predeceased him. Dostoevsky and Solzenitsyn fought the czar and communism respectively, a hundred years apart, and ended up in Siberian prisons (Solzenitsyn is not in this volume, I use him as a reference only). Tolstoy went from godliness to godlessness to war to anti-war to celibacy to abandoning his family in his old age. Maupassant committed suicide brought on by venereal disease. Zola went bankrupt defending a Jew's rights to a fair trial. Twain disdained the low-brow tastes of his readers, yet wrote for the money. Critics called Hardy a "vile writer" for daring to speak out against the Social Code of his time.

All these writers were gifted as children; they were not necessarily accomplished in school and were considered to be misfits. Their love lives were full of anguish, loss and, in some cases, infidelity. Many achieved their greatness late in life (i.e. past their fifties). They were unsung visionaries: Defoe saw the concept of a League of Nations 200 years before it came into existence. They constantly wrestled with the concepts of good and evil, justice and injustice, God and death; Twain considered death and insanity better rewards than life or God.

Each chapter covers one of the writers, their life, a synopsis of one of their masterpieces and the circumstances leading to their death. If I were to level one criticism against the writing, it was that these writers' ultimate deaths are glorified as a joyful passing, as if their lives on earth had been hells that had squeezed out some of the greatest literature for us to enjoy, and for achieving these feats, the writers were then allowed to enter the pearly gates having served their mortal purposes well. Perhaps they had...

Shane Joseph is the author of three novels and a collection of short stories. His work After the Flood won the best futuristic/fantasy novel award at the Canadian Christian Writing Awards in 2010. His short fiction has appeared in international literary journals and anthologies. His latest novel The Ulysses Man has just been released. For details see

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