If the truth be known, humanity’s long quest to understand the nature of genius has generated more aphorisms than useful answers. Try this, for instance, by Schopenhauer: “Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.”
Then, more famously, here’s Swift: “When a great genius appears in the world you may know him by this sign; that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” That, at least, bequeathed John Kennedy Toole the title of a classic comic novel.
And there’s Gertrude Stein: “It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much, doing nothing, really doing nothing.” Or the unattributed maxim: “Genius is the fire that lights itself.” Are we clear? Didn’t think so.
In his masterly book Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (1992), James Gleick explores the mind, experiences and working methods of the great 20th-century theoretical physicist; noting that, in the scientific age, “the nature of genius… has become an issue bound up with the economic fortunes of nations.”
In Feynman’s case, Gleick records the distinction drawn by one of the mathematicians who observed him at Cornell between the “ordinary” geniuses and the “magicians”. An “ordinary” genius is a person whom others could match, if only they were many times better at what they do. A “magician”, in sharp contrast, has abilities that are incomprehensible; whose talent is ultimately mysterious; whose work is closer to wizardry than merely dazzling technical excellence. Feynman was definitely a “magician”. (Gleick also records wryly the dreary attempts of scientists to analyse sections of Einstein’s brain after his death in 1955, scanning and probing tissue samples in the vain hope of finding neurological and physiological clues to the nature of his uniqueness.)
Now, the hugely successful novelist, screenplay writer and memoirist, Nick Hornby, has taken a run at the question, in his excellent new book, Dickens & Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius (Viking). The comparative biography is a genre often deployed by historians: one thinks of Alan Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives (1991); Napoleon and Wellington (2001) by Andrew Roberts; and, more recently, Leo McKinstry’s Attlee and Churchill: Allies in War, Adversaries in Peace (2020).
In his exploration of the great Victoran novelist and the purple-clad overlord of Paisley Park, Hornby takes this standard historiographical tool and turns it to audacious purpose; trying to understand what made these two gods of his own, very personal artistic pantheon tick.
Our culture is indeed saturated in Dickensian influence: especially in cinema, ranging from David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946), via the movie musical Oliver! (1968) to Armando Iannucci’s wonderful The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019). The same story has been updated and transported to modern-day Lee County, Virginia, in Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel Demon Copperhead.
Prince, on the other hand, is part of the global musical bloodstream: not least because so many of his songs were performed by other artists – The Bangles’ ‘Manic Monday’, Chaka Khan’s ‘I Feel For You’, and Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’. What became known as the “Minneapolis Sound” can still be heard in modern funk, R&B, and hip hop.
And his early embrace of the challenge posed by MTV helped to create the 21st-century-branded pop star: a digital harlequin, launched on TikTok, streamed into a billion phones. There are also those who think that Prince the universal entertainer was, more specifically, the greatest rock guitarist that ever lived (as evidence, see his breathtaking solo on this 2004 superband tribute version of George Harrison’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ – and watch the royal nonchalance with which he tosses the guitar over his head when he is done).
But what, if anything connects, Charles John Huffam Dickens (1812-70) to Prince Rogers Nelson (1958-2016)? Mercifully, Hornby is no reductionist, and spares us the pointless search for final answers in what, by definition, is the pursuit of a mystery. Instead, he brings his well-established talent as the laureate of personal obsessions – football in Fever Pitch (1992) and pop music in High Fidelity (1995) – to bear upon creative genius, looking for suggestive points of similarity, affinities and symmetries in two extraordinarily different lives.
Dickens and Prince certainly had early hardship in common. Growing up in Minneapolis, the aspiring musician was shunted from his aunt’s home, back to his father, and then, from the age of twelve, to a life at the mercy of his friends who had space for him to sleep (for more on his life and work, try Prince’s posthumously published 2019 memoir, The Beautiful Ones; and Matt Thorne’s thorough biography).
