Friday Book: A literary life cruelly exposed

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The Independent Culture


IN JANUARY 1953, a group of writers, including EM Forster, Arthur Koestler, Laurie Lee, Rose Macaulay, VS Pritchett and Stephen Spender, listened while TS Eliot paid tribute to John Lehmann at a lunch to mark the closure of his publishing house. The novelist Henry Green remarked that there had been no such gesture since Coleridge organised a dinner for Leigh Hunt on his release from prison. And yet the recipient is now largely forgotten. It is Adrian Wright's intention in writing his biography to restore John Lehmann to "the centre of the literature to which he gave his life".

To some degree, Lehmann was always overshadowed - by the greater talents within his own family as well as in the literary world. His father, Rudolph, was a legendary sportsman, Liberal MP and writer of light verse, who remained a distant figure during John's childhood. A more direct influence was exercised by his mother and three older sisters: Helen, Rosamond and Beatrix. Although the three younger siblings presented a Sitwellian facade to the public, their relationship was never easy. Wright attributes the lifelong tensions between Rosamond and John to an early incestuous episode.

Incest apart, Lehmann's first sexual experience was with a billeted Belgian, as a boy in the First World War. Such emotional core as this book possesses derives from its account of Lehmann's subsequent homosexual quest (a middle-aged affair with the wife of the French ambassador being the sole exception). His behaviour was extraordinarily self-deluding. He wrote that he was "always looking for the friend who will give me the direct, warm and natural, entirely loyal relationship that I dream about". And yet, after a failed student relationship with Michael Redgrave (who described himself, with justice, as "at times hideously immoral"), and an unrequited attraction to Christopher Isherwood, he sought out men who, for reasons of age, class or income, could never be his equals.

He saw his liaisons with hustlers, such as those to whom Isherwood introduced him in the boy bars of Berlin, as acts of class rebellion. A more honest description would be sexual tourism. His emotional life was further complicated when Adrian Liddell Hart introduced him to sado-masochism, waking long- dormant impulses of which he was both ashamed and afraid. Later in life, his affections were split between a series of secretaries, such as Jeremy Kingston, his "chunky Ganymede", and stock figures at the rougher end of the sexual market.

Even in his sixties, as a visiting professor in America, he was having affairs with his students, among them President Johnson's cousin. The one constant in his life was the ballet dancer Alexis Rassine, a partner of Margot Fonteyn, who shared his home for far longer than he shared his bed, but remains elusive in this book.

Lehmann's literary life suffered from the same diffuseness as his sexuality. He articulated its key dilemma: "Was I to be the impresario of other people's creative work or a creative writer myself?" But the question was academic. To his profound sorrow, neither his poetry nor his fiction made a real impact. Discussing his autobiographical novel, In the Purely Pagan Sense, Wright refers to his "dead-handed prose, his almost William McGonagall talent for the flat phrase, the over-ready adjective". Only his memoir, The Whispering Gallery, could bear comparison with the works of the writers he promoted. Instead, his achievement lay as an editor and publisher, particularly of the various anthologies he founded, including Penguin New Writing and the London Magazine.

Wright succeeds in his desire to show Lehmann's central place in English literary life, from Bloomsbury to Fitzrovia. What is less sure is his ability to make him a figure of interest in his own right. Wright repeatedly compares him to Cyril Connolly, whose reputation he believes to have unjustifiably eclipsed Lehmann's. Yet, as biographical subject, there is no disputing Connolly's pre-eminence. It is disappointing, after his splendid biography of LP Hartley, that Wright fails to bring Lehmann fully into focus. It is as though the lacunae in Hartley's life stimulated Wright's imagination, whereas the sheer weight of the Lehmann archive overwhelmed it.

The underlying problem of Lehmann's life - that, both privately and professionally, it simply repeated the same patterns - is echoed in his biography. In the absence of any substantial body of creative work, the literary side dwindles into a list of contributors and a resume of the problems of running small magazines. On the emotional side, the detailed account of transitory loves suffers from the same leadenness that Wright censures in In the Purely Pagan Sense. Removing Lehmann from the indices and footnotes to the centre of the page, Wright has left him cruelly exposed.