Dickens & Prince by Nick Hornby review – a tale of two greats

At the start of this heartfelt exercise in hero worship, Nick Hornby gathers together a throng of what he calls “My People” and ushers them into a VIP room in his head. They make up an eclectic pantheon, with Arsène Wenger jostling Joan Didion and the sitcom scriptwriters Galton and Simpson next to the gloomy painter Edward Hopper. Dickens and Prince are “two among many” in the gilded crowd, but Hornby singles them out for special homage. Dickens rescued him from the stupor of adolescence by showing that books were an escape route for the mind; Prince, with his keening falsetto, the prestidigitation of his guitar-playing and his hyperkinetic dance moves, delivered a physical excitement that is music’s special prerogative. Dickens made Hornby laugh, while Prince thrilled him by seeming to offer “hours of erotic ecstasy”.

That said, the pair have not much in common, apart from their almost crazed productivity. Hornby traces parallels between their professional lives – the deprived childhoods that fuelled their ambition, their precocious fame, their shrewd management of later setbacks in their careers – but can’t find many private affinities.

I think he misses a few tricks along the way. He gapes at one of Prince’s early concert outfits, which comprised a zebra-striped cache-sexe, a gold lamé shawl and thigh-high waders – but what about the dandified waistcoats that Dickens’s contemporaries considered so nouveau-riche or the jewellery that flashed on his fingers? Sinéad O’Connor once enigmatically hinted that Prince was “involved in the Devil business”. Dickens, however, boasted of his “diabolical energy” and coached his pet raven to croak “I’m a devil” as it watched him at work. Prince became a teetotal, vegan-eating Jehovah’s Witness; more theologically intrepid, Dickens was attracted to a variety of strange gods – Assyrian and Pacific idols in the British Museum, a Chinese joss to which he compares one of his characters, the genii of the Arabian Nights – and in Bleak House, when fog muffles London and blots out the sun, he wrote his own parodic version of the world’s bright creation in Genesis.

And then there are the drugs. Prince was addicted to painkillers and died of an opioid overdose; it’s odd that Hornby doesn’t discuss Dickens’s corresponding taste for laudanum. Sam Weller, Pickwick’s wily servant, salutes the somnolent fat boy Joe as “young opium eater”, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood begins with an orgiastic reverie as its hero, a cathedral choirmaster, woozily awakens in an East End opium den.

Hornby is best when restaging the final scenes of his heroes, killed prematurely by their over-exertions at more or less the same age: Dickens was 58, Prince only 57. Since they were too busy to stop for death, it scooped them up and kept them moving. Prince first collapsed on an executive jet, then expired days later while riding in a private elevator at the massive recording studio in which he lived. Dickens, Hornby surmises, might have suffered his stroke in bed with his young mistress in their south London hideaway, after which he was – well, perhaps – ferried home to Kent, unconscious in a closed carriage. Neither man, in Hornby’s smart phrase, had an off switch. “This is a book about work,” he adds, “and nobody ever worked harder than these two.” Their creative force operated at a relentless, virtually industrial pace; Hornby’s tribute to their self-destructive genius is ardent but more than a little fearful.

Dickens & Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius by Nick Hornby is published by Viking (£9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

The Guardian