At the same age, Dickens was separated from his family – who were incarcerated in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison in Southwark – to lodge in an unpleasant boarding house and work in a blacking warehouse, where he stuck labels onto jars of boot polish (the best biographies are Claire Tomalin’s magnificent study and Peter Ackroyd’s majestic life of London’s greatest novelist; Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s The Turning Point: A Year That Changed Dickens and the World, which zeroes in on 1851, is also fascinating).
After their respective abrasive introductions to life, as Hornby puts it, “more or less the moment they ceased to be teenagers they both caught fire, and lit up the world… They didn’t hang around.”
Before he turned 30, Prince had written a series of all-time pop classics – ‘I Feel For You’, ‘Little Red Corvette’, ‘Purple Rain’, ‘When Doves Cry’, ‘Kiss’, ‘Raspberry Beret’ and many others – and turned out five albums (1999, Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, Parade and Sign o’the Times) “that would match any creative hot streak in the history of popular music”.
By the same age, Dickens had published Sketches by Boz, The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge. Not for him the 10,000 hours of practice identified in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success (2008) as a precondition of greatness. In the production of his serialised stories, he was “great and successful more or less immediately”: each of the 19 instalments of The Pickwick Papers, appearing between March 1836 and October 1837, sold up to 40,000 copies.
There are similarities of a secondary order. Both artists had obsessive sex lives. Both were driven to draining periods of rage by the conviction – often justified – that they were being fleeced. Prince went to war with Warner Bros, and, as a mark of rebellion, stopped using his name between 1993 and 2000, deploying instead what he called “an unpronounceable symbol whose meaning has not been identified.”
Dickens, meanwhile, fought long and draining battles with plagiarists, especially theatrical companies that staged unauthorised versions of his novels, often before they were complete (by the end of 1838, for example, there were no fewer than 26 different adaptations of The Pickwick Papers).
Both discovered that their personal performances were at least as lucrative as the original works they created. In 1867, for instance, Dickens launched a grand tour of Northeastern America: 76 dates in five months.
As the digital revolution transformed music 140 years later, Prince was one of the first artists to grasp that, as Hornby puts it, albums were there to promote shows rather than vice versa. Hence, his unforgettable Super Bowl half-time show in 2007; and his 21 nights at the O2 Arena in east London in the same year.
This suited him very well since “Prince’s favourite thing to do after a show was to play another show” – often two or three more hours of performance, sometimes starting at 3am and ending at dawn.
In all this, there was a shared compulsion to create and to perform. Prince, writes Hornby, “was a particular kind of genius. He couldn’t stop writing, recording, playing. He couldn’t dam up his creativity, and he didn’t seem to want to anyway. He couldn’t stop working. There actually aren’t many artists with no off-switch.” (For a hilarious and gripping account of the work that Prince produced and did not release, see the movie director Kevin Smith’s monologue on the documentary he made with the singer – which may yet see the light of day. Don’t miss the camel anecdote.)
Dickens was the same. His novels add up to four million words; his journalism was prolific; there are already twelve hefty edited volumes of his letters in print. When he wasn’t writing, he was walking twelve miles a day, taking in everything he witnessed and transmuting it into the characters and detail of his fiction with what Chesterton beautifully described as “the unbearable realism of a dream”.
This work rate was at the heart of their magic, Hornby concludes. But it also “made an old age impossible”. Dickens was 58 when he died, and looked much older. Prince was only 57, found lifeless in a lift at Paisley Park after a fentanyl overdose.
In the end, Hornby does not try to draw pat conclusions, but – instead – seeks inspiration as a writer from his two very different, very similar heroes: “Not good enough. Not quick enough. Not enough. More, more, more. Think quicker, be more ambitious, be more imaginative. And whatever you do for a living, that’s something you need to hear, every now and again.”
He’s right. It’s much more exciting, rewarding and uplifting simply to relish genius; which, as all those frustrated aphorisms show, is not, in any case, and in the final analysis, to be understood.
A message from our sponsor
Fora is taking forward thinkers on an exciting journey to reimagine the working day through flexible, consciously designed spaces, premium amenities, and a curated programme of events. In partnership with Tortoise, Fora have launched a fortnightly news review taking stock of the current news agenda alongside leading journalists, specialists and prominent community voices. The next “Review” will be hosted at Fora, Soho, on Thursday 2nd November from 9–10am. We’d love you to come along! Sign up here.
