Emil Zapotek, the great distance runner, was an apprentice in a Bata shoe factory in Czechoslovakia in the 1940s when someone suggested he enter a race. He did well, though he ran without training, in "lumpen country style, body leaning forward, shoulders heaving, head rolling." He maintained this unique style even as he became the most famous Czech in the world, an Olympic champion in the marathon and the 10,000 and 5,000 metres.
As Angus Calder tells the story in his marvellously surprising book Gods, Mongrels, and Demons: 101 Brief but Essential Lives (Bloomsbury), Zapotek sounds both eccentric and lovable. He had an odd habit of chatting with fellow runners during races, sometimes urging them on. He gave one of his own Olympic gold medals to a competitor from Australia who had broken world records but never won a championship. Zapotek loved training. He could happily jog on the spot for hours, reading a book, and when his wife had her leg in a cast he ran with her on his back. She was a javelin thrower, and they invented an original if rather high-risk game: They would hurl a javelin at each other, the point being to catch it as it soared overhead and return it quickly.
In Calder's encyclopedia of human oddballs, Zapotek takes his place alongside Babe Ruth and Billy the Kid, Joan of Arc and Queen Victoria. Matsuo Basho, the haiku king, appears in this select company, and so does Tricky Sam Nanton, the great Ellington trombonist. Calder borrows the tradition of Plutarch's Lives and John Aubrey's Brief Lives but makes his own points. If Aubrey's theme was half-remembered scandal and Plutarch's was "signs of the soul in men," Calder's is the wild diversity of life.
He cherishes his subjects as creatures who have extended his sense of the potentialities of human nature. Reading Calder, sharing many of his affections, I feel a warm sympathy for his attitudes, if not his politics. (He's often charmed by communists and sees political virtue only in leftish views.) Gods, Mongrels, and Demons, its material borrowed from scores of memoirs and biographies, may be the most readable book of its kind in years, but it might look insidious to the manager of a human resources department: Calder believes a good career will likely turn odd corners, stop at unexpected places and be distorted by unruly passions.
His interest in eccentrics was likely stimulated by a story he heard often in childhood. His father, a science writer and propagandist who ended up as Lord Ritchie-Calder, was the Fleet Street reporter who solved the famous disappearance of Agatha Christie in 1926 when he found her in a Yorkshire spa, registered under the name of her husband's mistress. She had disappeared (Angus Calder says) so that her unfaithful husband would be accused of her murder. In 1979 the film Agatha brought those events back to life with Dustin Hoffman playing the reporter to Vanessa Redgrave's Christie.
Calder wants us to appreciate people like Fernando Pessoa, the modern Portuguese poet who published verse under four different names in four different styles, and admire Iannis Xenakis, a Greek communist who overcame terrible battle wounds and worked in the architectural office of Le Corbusier while on the side composing music that made him an international cult figure, all of it based on mathematical formulas and probability theory. Calder obviously loves telling us about Boris Ilich Zbarsky, a biochemist who kept the corpse of Lenin looking sufficiently lifelike as it lay on exhibit in Red Square. A true bureaucrat, he built his empire of technical and scientific staff to nearly 100. After he died in the 1950s, the empire pushed on and now, as a private business called Ritual Service, specializes in making deceased leaders of the Russia Mafia attractive at their funerals.
Sometimes Calder wants only to remind us of a once famous and now obscure historic figure, such as Pauline Viardot, the 19th-century French mezzo with a three-octave range. Liszt was her piano teacher, Schumann dedicated a song cycle to her, George Sand used her as a character in a novel, and Berlioz composed operatic roles for her. Ivan Turgenev spent years living with Viardot and her husband, nourishing a desperate (but perhaps unconsummated) love for her. Today she's discussed mainly because she helped knit together so many otherwise isolated elements in 19th-century music, but Calder suggests that when she was flourishing it would not have been outlandish to call that era the Age of Viardot.
A similar feeling makes him recall the career of Major Liudmila Pavlichenko, a sniper in the Red Army who was world-famous in the 1940s; she was credited with killing 309 Germans, 78 of whom were themselves snipers. Calder's prose always conveys enthusiasm, and often his judgments are shrewd and unexpected; in his hands, Beatrix Potter becomes a "supreme mistress of laconic irony," author of fables dominated by greed and fear.
He often chooses to describe an unexpected passage in the life of a much-admired figure, such as Kurt Schwitters, the great collage artist. In 1940 Schwitters was in England as a refugee from Hitler but, being German, was nevertheless interned as an enemy alien in a place called Hutchinson's Camp on the Isle of Man. His fellow prisoners included an exceptional number of artists and at least 30 professors, who delivered regular lectures. A technical school was set up, and soon the camp had concerts and a debating society modelled on the Oxford Union.
In this environment Schwitters was the great figure. He not only continued making his artworks from bric-a-brac but recited his poems to a literally captive audience ("one which sticks out in memory was written to be read by stammerers," wrote a fellow prisoner).
For some reason Schwitters liked to sleep on the floor in a makeshift dog basket. After crawling into bed he always barked like a dachshund before falling asleep. One night he was answered by what sounded like the bark of a mastiff. An elderly Viennese businessman had yearned to bark all his life but had been inhibited. Schwitters freed him, and for a time they indulged in a nightly duet. The world is crazier than we think, says Louis MacNeice in a poem Calder quotes; it is "incorrigibly plural." Proven.