Chamberlain, Lesley 1951-
Chamberlain, Lesley 1951-
PERSONAL: Born September 26, 1951, in Essex, England; daughter of Geoffrey Percy (a newspaper representative) Chamberlain and Pamela Jill (a homemaker) Buller-Staple; children: Elizabeth Forbes. Education: University of Exeter, B.A. (with honors), 1973; Wolfson College, Oxford, M.Litt., 1980.
ADDRESSES: Home—London, England. Agent—David Higham Associates, 5-8 Lower John St., Golden Sq., London W1F 9HA England.
CAREER: Portsmouth Polytechnic, Portsmouth, England, lecturer in Russian and German, 1976-77; Reuters Agency, journalist, 1977-86; freelance writer, critic, and teacher, 1986—.
The Food and Cooking of Russia, Penguin (New York, NY), 1982, reprinted with a new introduction by the author, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 2006.
(Editor and author of introduction) Marietta La Cucina Futurista, Trejov, 1989.
In the Communist Mirror: Journeys in Eastern Europe, Faber (London, England), 1990.
Volga, Volga: A Journey down Russia’s Great River, Picador (London, England), 1995.
Nietzsche in Turin: The End of the Future, Quartet Books (London, England), 1997, published as Nietzsche in Turin: An Intimate Biography, Picador (New York, NY), 1998.
In a Place Like That (novel), Quartet Books (London, England), 1998.
(Editor) Catherine Atkinson and Trish Davies, The Practical Encyclopedia of East European Cooking: The Definitive Collection of Traditional Recipes, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, Lorenz (London, England), 1999.
(Editor) Catherine Atkinson and Trish Davies, From Stroganov to Strudel, Southwater (London, England), 2000.
(Editor) Catherine Atkinson and Trish Davies, The Balkan Cookbook: Traditional Cooking from Romania, Bulgaria, and the Balkan Countries, Southwater (London, England), 2000.
The Secret Artist: A Close Reading of Sigmund Freud, Quartet Books (London, England), 2000, Seven Stories Press (New York, NY), 2003.
Girl in a Garden (novel), Atlantic Books (London, England), 2003.
Motherland: A Philosophical History of Russia, Atlantic Books (London, England), 2004.
The Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligentsia, Atlantic Books (London, England), 2006, published as Lenin’ s Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia, St. Martin’s Press (New York, NY), 2007.
Also author of The Festival Food of Russia. Contributor to periodicals, including the Times Literary Supplement and the Independent.
SIDELIGHTS: Lesley Chamberlain has written numerous nonfiction books on Russia and Eastern Europe, including cookbooks, as well as novels and short stories. In Volga, Volga: A Journey down Russia’s Great River, Chamberlain writes about her 2,290-mile cruise down that country’s famous waterway. As Times Literary Supplement reviewer Philip Glazebrook observed, the book conveys the intensity of the author’s love-hate relationship with the country. Hailing the book as an “eloquent account” of travels in a complex and difficult land, Glazebrook went on to suggest that Chamberlain’s romantic approach to Russia can be problematic. “It is by accepting Russia as an Asiatic tyranny, not by seeing it as a European democracy temporarily derailed, that the traveler reconciles himself to the realities of Russian life,” he noted, “but Chamberlain never ceases to expect improvement and to search the Russian wasteland hopefully for the cosiness of Europe.” Finding the author “at her best with Russian writers,” he expressed disappointment that she relies more on their words than on her own direct experience in trying to communicate what it is about Russia that so enthralls her, despite the country’s formidable difficulties.
The absurdities and ironies of Russian life are also the focus of In a Place Like That, a novel of linked short stories. Chamberlain creates a fictional country, Bezzakonia, which is founded by a revolutionary, Bezum. As Times Literary Supplement reviewer Lindsey Hughes pointed out, the Russian roots of these words suggest lawlessness, anarchy, and insanity; other parallels make it clear that the Soviet Union is Chamberlain’s target in the book. Hughes saw the novel as a sharply observed depiction of stock characters brought “vividly to life” and of the indignities of the Soviet system of shortages, suspicion, cultural insecurity, and institutional corruption. “Most of all,” Hughes noted, “Chamberlain explores the irresistible, unreliable attraction” between East and West, as characters fall in love across cultural divides. Calling the book “immensely absorbing” and “brilliant,” Hughes concluded that the novel “is a touching and humorous requiem to a lost world.”
