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Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne - Winner of the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction 2022

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Rundell’s erudition helps us understand Donne the thinker, her storytelling genius brings Donne the man to life, in his ‘hat big enough for a cat to sail in’. For Rundell, Donne is writing into being a new ideal: a “completed meshing of body and imagination”.

Super Infinite review: A masterful biography of John Donne Super Infinite review: A masterful biography of John Donne

Donne’s rather unchivalrous allusions – he compares the sweat of a rival’s mistress to “menstruous boils” – have not won over modern readers (scholar James Shapiro noted Donne courses being cancelled because of objections from female students).Donne grew up knowing you were supposed to meet death with a flourish: he never forgot it, right to the very end. So began a love affair with Donne that took off in her late teens and led to her studying his poetry for a PhD – and now winning the Baillie Gifford prize for Super-Infinite, her biography of the poet and her second book for adults (she is the author of five children’s books).

‘Taking life advice from John Donne would be disastrous

Jasper, another man whom Donne was brought up to honour, was an unexpected candidate for the wild adventure that his life became. Before the invention of the pax the congregation used to kiss each other, until it was felt this was unreasonably intimate – and plaguey – for church. His family would haunt him for life: and nothing in his writing gives the impression he was surprised that it should be so. One of the real strengths of this book is that we are encouraged to see the continuity of Donne’s imagination – and not just in its blazing metaphorical fertility but in its awareness of how readily it can be distracted by the momentary and trivial.Rundell’s childhood in Zimbabwe – running barefoot in the wilds and avoiding imaginary crocodiles in rivers – makes her sound like a plucky children’s book heroine. Donne was born into a Catholic family at a time of persecution; family members were imprisoned and tortured. In the years that followed, Donne moved away from his Catholic roots, though the details are hard to chart, beginning a journey that would eventually lead him in 1615 to ordination in the Church of England. Because amid all Donne’s reinventions, there was a constant running through his life and work: he remained steadfast in his belief that we, humans, are at once a catastrophe and a miracle. Rundell's fifth novel, The Good Thieves, tells the story of a girl named Vita who travels from England to New York with her mother to look after her grieving grandfather.

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