Argh. This book was not at all what I expected it to be.
Having enjoyed Bill Bryson’s One Summer, I did not necessarily expect a book written in a “this day in history” format, presenting what happened day after day in Paris, London, Moscow, and anywhere D.H. Lawrence travelled. Instead of organised material, we get, quite literally, a collection of trivia. Did I really need to know that Eliot reportedly used "violet face powder to make himself look more cadaverous"? How about D.H Lawrence's stomach bug? "One of Proust's last memorable nights on the town, which turned very ugly"? At best, these are attractive anecdotes for lightening up one’s classes or lectures– such as the one of Zelda’s rebellious review of The Beautiful and the Damned, in which she playfully – and rightly – accused her husband of plagiarizing her diaries and letters.
The book format has inherent formal problems, such as lengthy footnotes (including a three-page-long one on Louis Armstrong), inclusion of barely relevant information on youthful exploits of Gershwin, Hitchcock, and Dali (who, thrillingly, became a university student
in 1922!), and rather tedious summaries of “major players’” lives after 1922. All this, along with the fact that the style of the book, while not simplistic, frequently feels too relaxed, simply screams “lazy writing”.
Why is this a keeper, then? I think I am precisely the target audience for this book, which reads like an extended gossip column on dead people I really care about. While obviously not a quotable academic source (meaning I would be ashamed of using it), the book is useful in preparing classes, and it fulfils the promise of its title in at least one respect: it successfully conveys the idea of a ‘constellation’ – it was fascinating to see how nearly all major writers of the period knew many of the others, exchanged letters, impressions, opinions.