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Simon Callow’s prowess as a biographer of intelligence and insight is not to be underrated. He has been responsible for an authoritative portrait of Charles Laughton and is currently working on the fourth instalment of what has become the definitive biography of Orson Welles.

Add to that, books on Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde, a history of the National Theatre and several volumes of autobiography, and Callow, who writes with an always engaging (if here too often over-emphatic) immediacy, is something of a force to be reckoned with.

All of which makes Being Wagner rather disappointing. The compulsively contrary Wagner is not easily confined within a single slender volume and the book’s subtitle, ‘The Triumph of the Will’ is not a concept that responds well to concision.

At odds is Callow’s apparently straightforward ambition and the sheer scale of the undertaking. The book stems from Callow’s artful and admired one-man show, Inside Wagner, seen at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio in 2013, and much of its self-dramatising finds its way into the analysis on offer here.

Being Wagner is at its best when advocating for Wagner’s astonishing industry and monomaniacal devotion to his art and, not least, his chaotic private and public life in which crushing poverty, political censure and artistic isolation were all prevalent. ‘He was Rimbaud,’ Callow pertly observes of the potent alchemy of poetry and charisma that was the singular and self-taught Wagner, ‘he was Kurt Cobain; he was James Dean.’ A book focusing on Wagner the outsider might have given Callow more to work with.

He is on less stable ground when trying to explain the intoxicating uniqueness of Wagner’s music. Discussions on the influence of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche suggest a mis-reading of the philosophical arguments posited by both. Nor does his constant recourse to adjectival prolixity when describing emotional states or intellectual positions imbue any greater confidence.

Where the book succeeds despite its several factual errors is in conjuring in some small part the magnetic allure of Wagner’s character despite his solipsism and self-serving scheming. The analysis of Wagner’s behaviour towards the women in his life and his homoerotic relationship with the beneficent King Ludwig is particularly telling. Elsewhere, it is decidedly lacking.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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