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A Memoir

A-Things I Didn’t KnowRobert Hughes—a Time magazine art critic, biographer, documentary maker, historian, and author of The Shock of the New (1981), The Fatal Shore (1987), and Goya ( 4 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2004)—offers an untraditional perspective on his 60-something years. He opens with his near-fatal car accident in 1999 in his native Australia; he then travels back in time to his childhood relationship with his father (a hero in World War I), his Catholic education, his rocky marriages, and, most importantly, the influences behind his extraordinary career. Although Hughes started out as a critic in art-starved Sydney, he found his true calling in London’s avant-garde art world in the 1960s. In his observations of the world around him, he reveals his own elite tastes and his belief that "there is nothing whatever, outside of the life we have."
Knopf. 416 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 1400044448

Ft. Worth Star-Telegram 4 of 5 Stars
"[Hughes] is a wonderfully elegant writer. … What Hughes’s unconscious will not allow is the affirmation that because of his efforts, people in the U.S. and Australia and ports in between do indeed care about 20th-century American art." Gaile Robinson

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"His has been a writer’s life, and, like most such lives, it has been primarily a life of the mind. … How right he is, and how vigorously he argues his case—which is to say the case for informed judgment independent of fashion—in this splendid book." Jonathan Yardley

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Particularly vivid is the discourse on 1960s London. The aura of that time, the character of the various hippies and hash-smoking dropouts of his acquaintance, the squandering of artistic talent in drugs and faddism, all comes through." Eve Ottenberg

Los Angeles Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Hughes’s eyewitness account of the apocalyptic ravaging of Florence’s treasures by the floods of 1966 is a great work of reportage, tragic yet laced with human comedy. … Hughes tries for anecdote and portraiture, but he lacks the supreme memoirist’s faculty of finding the world in a grain of sand." Richard Eder

NY Times Book Review 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Here’s the rub. It’s fine being an elitist, but the credentials for occupying such a privileged seat have constantly to be justified and renewed. And this can’t be done if you write flabby prose." Geoff Dyer

Newsday 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Robert Hughes’s Things I Didn’t Know is so far outside what we’ve come to think of as a memoir that, for some readers, it will feel like a cold slap in the face. … The utter lack of sympathy for those who earn his enmity can be ugly." Charles Taylor

Critical Summary

Noted art critic Robert Hughes has lived a writer’s life, and here he relives his dramatic career. Although he relates key events—his car crash, his two unhappy marriages (and a third good one), and his son’s suicide—Hughes focuses, instead, on the fascinating informal education that made him "completely an elitist, in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense." Despite his description of himself, a few critics caught a whiff of elitism in Hughes’s jabs at other artists and pop culture. Others disagreed about aspects of the prose and storytelling. To some, Hughes’s discussion of 1960s London formed the heart of the memoir; the Los Angeles Times, by contrast, called it a "joyless account of druggy self-indulgence." Readers interested in the intellectual growth of an art critic, however, will find much to savor in this memoir.