Cate, Curtis 1924–
CATE, Curtis 1924–
PERSONAL: Born May 22, 1924, in Paris, France; son of Karl Springer (a businessman) and Josephine Savilla (Wilson) Cate; married Helena Bajanova, October, 1965. Education: Harvard University, graduate (magna cum laude), 1947; Ecole des Langues Orientales, diploma in Russian, 1949; Magdalen College, Oxford, graduate study, 1949–52.
ADDRESSES: Agent—Wallace and Sheil, 177 E. 70th St., New York, NY 10021.
CAREER: Atlantic Monthly, Boston, MA, European editor, 1958–65; biographer and literary critic. Military service: U.S. Army, 1943–46.
AWARDS, HONORS: Grand Prix Litteraire from l'Aero-Club de France, 1974, for Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: His Life and Times.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: His Life and Times, Putnam (New York, NY), 1970.
(Translator) Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Southern Mail, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1972.
George Sand, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1975.
Ides of August: The Berlin Wall Crisis—1961, M. Evans (New York, NY), 1978.
(With Boris Goldovsky) My Road to Opera: The Recollections of Boris Goldovsky, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1979.
The War of the Two Emperors: The Duel between Napoleon and Alexander—Russia, 1812, Random House (New York, NY), 1985.
(Editor) Afghanistan: The Terrible Decade 1978–1988, Kingston Press, 1989.
André Malraux: A Biography, Hutchinson (London, England), 1995, Fromm International (New York, NY), 1997.
Friedrich Nietzsche: A Biography, Hutchinson (London, England), 2002, Overlook Press (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor to magazines, including Horizon, National Review, Tour d'Horizon, Cornhill, World and I, and New York Times Book Review.
SIDELIGHTS: Curtis Cate frequently combines the roles of biographer and historian in his studies of European people and events. As an American raised in Paris and educated in England, France, and the United States, Cate has a broad world-view that serves him well in his writing. His first book was a biography, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: His Life and Times, about the famed French author and aviator who is perhaps best-known for his book The Little Prince. It reflected Cate's "lasting infatuation for this extraordinary man," stated Life reviewer John Phillips. In addition, Cate offers a detailed background on France during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, the troubled decades in which Saint-Exupéry lived. The book is lengthy, and its broad approach to Saint-Exupéry and his world is appropriate, note reviewers, since the author's life "touched the life of his country at so many significant points," remarked Nona Balakian in the New York Times. An Atlantic reviewer lauded the book as "at once dedicated and definitive," but Lewis Galantiere, writing in the New York Times Book Review, faulted it as having too much repetitive detail, which "clogs the narrative and adds nothing to his delineation of Saint-Ex's character and account of his life." Still, Galantiere concluded that despite its weaknesses, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was "the fullest and most reliable, indeed the best book we have on Saint-Ex and one that is not likely soon to be superseded."
In his second biography, George Sand, Cate investigated the life of the nineteenth-century French novelist who is probably remembered as much for her flamboyant lifestyle as for the books she wrote. Sand, who was born Aurore Dupin, seemed to relish unsettling people with her ambiguous sexuality; as LeAnne Schreiber wrote in Time, "Her public image was that of a cigar-smoking iconoclast in top hat and trousers, an unabashed libertine." Schreiber commented that untangling Sand's real life history from her legend "could easily have proved a biographer's undoing. But Curtis Cate … approaches the task with both the patience of a scholar and the relish of a storyteller. He manages to puncture the myth without deflating the life." Cate puts to rest rumors of Sand's frigidity, nymphomania, and lesbianism. As Selden Rodman wrote in National Review, Cate "treats her not as a simplistic stereotype, but as a highly complex, compelling individual…. Motivated by intense feeling rather than passion, stirred by compassion and romanticism rather than sensuality," Sand is portrayed by Cate as a victim of "nympholepsy—a frenzied pursuit of ecstatic rapture, a mystic yearning for the unattainably sublime, a desperate craving for the ineffably tender."
