Review of reviews: Books

What the critics said about the best new books: A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917–1932; Gomorrah: A Personal Journey Into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System

Book of the week

A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917–1932

by John Richardson

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(Knopf, $40)

Pablo Picasso never hid how he felt about the women in his life. In his early portraits of his first wife, Olga Khokhlova, he often depicted the former Ballets Russes dancer as a pure soul or noble beauty. The sentimentality appalled his bohemian friends. But the painter’s imagery grew more adventuresome as his marriage deteriorated. Olga became a screaming shrew, a horse, a knife-wielding murderer—her tongue a dagger and her eyes stacked like sandbags. Ten years into their marriage, the 45-year-old Picasso had begun a passionate affair with a voluptuous teenager he met on a Paris street. “I feel,” he told 17-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter, “we are going to do great things together.” The third volume in John Richardson’s great and gossipy biography makes the most of the sparks that followed, said James Panero in The New York Sun. The book catches Picasso during an odd middle-age interlude between cubism and his great anti-war work, Guernica. Its protagonist spends the book’s first 10 years almost sleepwalking his way into glamorous social circles and bourgeois comforts. But sex with Marie-Thérèse inspired an avalanche of bold work and an enduring new visual vocabulary for the artist. “Ever the willing accomplice,” Richardson is “never at a loss for words” when confronted with canvases that celebrate Picasso’s life between the sheets. Nor should he be, said Peter Plagens in Newsweek. “Sex sells,” and if there’s one reason Picasso vaulted past Duchamp, Matisse, and Dalí to become our “quintessential modern artist,” it’s that he made “avant-garde art sexy.” Picasso had anything but a one-track mind, though, said Jed Perl in The New York Times. In fact, Richardson’s “powerhouse of a book” should help overturn the old-fashioned idea that his cubist period was his pinnacle. Picasso was obliged to move on to new things because his brand of modernism embraced “variety and paradox.” As Richardson shows us, said Hilary Spurling in the London Observer, his true ambition was “to stamp his image on everything in sight.” When he transformed mouths into vaginas and breasts into penises, he was presenting himself as a new god. When he created those cruel, violent images of poor Olga, he was attempting to confront and exorcise the violence of his turbulent times.

Gomorrah: A Personal Journey Into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System

by Roberto Saviano;

translated by Virginia Jewiss

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25)

Organized crime in Naples, Italy, was once a local problem. While Sicily’s Mafia garnered the international headlines and movie tributes, Naples’ Camorra settled for extorting locals and smuggling cigarettes. But globalization opened up new possibilities. In the Port of Naples recently, a crane operator was horrified when a refrigerated container he was moving broke open and spilled dozens of bodies onto the pavement. They were dead immigrants; their corpses were being shipped illegally to China for burial. Elsewhere at the port, says journalist Roberto Saviano, toxic waste was probably being accepted by Camorra-tied firms willing to mix it into cement or bury it in cemeteries. Contraband Chinese goods, he says, were surely arriving that day on scores of vessels. A private study released this fall identified organized crime as Italy’s largest business sector. Saviano claims that Naples is now the country’s organized crime capital. Saviano takes this sickening development personally, said New York. A native of a Neapolitan suburb, the 28-year-old author happened upon his first gangland murder victim as a teenager, and these days he “seems to arrive on his Vespa” moments after every bloody rub-out that stains his city anew. Gomorrah is a brave book, said Richard Horan in The Christian Science Monitor. “One of the most in-depth accounts ever written” about Italy’s criminal underworld, the book names names as it exposes countless international rackets in high fashion, drugs, and waste disposal. Saviano received death threats when the book became a best-seller in Italy, and the Italian government was shamed into providing him with three full-time bodyguards. He comes across here as a modernday Virgil, an insistently moral voice whose street-friendly language is spiced by “colorful metaphors and snappy epigrams.” The translation is loaded with hiccups, said Antony Shugaar in The Washington Post. Italian soldiers here wear “amphibians” instead of boots, and mob gunmen “unload a charger” instead of emptying their clips. Saviano also inserts himself in his story more than he should. Even so, Gomorrah remains consistently “gripping.” Its vivid scenes of murder, torture, and greed entrance the reader “like dioramas from some lurid museum.”

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