Roz Kaveney

It is generally the fate of musicians, actors and painters to have their lives written about rather than sung, performed or painted; if all art aspires to the condition of music, all lives aspire to the condition of story, particularly after a writer has been at them. There is the romantic story of victory through struggle, say, or the moralistic story of bad leading to worse, or the sad story of promise largely unfulfilled; lives that cannot be fitted comfortably into those stories are almost inevitably harder to write, less interesting to read.

Cole Porter is not necessarily a lesser musician than Hector Berlioz or John Lee Hooker, but he was a rich boy who much of the time regarded his talent as a social accomplishment or hobby; his serious pursuit of formal musical training had to be fitted around seducing Diaghilev's choreographer boyfriend or thinking up parties to entertain his even richer wife. William McBrien's Cole Porter (Harper Collins , £9.99) makes clear how much pain he endured during the latter part of his life - a horse had rolled on his legs - and how much he loved the wife to whom he was true, darling, in his fashion, but the book never quite catches fire; we care about the songs, but we can just go and listen to them.

Charles Shaar Murray's Boogie Man (Penguin, £17.99) makes us care about Hooker as well as his music, partly because a black life lived during the slow debridement of American racism was always going to be interesting, partly because Murray turns the book away from some of the conventional pieties of the biography into a meditation on the blues. Some readers will find it an intrusive breach of decorum that he acknowledges his personal griefs as a guarantee of the power of blues music to heal; others will find these passages deeply moving, an expression of the blues in prose.

On a far larger scale, David Cairns's two-volume Hector Berlioz (Penguin Press, £25 each) is a discussion of the whole Romantic movement in the arts. Think of any aspect of Romanticism - continuity with the classical, flirtation with madness and crime, obsession with Shakespeare, stretching of genre forms - and Berlioz will always offer fascinating examples. And he really did persuade his muse to marry him by the eloquence of work dedicated to her, really was the Titan destroyed by jealous inferiors. And, being an accomplished journalist as well as a great composer, he knew how to arrange his life into compelling patterns. Cairns's thorough documentation and critical acuteness make this one of the most important books of the year, a scholarly work that keeps you awake into the night, wondering whether Hector wins the prize, finishes the opera, gets the heroine . . .

Equally fine as scholarship, but less compelling as a story, Ian McIntyre's Garrick (Penguin, £25) evokes decades of forgotten theatrical feuding and performs the near-impossible task of inventing for us the Method-ish performances of an actor two centuries dead. Because his Huguenot family disapproved of him, Garrick was determined to be a respectable gentleman as well as an actor; his creation of Bardolatry was in part a claiming of British identity against hacks who played the patriotic card against him. There is no suspense here, but there is a certain shock of recognition as Garrick imposes his iron will on British social history.

And in case we were wondering whether it was possible to lead a modern life so consciously engaged with the exemplary and the iconic, Tony Peake's Derek Jarman (Little, Brown, £25) eventually demonstrates very clearly and precisely that it is. Jarman took some years to find his voice and his method, and Peake's life inevitably shares this element of dithering for part of its length. Peake's Jarman is a film-maker of real talent and a polemicist of genius. This is a book about a man and artist who elevated bad attitude to a point of principle and convinced many of us that he was right to do so. Peake successfully avoids a kitsch reading of Jarman's long, slow death; his best work was motivated far less by the urgency his fatal illness imposed than by bitterness over the potential for youthful happiness that had been wasted by the punitive anti-gay laws and culture under which he grew up.

There are other ways than political engagement for an artist to be at war with society. Edward Bunker's volume of memoirs, Mr Blue (No Exit, £16.99), is a powerful story of a criminal rebel with no cause, and plenty of reasons. Best known for his performance in Reservoir Dogs, Bunker lived the life of a robber and scammer and long-term prisoner for most of his teens and much of his adult life; he is, in passing, acute both on the cut-price antinomianism of the criminal culture and the decline of American prisons from mere hell-holes into nightmares of racial warfare.

This article first appeared in the 29 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An explosion of puffery