Abba Abba, by Anthony Burgess, tells the story of the last months of John Keats’ life, which he spent dying of consumption in Rome. Burgess was a bit obsessed with Keats, which shows in this short little book.
A Man of Parts, by David Lodge, is about H.G. Wells. Today we know Wells best as a writer of science fiction epics. In his day he was more of a libertine, and wrote endless semi-autobiographical novels about the many affairs he conducted with the sanction of his long-suffering wife, including one with a very young Rebecca West that produced a love child.
The Master, by Colm Toíbín, is about the life of Henry James, and finds James at a moment of personal and professional challenge at the end of the 19th century. The novel was shortlisted for the 2004 Booker and won the lucrative International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy’s Last Year, by Jay Parini, was made into a movie starring Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer a few years back. It is about exactly what the subtitle suggests!
Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath, by Kate Moses, is one of the few works of fiction by a woman about a woman writer that has ever gotten a critic’s respect. It is about Plath’s final descent into suicide.
Flaubert’s Parrot, by Julian Barnes is technically a book about a Flaubert obsessive in search of a parrot that Flaubert also liked. But it contains so many beautiful, wise passages inspired by Flaubert that I include it anyway.
Regeneration, by Pat Barker, is the story of certain poets of the First World War — Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen — who are, as the Brits put it, “in hospital.” Another Booker winner.