The Devil’s Hour (Prime Video, 28 October)
Gideon (Peter Capaldi), a cadaverous prisoner, sits opposite social worker Lucy Chambers (Jessica Raine). There are hints of Hannibal Lecter’s early encounters with Clarice Starling in The Silence of Lambs (1991): intimations that Lucy, no less than Jodie Foster’s Clarice, is seeking some kind of urgent insight from a man who knows all about the dark side.
That’s only the first of many allusions in the latest collaboration between producers Steven Moffat and Sue Vertue, working in this case with writer Tom Moran. Lucy has an eight-year old son Isaac (Benjamin Chivers) whose chilly emotional detachment unnerves pretty much everyone, and is being explored by Dr Ruby Bennett (Meera Syal).
Is Isaac merely distracted by paranormal forces – like Danny in The Shining (1980) or Cole in The Sixth Sense (1999)? Or is he truly possessed? And why does Lucy, beset by insomnia, keep waking up at 3:33am – the so-called “Devil’s Hour”?
In parallel to this eerie plot. Di Ravi Dhillon (Nikesh Patel) and DS Nick Holness (Alex Ferns) pursue a serial killer. In this strand of the story, the series makers have fun referring to David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) – though, as with Isaac, we wonder whether this is all misdirection, and the nature of the murders is not all it seems.
The Devil’s Hour is simultaneously mischievous and unnerving, and reveals its secrets at its own pace, across six episodes. The time jumps and entangled stories compound the viewer’s anxiety and quicken the pulse. All in all, Halloween television of a high order.
The Banshees of Inisherin (general release)
“I just don’t like you no more”: thus does Colm (Brendan Gleeson) tell Pádraic (Colin Farrell) that their friendship is over; and that he will no longer be accompanying him to the pub at 2pm, as has evidently been their longstanding daily practice.
It is 1923, on the fictional island of Inisherin off the coast of Ireland. All seems set for a whimsical melodrama of gossip and low-stakes intrigue in a tiny rural community. Pádraic, a gentle dairy farmer, who loves his donkey and interprets life straightforwardly, is puzzled by this sudden rift and Colm’s irritation with his “aimless clatterin’”. His brighter sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon) does her best to console him, whilst trying to explain to him that, in life, such things happen.
Then we recall that this is a Martin McDonagh film, reuniting him with Gleeson and Farrell for the first time since the wonderfully dark In Bruges (2008). Something deep and existential lurks within Colm’s irritation: a sense that he is wasting time, and that he will reach the end of his life having nothing to show for it, as a musician (he plays the fiddle) or a human being. He longs, as Yeats would have it, to produce “monuments of unageing excellence”, but has achieved nothing of the sort. And he is prepared to go to truly gruesome lengths to prove to Pádraic how serious is his decision.
The sound of gunfire from the mainland – the civil war between the IRA and the Free State – has been interpreted by some as a banal metaphor for the conflict between the former friends. But that is not how McDonagh writes. In his mythic imagination, the noise of violence across the water is better understood as the demons of dissatisfaction threatening the human idyll of the island. As the story progresses, Sheila Flitton’s Mrs McCormick graduates from an unpleasant elderly neighbour and nuisance to one of the Weird Sisters in Macbeth, watching and warning of imminent doom.
Gleeson and Farrell are both superb (Farrell as good as he was in The Killing of a Sacred Deer). The Banshees of Inisherin is a rare and extraordinary film that lingers in the imagination and will be remembered long after the Oscar nominations it deserves are forgotten.
The Good Nurse (Netflix and selected cinemas)
In this sharp movie based on a notorious real-life case, Amy Loughren (Jessica Chastain) is an intensive care nurse at a New Jersey hospital, trying to raise her two daughters while concealing a serious heart condition from her employers (she hasn’t worked for them long enough to qualify for medical cover).
Help arrives in the form of a new and friendly colleague, Charlie Cullen (Eddie Redmayne), who quickly becomes indispensable to her professional and family life. Amy takes the risk of telling Charlie about her potentially lethal predicament.
