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Tortured youths: how childhood misery often makes for genius

21 November 2020

9:00 AM

21 November 2020

9:00 AM

Fracture: Stories of How Great Lives Take Root in Trauma Matthew Parris

Profile, pp.304, 16.99

Greatness. Genius. Can you bottle it? Is there a formula? Inspired by his Radio 4 series Great Lives, Matthew Parris delves into the childhood background of some big names to see whether there are common denominators, and rather gives the game away in the title, Fracture: Stories of How Great Lives Take Root in Trauma.

He zig-zags between the territories of greatness and genius in his choice of mini-biographies, and slightly blurs the two concepts. Of course there’s a bit of difference between greatness and genius. I wouldn’t dispute that Edith Piaf was a great performer or that Coco Chanel was a great designer — but genius? That can only apply to, say, Marie Curie with her two Nobel prizes.

The roll-call of celebs here invites some debate as to their merits. I admire Louise Bourgeois’s work, but it’s never made my jaw drop — although the story of her mother keeping a pile of saucers next to the dinner table so that the temperamental father would have something cheap to smash if he had a tantrum pretty much justifies her inclusion.

‘Neither friend nor foe questions his genius,’ Parris writes of Tupac Shakur. In which case let me be of service. His commercial success aside, Shakur was an adequate rapper who brought little to the genre, and was a so-so actor: his apotheosis was because he was lucky enough to be shot dead in sexy, intriguing, unit-shifting circumstances. If you want a black musician who overcame an appalling childhood and poverty to reach success, offer hope and create something new, how about James Brown?


There’s a great deal of misery in these pages: poverty, bereavement, illness, isolation, unadulterated cruelty. Some of the hardships are well known; but I never knew that Edward Lear had a childhood so grim even Dickens might have baulked at putting it into fiction. Lear is the first case-study in the book, and Parris throws down his contention: ‘Genius is linked to childhood trauma.’

He argues that exceptional talent flourishes not despite early troubles but ‘because of those torments’, and he has marshalled a volume of evidence to back it up. Indeed, in the conclusion, he adds: ‘My argument itself needs no repetition. It’s been hammered home sufficiently — perhaps even tiresomely — throughout the book.’ Obviously Parris is not suggesting that it’s a simple formula of dropping your kids off at a substandard orphanage and then waiting for the accolades to flood in. Perhaps because they are so often cited, Parris doesn’t mention two of the most famous adages about genius: Buffon’s ‘genius is patience’, and Edison’s ‘genius is 99 per cent perspiration’. But these reflections would add to Parris’s argument.

What most of the subjects of this book learned forcefully at an early age is that you’re on your own: life is ephemeral and you shouldn’t expect any help. You can only count on yourself. It’s no use having talent if you don’t work, and most of the characters here are relentless, hyperactive hustlers.

Rudyard Kipling and Abraham Lincoln are the two most extensive bios. I’m always pleased to see Kipling getting some exposure because his work is still under-valued, especially his short stories. Since he is a writer, we get his own account of his hideous childhood — abandoned by his parents in Southsea. On one occasion he had to parade through the streets wearing a placard with the word ‘Liar’ on it. What else could he become but a writer? Victorian childhoods in general tended to the awful, which is probably why dying in some far corner of the empire may have looked, to some, like a lark. Parris also reflects on how, in the past, being gay could have been a factor in success, examining the careers of Freddie Mercury, Rudolf Nureyev and the possibility that Abraham Lincoln was a member of the club.

I learned a lot reading this. I didn’t realise how mad Wittgenstein’s family was. And I had forgotten that the Bolshevik Revolution was essentially a grudge match between Lenin and the Romanovs, the latter having executed Lenin’s older brother (for attempting to blow them up). It’s ironic that ‘cultural hegemony’ — a term coined by the Marxist Antonio Gramsci to describe how the ruling class maintain their rule — is now a term more applicable to how the Left control education in universities and schools.

The strength of Fracture is that it is very much like a cracking radio script: entertaining and easy to digest. Its weakness is the same. There isn’t much depth to most of the case-studies, or the chapters on children’s literature, or on the ‘science’ of genius. But my guess is that most readers will enjoy this book — and you can always delve deeper (there is a bibliography) on your own initiative if you’re tempted to investigate in greater detail. You know, like a genius would.

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