Universal Man

Richard Davenport-Hines Basic Books, 416 pages, $28.99

A biography of John Maynard Keynes without concentrating on economic theory may seem like "Hamlet" without the prince. But Richard Davenport-Hines has set out to write such a book, and the result is utterly absorbing. His argument is that Keynes deserves to be remembered for much more than his economic works: He was a boy genius, a civil servant, a national opinion-shaper, a lover, a connoisseur and a statesman.

Many of the stories in Davenport-Hines' "Universal Man: The Lives of John Maynard Keynes" will be familiar to readers of countless books on Keynes, including Lord Robert Skidelsky's definitive biographies. But Davenport-Hines also manages to relay with affection little-known stories with brilliant details. Character sketches, the author's great talent, reveal a horde of Treasury oddballs. The book also lays out his extensive philanthropic life — for example, he saved the Royal Opera House from demolition and encouraged public funding of the arts.

Keynes' early gay love life is laid out in full detail. There is poignancy in the stories. In the years after Oscar Wilde's trial for gross indecency, many of Keynes' lovers committed suicide or married women. Keynes himself married Lydia Lopokova, a Russian ballerina, with whom he had a sexual relationship. His letters to her reveal a deep love that grew with age.