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Review: Lives

LivesLives by Peter Robb
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A thoroughly enjoyable faggot of thoughts and musings from Robb, some falling more towards the journalism end of interview and observation (more declamatory and crisp in tone) and others dreamier, or happy to gorge on the author’s particular obsessions. The range of its concerns follows the author’s commissions and experience – the cultural cringe an irrelevancy. Robb writes about what he likes.

I loved his visit to the “lost” Caravaggios exhibited together in Naples for the first time – his breathless excitement at seeing properly rare pictures that obsessed him and his tumbling out what he could puzzle from them, slotting their hints into the large body of his insights on that artist – gleaned with such intensity that he alarmed the guards and was escorted away. Also his dissection of the crossed swords of academe in relation to scholarship on Caravaggio, starring Roberto Longhi.

Robb is not afraid to show us himself craven in a horrible apartment in the Cross, pissing off Gore Vidal, exploring queerness without the slightest hesitation of opinion, or his bare, breeze-on-flesh pleasure of a lotus-eating retreat in Brazil.

I never quite escaped my consciousness of Robb controlling his presentation of self – he is always clever, always, always, grasping what is going on – that sureness of his opinion at times was too impervious. Occasionally I wanted that large, brainy head of his not to be glinting across the table from me at the dinner party. He might get up from the table and let his words alone give me a rest.

The only time I felt the urgency of his need to master understanding it all waver was in his interview with Marcia Langton, whom Robb has known for a long time and with whom he shares a powerful frisson. You sense his awe of her and the wound of her chastisement of him when she rips him a new arsehole in public, while out for dinner.

I do know one of his interview subjects (or I did, fifteen years ago – the piece is fairly old too) and I can’t say I think it very characteristic of her. But it doesn’t make me like this book less. And like all essayists, it’s a pleasure to dip into and read over time.

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