The Icarus tendency

Peter Parker looks for a conclusion in Sebastian Faulks's three- part anthem of doomed youth; The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives by Sebastian Faulks, Hutchinson, pounds 16.99

Sebastian Faulks was prompted to write this intriguing biographical triptych after reading Calvin Trillin's Remembering Danny, the account of an American golden boy who came to dust well before his time. Danny's downfall, it seems, stemmed from his homosexuality, which in the climate of the late 1950s he found difficult to accept. "The book made me think that young or short lives are more sensitive indicators of the pressure of public attitudes than lives lived long and crowned with honours," Faulks writes in an introductory note. He has chosen three highly gifted men, from three different generations, who briefly soared above the heads of their contemporaries before plummeting to their early deaths.

In 1921, at the age of 19, Christopher Wood set off for Paris with the intention of becoming, as he boyishly put it, "the greatest painter that has ever lived". He pursued this end with the help of Tony Gandarillas, a wealthy Chilean diplomat and patron of the arts, who provided the most sustaining relationship of Wood's life, but also introduced him to opium.

Wood's work began to gain him a considerable reputation, and he found a measure of personal happiness with a woman called Frosca Munster, but he threw himself under a train at the age of 29. What precisely drove him to his death remains a mystery. It seems that he had been overworking and taking dangerous quantities of opium. But one suspects there may also have been a destructive tension between his highly conventional background and his ambitions as an artist. Though he lived the life of a Twenties French bohemian, he maintained the appearance and mannerisms of the sort of young Englishman more likely to be wielding a golf club than a paintbrush.

Richard Hillary grew up in the Thirties, was influenced by TE Lawrence, and joined the RAF. Horribly burned when his plane was shot down over the North Sea in 1940, he was saved by the skill of the surgeon AH McIndoe, and wrote his autobiography, The Last Enemy, while convalescing. This faintly mystical story of a callow youth transformed by sacrifice had enormous appeal for the reading public, but those who knew Hillary remained sceptical. His close friend Geoffrey Page, who expressed himself "surprised a supercilious bastard like you could produce something like this", thought the transfiguration described in the book glib: "In my opinion, you're still as bloody conceited as ever."

Faulks suggests that Hillary returned to flying, against the advice of his doctors, out of some First World War sense of camaraderie, and he draws unhelpful comparisons with Wilfred Owen. His account, however, leads one to conclude that it was Hillary's bloody conceit, his indestructible arrogance, that made him insist upon flying Blenheims, even after experience had confirmed that his catastrophically damaged hands could not properly control such lumbering aircraft. He shortly crashed to his death, taking a hapless navigator with him.

Although very much of the Sixties, Jeremy Wolfenden might have stepped out of the pages of early Evelyn Waugh. Witty, charming and very good company, he was widely acclaimed as the cleverest man of his generation. In spite of being flagrantly homosexual, he was sent by the Daily Telegraph as a correspondent to Moscow - with predictable results. Set up and snapped in flagrante, Wolfenden was blackmailed by the KGB, who, Faulks believes, were happily aware that his father was the author of the eponymous Report (as yet unimplemented) into homosexual offences. It was the British and American intelligence services that did for Wolfenden, however, putting intolerable pressure upon someone who was in any case unbalanced by alcoholism.

Faulks originally intended to call his book The Artist, the Airman and the Spy. That title also suggests, however, that these three men were in some way emblematic: of their century, perhaps, or of their country. The eventual title, The Fatal Englishman, re-emphasises this, hinting at a cohesive subtext to these apparently disparate lives.

Though Faulks is at pains not to draw together the separate threads into some neat pattern, unifying themes gradually emerge. All three men were good-looking, highly individual products of the English public-school system; all three had closer relationships with their mothers than with their fathers, all three had high opinions of themselves (mostly justified); all three were driven by some form of inner demon and were careless of their own lives.

The shared features of their stories are vital to Faulks's book; without them, it remains a collection of three not especially distinguished biographical essays. What the form dictates is surely something a little more virtuosic than these perfectly decent, very readable but very conventional accounts. We are left to draw our own conclusions, one of which is that while Faulks's subjects were undoubtedly moulded by their times, their individual falls had more to do with private than public pressures. What proved fatal to these Englishmen were the particular flaws of temperament each carried within him.

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