The Beautiful and the Damned

By Annan, Gabriele | The Spectator, August 31, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Beautiful and the Damned


Annan, Gabriele, The Spectator


Gabriele Annan

GETTING PERSONAL: A BIOGRAPHER'S MEMOIR by Brian Masters Constable, 16.99, pp. 288, ISBN 1841195502

When one of his serial live-in lovers left him, Brian Masters 'stumbled with the ghastly impact of it, ricocheted against the wall, collapsed in a heap on the stair, and sobbed', but decided 'it would be otiose to indulge the anguish of those ensuing months, and would risk embarrassing the reader'. Well, this reader is already cringing with embarrassment; and there are another 109 pages to go before the author describes the grisly side-effects of having his cancerous bladder removed. But for anyone who can stay a hurdle race of embarrassments - sexual, social, and emotional - Getting Personal might be gripping. There is lots of gossip, and gossip can be addictive. Besides, Masters writes so well - clear, neat sentences, the right adjectives and not too many cliches either - and the psychological striptease is performed with insight and aplomb.

The list of his 25 previous works -- mainly biographies - kicks off with Moliere, Sartre, Saint-Exupery, Rabelais, and Camus before getting to the first aristocrat (Londonderry), who became 'my closest and most loyal friend'. The penultimate title, She Must Have Known: The Trial of Rosemary West, is a defence of its subject, the jailed widow and accomplice of the serial killer Frederick West. In between are dukes, duchesses, hostesses, more serial killers, Dreams About the Queen, and The Passion of John Aspinall, another gallant defence.

The French literary biographies at the start are the result of a first-class degree from Cardiff University. Masters grew up in a prefab in a south London workingclass suburb. His father was an illegitimate no-hoper. His mother was a hunchback with a weak chest, too shy to project the goodness of her heart. Masters was 16 when his parents moved to Wales: the better climate there might prolong her life. (It didn't, much.) The boy was left behind in digs to take his A-levels at Wilson's Grammar School, where his exceptional intelligence had been recognised. Three important events followed, and one didn't: this last was to have been an affair with his pretty cousin Carole, but Masters failed to get into bed with her. …

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