Cate took on a more controversial subject in Ides of August: The Berlin Wall Crisis—1961. In this detailed political narrative, Cate describes the construction of the infamous barrier that split Germany into two separate countries for many years. He also, according to Time reviewer Edwin Warner, "strongly implies that the Wall would never have been built if the Western Allies had shown a little more sophistication and a little less fear." It is Cate's contention that U.S. President John F. Kennedy was intimidated by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who had threatened nuclear war if the West did not meet Soviet demands in Berlin. The Communists in power in East Germany were desperate to stop the mass exodus of citizens who were streaming across the border to start a new life in West Germany. Besides the loss of ordinary citizens, many doctors, scientists, and engineers also defected, leaving the country in poor shape. The construction of the Berlin Wall, which was an armed checkpoint, was clearly a violation of international law, and Cate states that it would not have been carried out if the West had reacted with appropriate forcefulness and intelligence. Cate's book indicates "if American tanks had knocked down the Wall as soon as it was started, it never would have been completed," reported Warner. Furthermore, the West's failure to stop the construction of the Berlin Wall encouraged the Soviet power elite to more bold moves, such as placing nuclear missiles in Cuba.
Cate examined more military and political history in The War of the Two Emperors: The Duel between Napoleon and Alexander—Russia 1812. The book details the marshalling of the French Grand Army, their march through Poland and the terrible sufferings endured by the Polish people at that time, and Napoleon's doomed invasion of Russia. Assessing this ambitious book in National Review, J. O. Tate called it "less a reflective survey of history than a novelistic, even epic panorama of personalities in conflict. Mr. Cate employs a quasi-Homeric technique of characterization that lends his broad canvas force, vivacity, and focus." Tate also lauded Cate's conscientious attention to his subject, stating: "The symphonic breadth of Curtis Cate's book is due not only to his imaginatively stirring writing, but also to a formidable amount of research into original sources."
Cate illuminated the life and work of yet another famous figure from French history with his 1995 biography André Malraux. Malraux was a brilliant author who left school at the age of seventeen and made a living for himself as a dealer in rare and pornographic books. Malraux loved adventure and excitement, and his spirit and originality were recognized early on by the literary establishment in Paris. He traveled through Indochina, China, the Soviet Union, and Spain, fought in the French Resistance, was captured and imprisoned by Nazis, and worked as the Minister of Culture in France for ten years. Assessing Cate's biography of the influential Malraux in World Literature Today, John L. Brown found the book almost too full of detail, commenting: "The plate is so heaped up that it lessens the appetite. In stressing biographical and historical detail, he pays less attention to the literary aspects of Malraux's great achievements." Still, Brown continued, this approach is not without merit, for Malraux "preferred the role of adventurer, one who loved the excitement of Action more than the seduction of the Word." Reviewing André Malraux in Rocky Mountain News, Deirdre Bair found that it "dwells more on that country's literary and political history than on Malraux, whom he presents as offhandedly happening onto the scene of the public drama that unfolds around him." Bair concluded: "Cate tries to give the obligatory literary criticism of Malraux's writing, but it amounts to little more than a few garbled quotations from some passable critics and blurbs from various reviews. Frequently, he refers to 'several' or 'other' biographers, as if to justify his own hesitant views." A Seattle Post-Intelligencer critic, however, was more appreciative, stating that to Cate, "Malraux is a resonant symbolic figure not as a novelist but as 'a tense, time-rationed intellectual, for whom action, service in a noble cause, and an anguished search for human significance in a godless cosmos were far more important than fiction.'"
Cate's next biography, Friedrich Nietzsche, is one of the lengthiest biographies available on the philosopher, taking readers through his life in great detail, until the time madness overtook him suddenly, when he was forty-five years old. Based on letters to and from Nietzsche, as well as the writer's published and unpublished works, Cate presents the facts without a great deal of interpretation. John Gray, a reviewer for New Statesman, remarked that Cate's biography "succeeds, as no previous book has, in making sense of the thought without contriving at the same time to make it boring." Gray pointed out, "Cate declares from the start that his book is not meant for 'professionals'—university professors and teachers of philosophy—and this is evident in its light, terse style, so different from the convoluted dullness that is obligatory in the academy nowadays." Guardian contributor Geoff Dyer found Cate's biography "diligent," and A. C. Grayling stated in the Financial Times, "Cate has a good narrative ability and tells Nietzsche's story with gusto. But it is a tendentious telling. Cate's Nietzsche is not a familiar one; he is not the uncompromising combatant of slavish conventional morality and the socially debilitating effect of religion which his own works and other biographies give us. Instead, he here appears as a spokesman for Cate's own credo, which is anti-liberal, anti-egalitarian and anti-godless, as if Nietzsche were a Republican congressman on President Bush's wing of the party." While Christine Madden of the Irish Times had a few reservations about the translations in the book and confusion between the author's opinions and Nietzsche's, she concluded her review by claiming, "Nevertheless, the book is illuminating, readable—and amazingly addictive."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Actualité, July, 1994, "Malraux," p. 88.
