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Books

What the critics liked

Garbo by Robert Gottlieb

Writing a biography about Greta Garbo is complicated, says Robert Gottlieb in his new book on the actress. The Swedish star was famously reclusive. She arrived in Hollywood in 1925, made a couple of dozen movies, then, at the age of 36, stopped acting. She lived alone for another 50 years before dying in 1990. It was a strange and quiet end for a woman who was so captivating on screen. “She offered the world intense emotion and great aesthetic pleasure,” says Gottlieb. “But she didn’t offer herself.”

Still, the snippets we get in Garbo (published in the UK on 14 January) are gripping, says Margaret Talbot in The New Yorker. Born in 1905, she grew up in Stockholm’s poorest neighbourhood, in a tiny flat with no indoor plumbing. Her mother worked in a jam factory, her father was a labourer and Garbo did odd jobs – applying soap to men’s faces at a barbershop and modelling hats in a department store. She longed to act, but couldn’t afford theatre tickets; instead she lingered by stage doors, watching the performers come and go.

That all changed when, aged 20, she was spotted in a small Swedish film and MGM shipped her off to LA. It wasn’t what she’d hoped. Garbo hardly spoke English and loathed American culture. “This ugly, ugly America,” she wrote in a letter home. “All machine, it is excruciating.” Hollywood, similarly, bored her. When David Niven asked why she quit acting, Garbo sighed. “I had made enough faces.”

For someone who wasn’t keen on acting, she was very good at it – and, once he starts describing Garbo’s work, “Gottlieb’s book comes gloriously into its own”, says Mark Harris in The New York Times. The 90-year-old author (“Come on, bravo”) is a film buff who grew up on Garbo. It’s clear he adores her, but he isn’t scared to criticise her. “This is what we want film books to do – to send us to the work with sharper eyes and more open minds.”

You may have missed… Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

I loved Sorrow and Bliss so much that after I finished reading it, I went and stalked the author on social media, says India Knight in The Sunday Times. “A first.” Meg Mason, it turns out, is 43 and lives in Australia. And she has written the runaway, word-of-mouth success of 2021. Sorrow and Bliss (Weidenfeld & Nicolson £14.99) is on almost every “best of” fiction list this year, and rightly so – it is a joy from the first page to the last. “No simpering idiocy, no gagging. Its beautifully understated, airy style conceals the fiercest intelligence.”

The story follows the Friels, a dotty family from west London. There’s Fergus, the father, a poet with writer’s block; Celia, the mother, an almost-famous sculptor and functioning alcoholic; Ingrid, the sister, “often pregnant and always very funny”; and our heroine, Martha, clever, beautiful, privileged and miserable. Her marriage has collapsed, her family is a nightmare and her mental health is in tatters. Despite all that, Mason’s book is “unbearably funny”. So, if you’re reading this thinking “Oh, you’ve lost me, I don’t fancy a novel about mental illness”, think again. “I guarantee you’ll fancy this one.”

Available as an audiobook on Audible, narrated by Emilia Fox.

Beware Zadie Smith syndrome

There is an unspoken rule in literary criticism, says an anonymous writer in The Critic. Once critics have decided someone is a great writer, they must go on being called a great writer for ever – if only “to spare the blushes” of the silly pundits who decided they were a great writer to begin with. It’s known as Zadie Smith syndrome – because, after the British author’s debut novel, White Teeth, she became such an established literary darling that no one dared criticise her. An absurd TLS review of Smith’s third – and rather bad – novel, On Beauty, admired the way the book was “happily inhabiting its own apparent slightness”. In plain English this means: “Quite frankly this novel is a disappointment. But as it comes from the pen of Zadie Smith I can only assume that she intended to write it this way, and therefore the usual congratulations are in order.”

The same could be said of Jonathan Franzen or Sally Rooney, who both published dreary books this year to enormous fanfare. But we’d all be a great deal better off if we admitted that sometimes great writers make big mistakes. “After all, even the Beatles recorded the odd duff track.” If I were Smith, Franzen or Rooney, I’d want to be told about my shortcomings: “It might help me to become a better writer.”