BOOKS: Forbidden travels of an opera singer

The Secret Lives of Alexandra David-Neel by Barbara Foster and Michael Foster Overlook Press pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
You couldn't wish for a life more packed with adventure than that of Alexandra David-Neel: born in France in 1868, brought up (unhappily) in Belgium, she was a restless spirit who took an unusual and early interest in Eastern religions. After a brief career as an opera singer, she became a journalist and married a distant cousin before setting off on a series of ever-longer journeys. These culminated in a 14-year absence, during which time she fell in love with the Maharaja of Sikkim, meditated in a series of caves across Central Asia, studied with various spiritual masters, and trekked, disguised as a mendicant pilgrim, to Lhasa.

Exasperating and extraordinary, she was acknowledged in her day as one of the foremost interpreters of the Eastern spiritual tradition to the Western public. She was the author of some 30 books and numerous articles. She served as inspiration to the seekers after soft-focus truth of the Beat Generation in the 1950s and supported the student rebellion in Paris in the 1960s. She finally died a few days before her 101st birthday, having endured the celebrations of her own centenary with characteristic ill- grace. Her adventures were so improbable that one French writer devoted years to the attempt to prove that Alexandra David-Neel made it all up. A biographer - or in this case, a pair of biographers - could hardly ask for more. But then, consider the problems. Everything Alexandra David- Neel wished to have known about her life and thoughts, she wrote herself. She destroyed personal papers, letters and other evidence if it did not accord with the image she wished to project. That which she wished to deny about her past, she either concealed or lied about. Getting at the truth about Alexandra David-Neel requires more than simple enthusiasm.

This is the authors' second attempt at their subject: they published the first biography (Forbidden Journey) in 1987. They are diligent researchers, but their point of departure - the moment at which the name of Alexandra David-Neel first exercised its magic upon them - was, we are told, at an ashram in southern India, in the course of a discussion of a shamanistic practice of raising the dead.

The problem for any reader who is disinclined to take the raising of the dead at face value is how to interpret the life of a woman who reported flying yogis and telepathy as rather mundane bits of magic commonly encountered in Tibet. It is a difficulty that can only be compounded by the fact that her biographers are inclined to indulge her on such subjects as the psychic generation of living forms, a party trick that Alexandra claimed to have performed on one of her many pilgrimages. If we are trying to make sense of a woman whose achievements were, indeed, extraordinary, but who lied shamelessly when it suited her purpose - and who certainly had a strong sense of how much a credulous market would bear when it came to the mysteries of the Orient - we need a little more help than we are offered.

The authors do bring a number of contradictions to our attention, offering tantalising glimpses of the discussion they could have had with their subject, if only they had been slightly stricter with her and with themselves. David-Neel's relationship with her long-suffering husband, Philippe, is a case in point. She met him when she was 32 and her singing career was beginning to falter. He was seven years older and a bachelor engineer who was living - apparently contentedly - in Tunis. There seems to have been little passion on either side, but of the two Alexandra was the more determined, and they married. She undoubtedly had the best of the bargain: she had already begun to make a name as an orientalist and, from then on, her extraordinary career would be financed by her husband. As Alexandra travelled, Philippe wrote letters, sent her money and advice and acted as her literary agent. She, meanwhile, made demands, had adventures and formed close emotional attachments to other men. He tried many times to persuade her to come home; she repeatedly promised - and repeatedly broke her promises, despite civil war in China and the determination of the British to thwart her ambition to become the first European woman to reach Lhasa.

She made it to the holy city in the end, trekking in disguise through the appalling Tibetan winter, her sketch maps and notes concealed in her boots. Only after this journey - which had lasted 14 years in total - did Philippe baulk at her proposition that she return to the matrimonial home in the company of her "adopted son" - a Tibetan novice monk who had been her constant companion during her wanderings. The man, who is rather ungenerously described here as a conventional bourgeois figure, had had enough, but he continued to pay the bills. No wonder Alexandra wrote, when Philippe died in 1941, that she had lost "the best of husbands and my only friend".

Equally patient and long-suffering in his way was the monk, Yongden, who served her untiringly and without pay for more than two decades. He was to die in France at the age of 55, a hopeless alcoholic, according to his doctor. Alexandra David-Neel was not an easy woman for any of her companions. She had wandered across the most extraordinary political and spiritual landscape: she had skirted the Great Game, she met both the 13th Dalai Lama and the 9th Panchen Lama, the leading Tibetan hierarchs of her day, she had sat at the unwashed feet of many a lesser spiritual master. She grumbled about her rheumatism and carried a tin bath to the most improbable places, insisting that it be filled daily with hot water.

She wrote copiously about her adventures, but her contribution to geographical knowledge, as one critic pointed out, was nil: there are no maps in her accounts, and almost no dates. It is a deficiency that her biographers might have gone further to correct. Equally frustratingly, this text is full of small historical errors (the 9th Panchen Lama, for instance, died in Jyekundo, not Beijing), the Chinese place names are rendered in a romanisation that has not been current in mainland China for 40 years and which, by now, must be unfamiliar to most readers, and numerous irritating eccentricities of spelling (Paris the "capitol" of France, "diety" for deity) are repeated throughout the book. But despite these flaws, hers was a life so extraordinary that fans of David-Neel may find enough here to hold their attention until the definitive biography comes along.