BOOK REVIEW / The riddle of a mischievous traveller: Jan Morris on a sceptical new biography of the 100-year-old blithe spirit, Dame Freya Stark: Freya Stark - Molly Izzard: Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 25

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A MACABRE but undeniably fascinating circumstance attends the publication of this biography. Its subject, the writer, traveller and Arabist Freya Stark, celebrates her 100th birthday on its publication, but is in no mental condition to read it. As one of her oldest friends affectionately put it to me, she has lost her marbles.

A good thing too, because the book would not please her much. It is a kind of debunk manquee, not the whole-hog sort that keeps you on the edge of your chair waiting for yet more astounding revelations, but in a snider kind - like those Sunday supplement interviews which are dressed up in journalistic frankness, but whose real purpose is barb and innuendo.

As it happens much the best parts of Molly Izzard's book describe her own encounters with Dame Freya, the first of which happened when the old lady was already 86. These are brilliant, and bring exactly to life Freya Stark's piquant mixture of the flamboyant, the self-conscious, the tough, the peculiar, the devious, the entertaining, the slightly absurd and the suggestively evasive. They are written with mannerly but ungushing perception, and I was truly touched by their glimpse of the aged litterateur clambering slowly and all alone up the hill above her home in Asolo, surveying the familiar landscape through her gathering cataracts.

The degree of scepticism shown in these passages is perfectly acceptable and undoubtedly justified. What spoils the book is its constant undercurrent of something more querulous; something resentful, or begrudging. It is as though Mrs Izzard has deliberately set out to discredit her subject, but finding nothing very spectacular to discredit, has been obliged to settle for a note of gossipy complaint. She could have written a delightful book, one feels, if she had not got it into her head that it had to be an expose (and if it had been a lot better edited . . .)

Freya Stark's life falls into four main periods: her childhood and adolescence, the days of her pre-war explorations, her wartime activities in the Middle East and her post-war fame, which briefly exploded into mass celebrity by a television series in the late 1970s. Molly Izzard seems to suggest that all four periods were coloured by deception or self-delusion. Freya was misleading about her youth, she implies, exaggerated her exploits of exploration, misunderstood the realities of the Arab world and shamelessly exploited her fame and personality.

All these charges are doubtless true, but who cares? Not the general public, few of whom know who Freya Stark is. Not her own readers, who love her or loathe her as an artist. Not her friends and enemies, who have long known the worst about her, as they have recognised the best. And not, I fear, the readers of this book, who are led to expect exciting disclosures, but learn only of petty failings and trivial peccadillos - the naughtiest of which, concerning the illicit sale of a car in Tehran, strikes me as an excellent wheeze.

The trouble perhaps is that Mrs Izzard has approached her task as a quest, in the manner of A J A Symons' quest for Baron Corvo. Instinctively feeling that there was more (or less) to Freya Stark's reputation than met the eye, and discovering for a start that more epic explorers like Wilfred Thesiger discounted her youthful adventures, she set off, as she says, to solve a puzzle. This means that her book goes fitfully backwards, confusing those ignorant of Dame Freya's career, and ends in anti- climax.

For the solution Mrs Izzard finds, if I understand her properly, is that Freya Stark is her own invention. She has made and moulded herself, out of fairly unpromising material, into a star. Plain of appearance, and slightly disfigured by a youthful accident, of origins more curious than distinguished, she has got on in the world not just by writing successful books, but by advertising herself, exploiting her frailties (and her femininity), courting the rich and powerful and never neglecting the main chance. These sound unimportant crimes to me, and I suspect Mrs Izzard is not really very shocked by them either: but trapped as she is in the scheme of her book, she is obliged to make the most of them.

Actually it is the very theatricality of Freya Stark that makes her so fascinating. Of course she is self-created - that is the whole point of her. Every facet of her personality, as of her life and of her art, is studied. Her appearance is as meticulously calculated as her prose. She has been determined to inhabit her own chosen self, not a self imposed upon her by history or heredity, and has been frank enough about the impulse - indeed, as she once wrote: 'I am always surprised how few there are to follow it'.

Molly Izzard is as captivated by the effect as anyone else, and at the very end of her book, when she meets Freya Stark for the last time, no more than peripherally compos mentis, she tacitly admits that the puzzle is really its own solution. Dame Freya, she excellently suggests then, is a Blithe Spirit, but more in the Cowardian than the Shelleyan mode. Her 'outer husk encases a spirit exalted and true'. In other words, she is a gamey, gifted, vain, somewhat mischievous and irrepressible old soul, deserving a biography no less probing, but more generous than this.

Happy birthday, Freya] Don't worry about the obituaries.

(Photograph omitted)