Italian polymath Umberto Eco made a dazzling literary debut more than twenty years ago with The Name of the Rose, and he retains an outsized ability to make readers stand up and take notice. In Italy his new novel, The Prague Cemetery (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27), has stirred some controversy as being anti-Semitic, but I strongly disagree. (Publishers Weekly describes the book as “hilarious.”) The main thing you need to know about Eco is that his academic field is semiotics, the study of signs and symbols. This informs his fiction, especially here, where the narrator is a master document-forger, thus casting a shadow of doubt over everything he recounts. For instance, how much can we trust the story of a meeting of the leaders of the Twelve Tribes of Israel? They are said to have gathered in Prague’s Jewish cemetery to plan a Jewish conquest of the world, but the whole plot is called into question once the narrator has confessed that he falsified oral testimony given by a secret witness to that meeting. The narrative chronicles a paranoia so outlandish, and conspiracy theories so abundant, that the novel is as humorous as it is ominous about the darker forces of human irrationality.
Hemingway named her Pilar after a shrine in a Spanish village where he’d watched bullfights in his younger days. Pilar represented everything he loved, and she was the only female he was ever faithful to. For the last twenty-seven years of his life Pilar was Hemingway’s Boat (Knopf, $30), and she was no gentlemanly yacht, but a virile powerboat on which he could be cock of the bridge. Hemingway was also a passionate fisherman, hunter of German subs, and composer of prize-winning stories, as well as a failed father to his three scarred sons and wayward husband to his four wives. He brought his own life of early creative promise to a sad and self-destructive end. “His life, like his boat, beat against so many crosscurrents,” writes Paul Hendrickson, author of the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Sons of Mississippi in this beautiful and unconventional biography of Hemingway.
Rosamund Bartlett, a British scholar of Russian culture, has written extensively about the grand masters of Russian fiction, including Chekhov, Gogol, and Turgenev. Her new Tolstoy: A Russian Life (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35) makes extensive use of sources not available until the fall of the Soviet Union. Born into a landed aristocratic family, Tolstoy filled his younger years with drinking, gambling, and seducing serfs. Later, the Count became a populist, pacifist, vegetarian, and advocate for peasant literacy and women’s rights. Bartlett gives a thorough portrait of the artist and links his life in fascinating ways to his writing, showing how Tolstoy drew on his own ideas and on his family members to create the memorable figures of his novels. A.N. Wilson, who wrote the last significant biography of Tolstoy twenty years ago, says that Bartlett’s work “conveys Tolstoy to me more vividly than any biography I have read, although not any biography I have written!”