American Historical Review, December, 1987, W. Bruce Lincoln, review of The War of the Two Emperors: The Duel between Napoleon and Alexander—Russia, 1812, p. 1198.
Asia Africa Intelligence Wire, May 10, 2003, Simon Kilroy, review of Friedrich Nietzsche: A Biography.
Atlantic, December, 1970; November, 1985, Phoebe-Lou Adams, review of The War of the Two Emperors, p. 143.
Best Sellers, November 1, 1970.
Booklist, April 1, 1997, Bonnie Smothers, review of André Malraux, p. 1276; February 1, 2005, Bryce Christensen, review of Friedrich Nietzsche, p. 919.
Books and Bookmen, March, 1971.
Choice, October, 1997, A. H. Pasco, review of André Malraux, p. 302.
Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Australia), March 21, 1998, A. Field, review of André Malraux, p. 8.
Economist, October 14, 1995, review of André Malraux, p. 103.
Far Eastern Economic Review, November 27, 1997, Margaret Scott, review of André Malraux, p. 50.
Financial Times, March 22, 2003, A. C. Grayling, review of Friedrich Nietzsche, p. 4.
French Cultural Studies, February, 1997, Gino Raymond, review of André Malraux, p. 137.
Guardian (Manchester, England), March 15, 2003, Geoff Dyer, review of Friedrich Nietzsche, p. 9.
Horn Book, April, 1971.
Irish Times (Dublin, Ireland), November 8, 2003, Christine Madden, review of Friedrich Nietzsche, p. 62.
Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 2005, Bryce Christensen, review of Friedrich Nietzsche, p. 30.
Library Journal, October 1, 1985, Raymond Puffer, review of The War of the Two Emperors, p. 99; February 15, 1997, Marilyn Gaddis Rose, review of André Malraux, p. 135.
Life, November 13, 1970.
Nation, July 28, 1997, John Leonard, review of André Malraux, p. 25.
National Review, January 23, 1976; November 10, 1978; December 19, 1986, J. O. Tate, review of The War of the Two Emperors, p. 51.
New Leader, December 22, 1975.
New Statesman, February 23, 1979; March 3, 2003, John Gray, review of Friedrich Nietzsche, p. 48.
New Yorker, March 3, 1986, review of The War of the Two Emperors, p. 106.
New York Review of Books, May 29, 1997, Simon Leys, review of André Malraux, pp. 25-27.
New York Times, December 5, 1970; October 15, 1975.
New York Times Book Review, December 27, 1970; August 24, 1975; November 26, 1978; April 22, 1979, p. 17; July 20, 1986, David Murray, review of The War of the Two Emperors, p. 19.
Observer (London, England), March 23, 2003, Peter Conrad, review of Friedrich Nietzsche, p. 17.
Publishers Weekly, August 9, 1985, review of The War of the Two Emperors, p. 70; July 12, 1991, p. 57; January 27, 1997, review of André Malraux, p. 84.
Quadrant, October 1, 1997, Pierre Ryckmans, review of André Malraux.
Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO), June 22, 1997, Deidre Bair, review of André Malraux, p. 3E.
Saturday Review, August 23, 1975.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer (Seattle, WA), May 24, 1997, review of André Malraux, p. B2.
Spectator, July 15, 1995, David Caute, review of André Malraux, p. 28; March 15, 2003, Michael Tanner, review of Friedrich Nietzsche, p. 56.
Time, September 15, 1975; February 19, 1979.
Times Literary Supplement, November 21, 1975; September 8, 1995, John Taylor, review of André Malraux, p. 23; March 28, 2003, Jonathan Ré, review of Friedrich Nietzsche, p. 9.
Wall Street Journal, May 5, 1997, Renee Winegarten, review of André Malraux, p. A16.
Washington Post, May 7, 1979.
World Literature Today, summer, 1996, John L. Brown, review of André Malraux, p. 658.