But wait: suddenly what looks like a hospital drama becomes a police procedural, as detectives Tim Braun (Noah Emmerich) and Danny Baldwin (Nnamdi Asomugha) are called in to investigate the unexplained death of an ICU patient. To compound the mystery, the body has already been cremated. The cops are initially baffled, then increasingly suspicious that they are dealing with an institutional cover-up – and perhaps more than one.
Amy, too, begins to fret that Charlie is not all he seems. Redmayne’s descent from smooth generosity to sinuous menace is brilliantly rendered. Adapted from Charles Graeber’s book of the same name, Tobias Lindholm’s movie is rich in subtlety and all the more effective because of the understatement with which it delivers the chilling truth.
The Fight of Our Lives: My Time With Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s Battle For Democracy, and What It Means for the World – Iuliia Mendel (Simon & Schuster)
As Volodymyr Zelensky’s press secretary from June 2019 to July 2021, the journalist Iuliia Mendel was deeply embroiled in the Ukrainian president’s political life before Putin’s invasion in February. Naturally, her portrait of her former boss is generous – some have already called it partisan – though it is scarcely surprising that this is so. Nor is this memoir a hagiography: she readily admits that he has “not always been a perfect leader”, though – quite rightly – proceeds to acknowledge that “in the chaos of war he knew exactly what to do. He became our national protector.”
Much of the most interesting material in the book concerns (for instance) Zelensky’s dealings with Donald Trump and his government’s contact with the Russian autocrat: “[T]here is only one way to describe Putin: ‘old age.’ No matter how much I looked at him and his delegation, no matter how much I listened, everything about them conveyed old age: old ideology, old principles, old behavior, old thoughts.”
A native of the port city of Kherson – presently the scene of brutal fighting – Mendel is especially strong on the extent to which the conflict has cemented the resolve of Ukraine’s people to establish once and for all a sovereign independence. “We are determined,” she writes, “to restore our lost Ukrainian heritage while we also construct a vibrant contemporary identity. We have plenty of ideas about where we are headed, what we value from the past, and who we will be in decades to come.”
There will be many more books about this war, but Mendel’s should bolster the determination of the West to stick with Ukraine at all costs, for as long as it takes. How embarrassingly petty seem recent political upheavals at Westminster when one reads her description of a war that “has burned away all that was artificial and superficial in our lives.”
Haywire: The Best of Craig Brown (4th Estate)
Did you know that James Bond’s middle name is Herbert? Craig Brown does. He knows almost everything else, it seems; fuelling the great engine of his humour that magnificently powers through this wonderful collection of his writings in Private Eye, the Daily Mail, the New York Review of Books and other publications.
So he is able to explain just why the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933) is as funny today as it was nine decades ago: “Everything has been transformed into something else. The world has become a pun.”
With no less panache, he can imagine the diary of Jacob Rees-Mogg: “The breaking of one’s fast, or to employ the dreadful modern jargon, ‘breakfasting’ (!) with one’s family is surely one of the of the great pleasures of existence on earth.” Or describe how Kim Jong-Un would explain his appearance on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories: “You know what, Piers? I feel I owe it to my fans. They’ve been with me through the good times and the bad.”
His memories of Peter Cook are riveting: “the High Priest of Boredom, the Town Crier for Laziness… If only his jokes had been less funny, Peter Cook might have been rated the equal of Pinter and Beckett, perhaps even their superior.” But he is no less interesting on David Bowie, or Bruce Springsteen, or Keith Richards (who, he writes, performs for a certain generation the same role that the late Queen Mother did for its forebears: “a symbol of stability, the embodiment of easy living, a reminder, in these uncertain times, that some things never change”). A must-read anthology by a writer of almost preternatural versatility.
