The world from Mbeki's shoulder

2008-03-31 00:00

PAUL Johnson’s riveting, if prurient, 1988 collection of mini-biographies, Intellectuals, in which he delights in exposing the personal flaws of some of the world’s leading thinkers, left me at an impressionable age with a slightly nervous respect for biographers. How many life stories, no matter how noble they looked from the outside, could withstand the sustained critical scrutiny of a Paul Johnson, I wondered.

The sheer size of the volume (800-odd pages) and the time taken to complete it (eight or so years) is indication enough of the author’s painstaking attention to detail, his judicious attempts to tease out the implications of his subject’s words and actions over the years and those of his colleagues and family members, excluding his wife Zanele, who declined to be interviewed for the book.

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