Monday, June 18, 2007

The Diana Chronicles: judging it by its cover

Tina Brown’s The Diana Chronicles arrives in the post. For review purposes, my interest is less in the story therein and how Brown tells it than in the book’s physicality and presentation. As Arcati readers know, I’m of the firm view that some books can be judged by their cover (and the few explicatory pages within that bookend the main text), and Tina’s is one of them.

What hits you first is the shocking or neon pink (or kinky pink) cover: it’s a colour screamer intended to draw the feminine eye. My first impression on sight of the book was of Diana as a large lobster boiled to death. This is a woman’s tale to which fellow women will be drawn. But so garish is it that one instantly suspects a little over-compensation for something. That something – or someone – could be Tina Brown herself.

She is not famous as a writer as such beyond some smarty-pants celebrity profiles of yesteryear: media followers know her as the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and the ill-fated Talk. Hers is a hard, clever image - not the stuff of non-fiction bestsellerdom. She has a reputation for a modish, magpie use of shiny word finds, as if the employment of the latest now-word or phrase shifts her into the symphonic moment: she is the uber-literate version of the virtually illiterate US Vogue editor Anna Wintour. One may do words and the other frocks but both do zeitgeist with a vengeance. If that’s dust you see, it’s their wake as they hurtle to the next next reason for their vampiric greater glory.

So Tina was not an obvious choice to write this book. Reverse the book and the pink is vitiated a little by text in black, white and gold. Helen Mirren’s testimonial is a smart touch: to Americans especially she now is the democratic embodiment of the Queen from the movie of that name in which she starred. One might suppose at a subconscious level that Her Maj has licensed this book, so to speak, given it royal assent. To state this is to sound silly yet Mirren’s slightly too well-written words are not here by accident. It’s a soft irony that will amuse the wise and delight the sweet hearted.

Brown’s portrait is a thing of wonder: art critic Brian Sewell must be summoned to pass judgement. Such is the extent of the recreation from the palette of contrasting pastels that for a moment I thought that Kristin Scott Thomas had posed as a stand-in, but it serves the purpose of pictorially complementing the shocking pink. Tina Brown is now a blockbuster author, the photo is telling us, “and I’m not 53.” It is pure Danielle Steel glitz. Photographer Annie Liebovitz – a Tina Brown recruitee at VF – has done a splendid job. She’ll go far.

Now, another surprise. Shocking pink might suggest that we’re in for a simplistic, sensational or exclamatory tale of fluffy, womanly things. Yet on opening the book, the type and layouts reveal a severe masculine side. The print is scholarly small and the acknowledgements runs to eight pages – she spoke to over 250 people for the book. It could be a biography by Richard Ellmann. At the back there’s a substantial bibliography and notes (per chapter). There’s even a lengthy index. This is a serious biography, after all. The shocking pink proves to be seductive but misleading. The colour will appeal to those who would not be drawn to a book with an interiority such as this. The interiority will appeal to those put off by the pink.

To the eye then it's a Jekyll & Hyde sort of book, wanting to have its cake and eat it - and there's nothing wrong in that. But a book with a split personality may not quite know what it really is - let's hope its readers can work that out for themselves.


Anonymous said...

Reviewers seem equally uncertain about the book.

Craig Brown in the MoS slated it as unoriginal and adding nothing new to the canon.

By contrast, AN Wilson in the Sunday Times claimed it to be the greatest Diana book ever written, with many new and captivating insights.

So, is it a stinker or a stunner?

Walter Ellis said...

This is more like it. A few years ago, while at a low ebb, I approached Ms Brown in New York to ask if she would consider assisting in a biography of her and her husband, the Blessed Harry, that, Gawd help me, I thought might pay the rent for six months. She did not reply. Her secretary at Talk Magazine did, however, email me to say that la Brown was resolutely opposed to any such biography and would instruct her friends to render no assistance. Happily for her, friends of the Princess of Wales presented no comparable obstruction, and today, having pocketed a million pounds plus for telling the untold story of Diana (again), Ms Brown is free to concentrate on the awesome material of her own life. I Iook forward to the result and hereby authorise her to use the above material in whatever manner she considers appropriate.

Arcati said...

I am so amused by this, Walter, that I have posted it on the main site for the delectation of those who couldn't make Tina's party at the Serpentine last night. Doubtless they had prior engagements.

Duralex said...

Brilliant vivisection of the book as a material thing, Madame, I appreciate.