Prideaux’s biography, I Am Dynamite!, is dense, complex and hilarious, which is a rare and winning combination. It helps that her subject is just so very, very odd... I Am Dynamite! is a wonderful book and I say that having almost certainly misunderstood quite a lot of it. I shall read it again, more than once... More than this, though, it is just such a blast to read. Witty, terribly clever and steeped in the wild, doomed peculiarities of 19th-century Germania, it is a tremendous and reformative biography of a man whom popular history has perhaps done a disservice.
Nietzsche’s own philosophical views make biography almost mandatory. For Nietzsche thinks all the great philosophers are really engaged in “unconscious autobiography”, offering post-hoc rationalizations in their philosophical systems for their own moral (or, in Nietzsche’s case, immoral) views, the latter simply reflecting their psychological needs. Great philosophy is always deeply and irremediably personal – the biography of the philosopher who believed this is, therefore, essential.
This is a brave book in allowing its subject to remain a riddle. It does embody Nietzsche in that it is more about the living human than the abstract thought... I Am Dynamite is a wonderful insight into an almost impossible character... But in this book, she does what he himself, in his scatterbrained brilliance and deep kindness, prophesied: “only where there are graves, will there be resurrections”. Kierkegaard and Freud would agree. But Prideaux gives back the humanity to the all-too-human Nietzsche, and even manages to do so for his wicked sister.
Here is Nietzsche as most of us have not encountered him before: self-deprecating (he loses his trousers and finds it funny), unpredictable and, above all, sociable – friends arrive and leave, he dribbles away time in a popular student restaurant before finally gearing up to meet the great man... The great pleasure of Prideaux’s sprightly biography is watching philosophy in the making. Reading about Nietzsche’s life, which had as many false starts and wrong turns as anyone else’s, is to be reminded that systems of thought do not arrive unbidden in the library or the lecture hall, but are worked out in the mess of everyday life. For all his declamatory certainty, Nietzsche developed his ideas amid love affairs, lost trousers and a bullying younger sister. Academic philosophers may feel that there is not much new to detain them here. For the rest of us, this biography is nothing short of a revelation, a sort of word made flesh.
In her wonderfully gripping new biography of Nietzsche – the type you stay in bed all Sunday just to finish – Sue Prideaux casts doubt on this story. Indeed, the horse only makes an appearance in the legend 11 years later – in 1900, the year of Nietzsche’s death – when a journalist interviewed Fino, the landlord, about the events of the day... Prideaux’s Nietzsche is one who is invested with all the hopes and aspirations of a family that has lost a father at a young age, and who is perceived, within that intimate circle, as something approaching a god... With Nietzsche’s life we are again left to ponder the tribute genius must pay to insanity.
In this biography, Nietzsche steps out of the mists of obfuscation and rumor, vividly evoked with his beautiful manners and ridiculous mustache, the blue-lensed glasses to protect his delicate eyes. Prideaux relies on the mapmaker’s method of triangulation, using time not place as the fixed point and drawing her subject into focus by examining the events in his life, his personal writing and his published work.... What is illuminated here owes as much to Prideaux’s sensibility as her approach. Nietzsche said, “To see something as a whole one must have two eyes, one of love and one of hate.” But to see Nietzsche, it seems helpful to have binocular vision that can accommodate the sublime and the ridiculous.
Prideaux's narrative is roughly chronological, and the approach pleasingly old-fashioned...There is an argument of sorts running through the narrative: that Nietzsche was not, despite his later co-option into the Nazi pantheon, the anti-Semite of the old demonology. This is no longer controversial in scholarly circles, but the point remains worth making and Prideaux makes it well, arranging her evidence thoughtfully throughout the text.
Sue Prideaux observes in this splendid biography that the “long descent of the Nietzsche archive into the Nazi camp” was ironic since he was, as she puts it, only ever interested in man as “an individual, rather than man as a herd animal”. Indeed, he once vowed, when still lucid, to have nothing to do with anyone with a “share in the mendacious race swindle”... What Prideaux has done is to make that pursuit of excellence the guiding thread of her book. The result is a beautifully written, and often intensely moving, account of a life devoted to the achievement of intellectual greatness and the exploration of the conditions for its flourishing.
Prideaux might have balanced her busy narrative with a stronger sense of intellectual duty. When dealing with text her preference is for chunks of quotation, usually unparsed and in creaky English, or else for paraphrase of the loosest kind.
Some of her thumbnail descriptions are misleading or complacent. She calls Mencken “probably” Nietzsche’s earliest American enthusiast, though Mencken himself identified the critic James Huneker as “the first” to sense his “true stature”. And she can seem more preoccupied with the length of books (“huge”, “enormous”, “a thick book of nearly two hundred pages”) than with their substance.
I Am Dynamite! is itself fairly compact — Elisabeth’s biography came in two volumes — though it could certainly have been shorter. Prideaux exhibits a weakness for repeated details and circular syntax. But she is a dogged, amiable guide and leaves you in no doubt whatsoever that her frail, footloose, ill-tempered subject was one of the most extraordinary people who ever lived.
Prideaux’s telling is lively and engaging. She has a talent for setting the scene and a novelist’s imagination, eye for detail and turn of phrase... Prideaux can be brisk and unsympathetic, especially when it comes to female characters. Overall, though, the book is nicely paced and compelling... Perhaps it doesn’t matter if his biographer makes him sound more gifted and original than he was. He was gifted and original. But other parts of the old tale call for more delicate treatment. Setting aside their tabloid appeal, it is odd for a biographer to make so much of the Nazis’ interpretation of a philosopher who wrote nothing after 1888... The point is not that Prideaux should somehow have explained Nietzsche’s infamously shape-shifting philosophy more accurately, all the while maintaining her rapid, easy prose... But she could have remained neutral, leaving his philosophy and, especially, its use by the Nazis well alone. By sticking with the misappropriated genius narrative, she does not remain above this fray, but wades into it, firmly on one side.
Sue Prideaux’s excellently researched and compulsively readable book shows us exactly why. There are essentially two sorts of biographies. Some try to fit the Great Person into the larger world of their era; others try to bring them alive as a timeless human being. Prideaux’s book is very firmly in the second category, packed with insights into the man who ecstatically prophesied the Übermensch (and we’re not talking a thoughtful minicab driver) from his desk.
Is there room for yet another biography? Sue Prideaux’s wonderfully readable book suggests that there is. Like most of the biographers mentioned above (the exception is Julian Young), Prideaux is a freelance writer rather than an academic. Unlike them, however, she has not spent most of her life steeped in philosophy, still less in Nietzsche’s philosophy, let alone in the academic literature that discusses that literature. So her book will not, one suspects, be much discussed by the academic philosophers who are busy generating that mountainous body of secondary discussion. On the other hand, she has written well-researched, well-reviewed and prize-winning biographies of Edvard Munch and August Strindberg and is clearly entirely at home with the languages as well as the artistic, literary and musical culture of Europe, which is arguably a more apposite background for catching the tone of Nietzsche’s voice, a tone so different from that used to write articles in academic journals.
It is a weakness of Prideaux’s book that she does not point out the gaps in Nietzsche’s thought. He expressed himself mostly in aphorisms and was often self-contradictory, as he readily admitted...Despite Prideaux’s reluctance to challenge Nietzsche’s ideas, this is an outstanding biography impressive in the depth and breadth of its knowledge. Her Strindberg deservedly won the Duff Cooper prize, and I Am Dynamite... is of comparable stature.