‘Dickens & Prince’: Its own kind of genius or just plain weird?

Creative Sensemaker | Soho House

Writer Nick Hornby’s newest tome draws a creative line from Bleak House to Paisley Park. What’s that about?

Sunday 30 October   by Matt D’Ancona

Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media.

Humanity’s long quest to understand the nature of genius has generated more aphorisms than useful answers. Try this one, 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, handed 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 that ‘Genius is the fire that lights itself.’ 

Are we clear? Didn’t think so.

In his masterly 1992 book, Genius: The Life And Science Of Richard Feynman, James Gleick explored the mind, experiences and working methods of the great 20th-century theoretical physicist, noting that ‘the nature of genius [in the scientific age] … has become an issue bound up with the economic fortunes of nations.’

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 Victorian novelist and the purple-clad overlord of Paisley Park, Hornby takes this standard historiographical tool and turns it to audacious purpose: an attempt to understand what made these two gods of his own, very personal, artistic pantheon tick. 

And the similarities are remarkable: abrasive childhoods; remarkable starts to adult 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’; passionate conviction to defending their art; obsessive sex lives; and of course their monumental influence, which saturates today’s cinema, theatre, television and music. 

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,’ he writes. ‘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, something to be understood.

Here are this week’s recommendations:

Creative Sensemaker | Soho House


The Devil’s Hour (Prime Video, 28 October)

Peter Capaldi stars as Gideon, a cadaverous prisoner, who 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.

Creative Sensemaker | Soho House
Creative Sensemaker | Soho House


The Fight Of Our Lives: My Time With Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s Battle For Democracy, And What It Means for the World by Iuliia Mendel 

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 behaviour, 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’.


The Car by 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 10 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’?
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes
Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner

Interested in becoming a member?