… and thank you to Tortoise Member Services Executive Sara Weissel for her recommendation of Strangers to Ourselves: Stories of Unsettled Minds by Rachel Aviv (Harvill Secker):
“Pascal’s Wager is often described as the calculation that we should believe in God as, on the off chance that hell is real, doing so will save us from eternal damnation. That isn’t false; it also isn’t the full story. There is a third part: if you pretend to believe in God long enough, over time you will actually have a true belief in God. What was once a story you went along with will eventually become your reality.
Strangers to Ourselves, the debut book by New Yorker staff writer Rachel Aviv, is about how that last stage – the power of the stories we tell ourselves – interacts with the field of modern-day psychiatry. A mental health diagnosis is taken by many to be a neutral thing, a description of ailments. But Aviv claims this isn’t the case – a diagnosis is just a narrative about someone’s identity, and often not a fully accurate one at that. As a narrative, it has the power to shape future identity; Western medicine often overlooks this power, to its own detriment.
That our identity is shaped by stories isn’t a particularly new idea. But that’s fine. Read this book not for its originality, but because Aviv shows precisely how stories intertwine with identity better than anyone else. How narratives work in conjunction with self-identity is tricky; it’s neither a fully internal or external process. How we view ourselves is shaped by the outside world, but how we view the outside world is undeniably linked to how we view ourselves.
Aviv uses six case studies as her framework for elucidating this complex interaction, allowing the narratives to speak for themselves. To explain how stories function she prioritises the story itself, allowing her to show – and not abstractly tell – precisely how the complex interaction between narratives and self-identity functions.
The end result is a book not so much about the failure of Western psychiatry as the inaptness of universals. We tell ourselves stories about ourselves, but no story is the story. Failure to comprehend that, Aviv shows, is just about as destructive to the mind as anything in the DSM-V.”
The Car – Arctic Monkeys
Sixteen years have passed since Alex Turner and his fellow band members barged their brilliant way into the mainstream with Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not – an album that drew its title from Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958). Remember Gordon Brown getting himself tied in knots by suggesting that he knew who the Arctic Monkeys were?
Like, say, Elvis Costello or Paul Weller, they have refused (admirably) to be trapped by their first contact with success and have continued to evolve and explore musical styles; most notably with their 2013 masterpiece AM.
In The Car, the band audaciously embraces the spirit of Burt Bacharach, the Rat Pack and lounge music, across ten tracks that positively relish lush orchestration and an 18-piece string section. The overall effect is noir-ish – ‘Hello you’ includes an explicit reference to Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1953) – the smoothness and apparent confidence of the sound undermined by the paranoia and unease of Turner’s lyrics.
Never far from his thoughts is the response of some critics and fans to the way in which the Monkeys have changed over the years; “puncturing your bubble of relatability with your horrible new sound”, as he puts it on ‘Sculptures Of Anything Goes’. On the same track he asks archly: “How am I supposed to manage my infallible beliefs?”
On “Jet Skis on the Moat”, he juxtaposes the perks of the big time with the flatness of reality. “Are you just happy to sit there and watch while the paint job dries?” Which is not to say for a second that the band has lost its sense of fun and raucous wit. And how could anyone possibly dislike an album that included the line “Lego Napoleon movie written in noble gas-filled glass tubes underlined in sparks”?
Insieme: Opera Duets – Jonas Kaufmann and Ludovic Tézier
When it comes to classical duet albums, it makes all the difference when the performers are good friends. Witness, for instance, the great tenor-baritone double act of Plácido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes.
Conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano and accompanied by the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Ludovic Tézier and Jonas Kaufrmann have produced a superb recording that showcases not only their respective virtuoso talents but also the creative power of camaraderie in such collaborations. Kaufmann says that “with this guy if you don’t go full throttle, you’re lost”; the baritone Tézier returns the compliment, observing that they strive, in their musical partnership, “to try and create a third voice”.
Last year, Kaufmann played Parsifal opposite Tézier’s Amfortas at the Wiener Staatsoper – both daunting parts – and the ease they have have developed together as performers is triumphantly evident in this collection of duets from Puccini’s La Bohème, Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, and (natural terrain for Pappano) the operas of Verdi. The Don Carlos and Otello duets are especially successful, full of drama and tension. The two father-son duets from Les vêpres siciliennes are beautifully realised, too.
