BIOGRAPHY BOOKS: The beautiful and the damned

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The Independent Culture
THE FATAL ENGLISHMAN: Three Short Lives by Sebastian Faulks, Hutchinson pounds 16.99

Three short lives: three early, self-induced deaths. Sebastian Faulks's new book is divided between the painter Christopher Wood, the writer and pilot Richard Hillary, and Jeremy Wolfenden, scholar and foreign correspondent. Each is allotted his own section, and the links between them are touched on only lightly. All three were English and all subjected to the ritual miseries of public school. All were clever and burned brightly; the main thing is that they all killed themselves.

The book's curious title, The Fatal Englishman (not -men), makes it obvious that Faulks is presenting a type, and a theory. Less obvious is the way he uses the word fatal. Not, presumably, in the normal sense of causing ruin or death, but in the (much rarer) sense of being selected by fate. The cover picture leaves no doubt, however: Herbert Draper's "The Lament for Icarus" shows the dead hero draped beautifully across mighty wings, attended by bare-breasted maidens - no crash-landed bungler, this Icarus, but a young god, a high flier brought down only by the scope of his ambition. This is the glamour of self-destruction.

Christopher Wood, the first subject, suffered a bad bout of polio in 1914; for four years, while his doctor father was away on the Western Front, his adored mother nursed him devotedly - an experience that shaped his emotional life. The illness left the young Kit as beautiful as ever, but crippled, although that did not stop him departing for Paris in 1921, at 19, to become an artist. Nor, apparently, did it deter the rich men of the beau monde who became his lovers, providers, protectors. There was Alphonse Kahn, who introduced Kit Wood to a world of unimagined sophistication; then the more raffish Tony Gandarillas, a Chilean diplomat with whom Wood travelled through France, Italy, Spain and Turkey.

It was an extraordinary education for a young artist: to be in Paris in the 1920s, in the milieu of Cocteau and Max Jacob; to see the great works of Europe; to have no financial constraints. He lived high; by 1924 he had become addicted to opium. In 1926 he met Ben and Winifred Nicholson, and formed an important artistic friendship with him and a more passionate, if chaste, connection with her. Wood moved restlessly - St Ives, Brittany, London - but the summer of 1930 found him in Treboul, painting frenetically, consuming huge amounts of opium, in an agitated mental state. In August he sailed to Southampton, having asked his mother to meet him for lunch in Salisbury. After lunch she dropped Kit at the station - and when the London train came he jumped under it and killed himself. He was 29.

Faulks tells Wood's story in a spare, unsentimental style that does nonetheless rise to emotional moments - especially when he quotes from Wood's letters. But his wayward charmer never quite comes to life, and by the end we are no nearer to understanding his death.

It is in the next section, devoted to Richard Hillary, that the light comes on behind Faulks's prose. He dashes through the early, precocious years - devoted mother, prep school, Shrewsbury, Trinity - to get to where he wants to be: with Hillary in 1940, at RAF flying school in Scotland, soon to become one of that glamorous elite, the gunslinger Spitfire pilots of the Battle of Britain.

Faulks obviously loves the sensations of flying and the mechanics of battle, and his descriptions of engagements in the air are excellently done - if a little extended. Hillary himself is a perfect subject: awkward, clever, arrogant, talented enough always to be at the forefront of the action, selfish enough to see war in the air as "exciting, individual and disinterested". But before long, even the brave and blithe Hillary crashed down in flames, and suffered appalling agony from severe burns. His face - like Wood, he had been very handsome - had to be painstakingly rebuilt by the crude methods of the day. He was left looking monstrous, with hands curled like claws. He insisted on returning to flying: a suicidal move in his condition. The cumbersome planes soon proved to be beyond him, and in 1943 "the flames got their man in the end". Hillary was 23.

Hillary's own book, The Last Enemy, had been published in 1942, and had immediately brought him fame and success for its vivid picture of RAF life. It provides Faulks with a detailed source for descriptions both of battles in the air and life on the ground - perhaps too detailed a source, in some places. Here is Hillary, in The Last Enemy:

"We ran into them at 18,000 feet, twenty yellow-nosed Messerchmitt 109's, about 500 feet above us. Our squadron strength was eight, and as they came down on us we went into line astern and turned head on to them. Brian Carbury, who was leading the Section, dropped the nose of his machine ... I kicked the rudder to the left to get [the leading plane] at right angles, turned the gun-button to `Fire', and let go in a four-second burst with full deflection. He came right through my sights and I saw the tracer from all eight guns thud home. For a second he seemed to hang motionless; then a jet of red flame shot upwards and he spun out of sight,"

And here is Faulks, on the same encounter:

"They found the enemy at 18,000 feet: twenty Messerchmitt 109's above their eight Spitfires. The Germans came down to get them and Brian Carbury led his eight planes in line astern, head-on towards them. Carbury went down briefly, then up, leading the others in a climbing turn to the left. He caught the first Messerchmitt as he went and Hillary found the plane come flush into his own sights. He switched the gun-button to `Fire' and watched the tracer from all eight guns hammering into its target for four seconds. The Messerchmitt hung still for a moment, then spun downwards in a spurt of red flame."

It would be impertinent to suggest that Faulks envies Hillary his wartime experiences, but any writer would understand how he might envy him the richness of his subject matter, and so become over-involved in it. Perhaps Hillary's is the life he most wanted to write. When it comes to Jeremy Wolfenden, a brilliant scholar who went to the Soviet Union as a Telegraph correspondent, the pace slows and the heat goes out of the writing. Portraying the tight community of foreigners huddled in Khrushchev's Moscow, Faulks makes us realise that the Cold War was well named.

Wolfenden - ironically, given his flamboyant gay behaviour, the son of the Lord Wolfenden who authored the report that eventually decriminalised homosexuality - had been considered so exceptional at school and university that he was used to cutting a swathe through convention, but the Soviet regime defeated even his swashbuckling confidence. He became miserable, vodka-sodden, confused; his homosexuality made him an easy target for KGB blackmail, and the true extent of his compromise and involvement in espionage remains murky. Faulks gives a vivid account of the pathetic way in which one of the finest brains of that generation drank himself to death by the age of 31.

Like Wood and Hillary, Wolfenden had exceptional talents, stalwart friends, a devoted parent or even two, and at least one person who loved him properly - but, in all three cases, such support counted for nothing against the urge to auto-destruct. It is difficult to end this readable, sympathetic and consistently fascinating book without wishing that Faulks had ventured just a little theorising about the Icarus Complex he has identified. Fatal Englishmen, indeed.