Among Chamberlain’s most highly regarded works is Nietzsche in Turin: An Intimate Biography. Many critics appreciated the book as a much-needed popular view of a philosopher whose work is often misunderstood. Nietzsche’s writings on the “Ubermensch” (“Superman”) were appropriated and distorted by the Nazis, and though he remains one of the most influential philosophers of the modern and postmodern eras, his work today is often reduced to slogans that betray little knowledge of his complete thinking. Chamberlain begins her book in 1888, when Nietzsche resided in the Italian city of Turin, which he called “the first place where I am possible.” Stating that her aim in the book is to “befriend” the philosopher, Chamberlain goes on to explore the inner man and to create a sympathetic portrait of a person she calls a “strained, charming, malicious and misunderstood thinker [who is] so important to the present age.”
Nietzsche in Turin received considerable critical attention. New York Times Book Review contributor Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, who deemed the book “original and enlightening,” found it a “combination of discreet psychobiography and eloquent philosophical speculation.” In the Times Literary Supplement, Iain Bamforth praised Chamberlain’s “passionate [and] committed” approach to her subject. Though World and I writer John C. McCarthy commended Chamberlain’s efforts to correct prevalent misconceptions about Nietzsche, he felt that her tendency to offer psychoanalytic explanations glosses over some of the complexities of Nietzsche’s thought. ‘Praise’ for Nietzsche is intelligible,” McCarthy wrote, “only if his writing and thinking are in the end irreducible to the particularities of his life.” New Statesman & Society writer Keith Answell Pearson, however, judged the book a “hugely intelligent study.” Noting Chamberlain’s depiction of Nietzsche as a “feminine” writer and a “philosopher of desire” who rejected specific masculine or feminine tendencies and whom Chamberlain sees as a “champion of the ‘eternally feminine,’” Pearson praised the biography as a work “full of uncanny insight, written with poise and showing a profound appreciation of [its] subject.” And in Los Angeles Times Book Review, Alain de Botton hailed the book as an “elegant and sympathetic” portrait of a complex and emotionally needy man who “braved his extraordinary existence” with courage and good humor.
Chamberlain studies another giant of modern thought in The Secret Artist: A Close Reading of Sigmund Freud. In this book, which Times Literary Supplement critic Ritchie Robertson called “stimulating” Chamberlain examines Freud’s interest in creative, rather than strictly scientific, work. She sees the psychoanalyst’s scientific ideal as a “neurotic hiding-place” where he could avoid acknowledging his imaginative tendencies. Indeed, in Robertson’s words, the author presents Freud as “a kind of novelist working with real lives” who used the trappings of science to make his work seem respectable. Chamberlain identifies a “fundamental voyeurism” in Freud’s personality, and suggests that he sometimes pressured “patients into being the carriers of feelings he finds unacceptable in himself.” Though Chamberlain is critical of Freud, she also expresses great respect for the liberating results of psychoanalysis. Robertson noted that some of Chamberlain’s points have been made before, but he added that “her book is packed with reflections” and “testifies to the fascination Freud continues to exercise once we are free both of hagiography and of idol-smashing.”
In Motherland: A Philosophical History of Russia, Chamberlain examines nineteenth-and twentieth-century Russian social and political thought and its relationship to Western philosophical ideas. “Essentially Russian-style philosophy is a counter-enlightenment mindset which takes Pascal as its founding father and rejects the West’s choice of Descartes,” the author told Philosophy Now interviewer Rick Lewis. “The ethical-religious attitude to knowledge leaves Russia without a rational tradition to uphold standards of objectivity and impartiality.” Drawing on her knowledge of Russian language, literature, and philosophy, Chamberlain presents an analysis of some forty Russian intellectuals, including Vissarion Belinsky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. “At its best, Chamberlain’s account sheds light on the complex cultural reaction set off when modern Western ideas wash up on the shores of cultures simultaneously ashamed of their social and scientific backwardness and convinced of their moral superiority,” observed New York Times reviewer Mark Lilla. “In the 19th century Russia was the small theater in which this drama played out; today, the theater is the entire world. The value of this book is that it offers a small window into the mental universe of underground men everywhere.”
