The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman is a powerful recalling of the author’s experiences in Warsaw during World War II. When his family is sent to the infamous Warsaw Ghetto, Wladek (his nickname) earns money by playing piano in the ghetto cafes. When his family is sent to the trains to the concentration camps, Wladek is plucked from the edge of doom and spends the rest of the war hiding in the ruins of the ghetto, getting by as he can. Wladek responds to crisis by taking his emotions out of the equation, and reports his memories as they come to him. When he discusses the loss of his family, the horrors he sees, he does so dispassionately, like a reporter. He does this because to inject how he feels would compromise his narrative and would distract him from getting his thoughts down on paper and out of his brain forever. The resulting memoir is not necessarily in chronological order, but is no less powerful as a result. As we journey with Wladek, as we see what he saw, even at this distance in the twenty-first century, the overwhelming response must be “Never again can this be allowed to happen.”
In college, I'd wander into the library stacks to write papers only to be distracted by Joseph Frank’s brilliant concatenation of intellectual history, literary criticism, painstaking archival work and soul-searching, which happened to occupy my corner of the stacks. Joseph Frank is the greatest biographer of Dostoevsky in any language; and the academe long viewed with trepidation the prospect that Frank would die before completing his magnum opus. Dostoevsky, the work of thirty-two years and five volumes, seems a worthy use of a life. Now Frank, 91, has overseen a masterful condensation of the 2,500 page original into a single volume fit for popular (albeit of the NYRB sort) consumption. Despite his prodigious literary productivity, Dostoevsky’s life did not lack incident: epileptic fits, the murder of his father, revolutionary intrigue, Siberian exile, gambling away his last pennies in Europe… It all reads a little bit like a Dostoevsky novel.
Simon Winchester is a storyteller of rare caliber. The common thread for his diverse biographical sketches is eccentricity, and in his newest book, The Man Who Loved China (Harper Perennial, $15.99), Joseph Needham, Cambridge scientist, leftist, freethinker, accordionist, folk dancer, and nudist, certainly qualifies. A young married Cambridge Fellow, Needham fell in love with a Chinese university student and then in turn became infatuated with and studied the Chinese language, Chinese history, and all the mysteries of the Middle Kingdom. In 1943, with China in the midst of the Japanese occupation, he made his first of many trips to the country, visits which eventually produced a 24-volume encyclopedia of Chinese civilization. More than 50 years after the passionate love affair began, and two years after his loyal wife died, Needham married the Chinese student. When she died two years later, he asked three other women to marry him. They all declined.