… and thanks to Tortoise reporter, Phoebe Davis, for this recommendation of Taylor Swift’s Midnights:
“Hi my name is Phoebe and I am a Swiftie – it’s taken a while for me to be out and proud about being a devotee of Taylor Swift. It’s a silly thing really; there is an army behind me. Swift’s new record, Midnights, became the first album for five years to clock up a million units in a week. The last album to achieve this? Her 2017 record reputation.
I had, with regret now, stuck up my anti-mainstream nose at records like reputation. But the stars aligned when she released her pandemic albums folkore and evermore in rapid succession in 2020, featuring production from Aaron Dessner of the National, the Haim sisters and Bon Iver – artists I have huge respect for. Those albums distinctly broached the folk-rock genre I was comfortable with, while remaining true to familiar Swift topics: i.e. breakups and love. I was hooked. Her re-release of Red in 2021 – timed, as Swift would have intended, with my own breakup – sealed the deal.
It’s with all of this that in mind I plunged into the heady, hazy fog of Midnights – her tenth studio album. The 13 tracks, a well-documented number in Swiftian lore, are a delight that crowns her already solid place in pop royalty. It is more produced than her previous releases – she worked heavily with Jack Antonoff, a marmitey sticking point for some fans. But its steady drumbeat of sparkling synths and yearning vocals bring us closer to her pre-pandemic, pre-Scooter Braun, pre-Kanye drama work. Stand out songs are ‘Labyrinth’ and ‘Midnight Rain’.
There are some tracks that feel a little heavy in production, including ‘Snow on the Beach’ with Lana Del Rey. It’s also clear that this is a record designed for stage performance: something that was not true of folklore and evermore (not to their detriment). Still, her surprise appearances on Haim and Bon Iver’s respective tours show she isn’t quite ready to drop that style yet.
But the real joy of Midnights lies in the absolute mayhem of her 3am tracks, seven bonus songs that didn’t feature in the epic social media run up to the album. Bringing back Dessner to produce, they are, in the opinion of this Swiftie, some of the best tracks of her career. ‘Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve’ is the reason I will shell out money and time to fight off other fans for her upcoming tour tickets.”
Thanks to Tortoise Membership and Marketing Executive Steph Preston for their recommendation of My Son’s a Queer (but What Can You Do?), showing at London’s Garrick Theatre:
“Having debuted with a sold-out run at The Turbine Theatre in 2021, My Son’s a Queer (but What Can You Do?) is an unabashedly queer and over-the-top portrayal of writer and solo performer Rob Madge’s theatrical childhood. When Madge was 12, they roped their parents and grandma into staging their own full-blown Disney parade, right in their Coventry living room.
Packed full of childhood nostalgia and tapes from their parade, My Son’s a Queer tells the story of Madge growing up different, coming to terms with their identity, and of course recreates that parade, albeit with a bigger budget. It is no wonder that the show was crowned Best Off-West End Production 2022 at this year’s WhatsOnStage awards – it is a show for everyone, regardless of background, who has ever been made to feel ashamed for simply existing and being themselves.
The stripped-back set and costume design, courtesy of Ryan Dawson Laight, creates a perfect backdrop of Madge’s living room, allowing their stellar performance to shine through. It isn’t an easy task to carry a one-person show by yourself, let alone one complete with half a dozen fully choreographed musical numbers – which makes Madge’s performance all the more special. Not only do they capture the joy and excitement of putting on their own Disney parade, they manage to weave in their heart wrenching journey of self-discovery and coming to terms with their identity as a non-binary person.
With lyrics that will move you to tears and have you burst into fits of laughter in the same line, My Son’s a Queer so accurately captures the experience of anyone who felt different growing up, without apologising or toning down Madge’s exuberant personality.
My Son’s a Queer (but What Can You Do?) runs at the Garrick until Sunday 6 November. Tickets are available here.”
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to email@example.com.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner
Photographs Getty Images (digital composite Tortoise Media), LGI Stock/Corbis/VCG, Kevin Fleming/Corbis, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Mark Senior