Chamberlain looks at a tragic chapter in Russian history in Lenin’s Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia. In September 1922, Russia forcibly evicted nearly seventy intellectuals, scholars, and journalists at the behest of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin. The men and their families were loaded onto a pair of German cruise ships and sent into permanent exile; many settled in Paris, Berlin, and Prague. According to New York Times reviewer William Grimes, Chamberlain “brings these forgotten figures back to life with great skill and sympathy, reconstructing their intellectual milieu and making a strong case for the importance of their banishment as a turning point in the road from revolution to Communist tyranny.” “Each of the strands in Lenin’s Private War is fascinating, and together they make for an important book,” observed Adam Kirsch in the New York Sun. “Ms. Chamberlain shows that the losers of history—the powerless intellectuals whom Lenin swept aside with the stroke of a pen—can have more to teach us than the winners. She reminds us that the cost of communism is measured not just in lives lost, but in ideas forgotten and possibilities foreclosed.”
Chamberlain once told CA: “Spending a year in Moscow, from 1978 to 1979, was a turning point. It stimulated my interest in Russia and Eastern Europe, and it encouraged me to get out on my own and write-and explore! It seems to me every book should contain a little food and travel, a little art and philosophy-as complementary ways to approach life.”
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Chamberlain, Lesley, Nietzsche in Turin: An Intimate Biography, Picador (New York, NY), 1998.
Booklist, January 1, 1998, review of Nietzsche in Turin, p. 745; June 1, 2007, Jay Freeman, review of Lenin’s Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia, p. 11.
Economist, March 18, 2006, “Forgotten Men: The Russian Revolution,” p. 80.
Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 1997, review of Nietzsche in Turin, p. 1681.
Library Journal, May 15, 2007, David Keymer, review of Lenin’s Private War, p. 100.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 22, 1998, Alain de Botton, review of Nietzsche in Turin.
New Statesman & Society, March 10, 1995, review of Volga, Volga: A Journey down Russia’s Great River, p. 38; December 6, 1996, Keith Ansell Pearson, review of Nietzsche in Turin, p. 56.
New Yorker, April 27, 1998, review of Nietzsche in Turin, p. 161.
New York Review of Books, August 13, 1998, John Banville, review of Nietzsche in Turin, p. 22.
New York Sun, August 22, 2007, Adam Kirsch, “Lenin’s First Purge,” review of Lenin’s Private War.
New York Times, July 29, 2007, Mark Lilla, “The Cost of Utopia,” review of Motherland: A Philosophical History of Russia; August 8, 2007, William Grimes, “Russia’s Castaway Intellectuals in Revolution’s Wake,” review of Lenin’s Private War.
New York Times Book Review, February 23, 1998, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Nietzsche in Turin.
Philosophy Now, February-March, 2006, Rick Lewis, “Lesley Chamberlain,” and Marcus Wheeler, review of Motherland.
Publishers Weekly, November 17, 1997, review of Nietzsche in Turin, p. 43; May 21, 2007, review of Motherland, p. 49.
Times Educational Supplement, August 9, 1996, review of Volga, Volga, p. 16.
Times Literary Supplement, July 28, 1995, Philip Glaze-brook, review of Volga, Volga; February 14, 1997, Iain Bamforth, review of Nietzsche in Turin; May 1, 1998, Lindsey Hughes, review of In a Place Like That; October 27, 2000, Ritchie Robertson, review of The Secret Artist: A Close Reading of Sigmund Freud, p. 11.
Washington Post Book World, May 30, 1999, Jennifer Howard, review of Nietzsche in Turin, p. 10.
World and I, May, 1998, John C. McCarthy, review of Nietzsche in Turin, p. 267.
Lesley Chamberlain Home Page,http://www.lesleychamberlain.co.uk (September 25, 2007).*