Simon Lane: Novelist whose life outdid his fiction


Simon Lane was one of those writers whose published oeuvre is only matched by the supreme fiction of their own existence, the mythic resonance of their travels and tribulations, those who boldly spin the text of their own legend daily, or more likely nightly. He was the absolute embodiment of the English gentleman-novelist in permanent exile, a self-described "drinker with a writing problem"; it was reassuring to know that in the most distant exotic corners of the world Lane would always be there, in an impeccably stained handmade suit, propping up some impossibly dangerous bar dispensing outrageous wit and wisdom.

Born in Birmingham, Lane studied theatre design at Wimbledon Art School before launching himself across the globe, seemingly supported only by his verbal brilliance, good looks, perfect wardrobe and genius to amuse. Whether in New York, Milan or Berlin, Mexico or Sydney he instantly accrued a loyal band of supporters who helped spread news of his adventures and pay the bills. The last decade of his relatively short life was spent in Rio di Janeiro, where he explored the extreme night life while producing some of his final and best writing.

The risk with such deliciously rocambolesque figures is that the value of their own writing is obscured by the larger narrative of their life, the primary text of their actual work replaced by annotations and footnotes of anecdotage. Like the Unspeakable Skipton, or his original Baron Corvo, like X Trapnel or his own original MacLaren-Ross, like Peter Fallow in Bonfire of the Vanities or Jeffrey Bernard as played on stage, at a certain level of notoriety public persona becomes itself a work of art.

Certainly the circumstances of publication of Lane's first novel were impressive, the founding stone of his subsequent reputation. Having moved to Paris in 1988 Lane had the honour of seeing his debut book published by Christian Bourgois, one of the most important editors in the world, publisher of everyone from Borges to Solzhenitsyn, Salman Rushdie to García Márquez. In fact this remarkable coup was entirely thanks to an all-night drink-fuelled poker game, whose ultimate stake was the obligation to publish Lane's novel, a gambling debt that was rightly honoured. Entitled Le Veilleur - the vigil or the watchman - the book had the added distinction of never appearing in its original English but only in a French version by the renowned Brice Matthieussent, translator of such kindred spirits as John Fante, Paul Bowles and Charles Bukowski.

And as with such writers, termed in French "figures de l'excès et de la provocation" the ideal arc of Lane's career was somewhat deflected by his own entertaining antics. For example no sooner had he secured one of New York's leading literary agents than he found himself invited to a party to celebrate her leading writer; whereupon Lane became notably drunk and mortally insulted firstly her most important client, then loudly trounced all her other authors and finally her own professional reputation. Lane thus managed to find himself fired within less than 24 hours of being signed.

His penchant for leaping on restaurant tables – "All you Frogs are Collaborationists!" – was only matched by his taste for every sort of stimulant, whether the constant cigarette, the opium or what he called "getting into behaviour", his word for cocaine. Wherever one went in the world there were always such stories, or echoes of stories about Lane, this eternally romantic boulevardier leaving a long trail of laughter and disaster.

Having spent a decade in Portugal and in Paris (in Wilde's old hotel room), Lane moved to Rio in 2001. Wherever he went, and he went everywhere, he was always surrounded by beautiful, mysterious and often wealthy women who seemingly fell instantly in love. Just as loyal were his male fans, often met randomly during epic benders. Lane was married once, and only had one child, but he had countless amours with a fantastical range of females, from Norwegian-African designers to Asian junkies and Amazonian actresses. Attending a wedding in the South of France along with his wife, Lane soon realised he was in love with the bride and cunningly befriended the groom. The four of them got on so well that the couple invited Lane and his wife along on the honeymoon, whereupon he swiftly ran away with the newlywed, eventually abandoning her in Rome having realised he was simply infatuated with the idea of stealing a bride.

His last great love was Betsy Salles, whom he initially seduced by jumping stark naked into her family pool, and with whom he lived in Brazil. It was here Lane revived his career as a performer, having already played a sailor in a Derek Jarman film, acted in the first film written by the now-celebrated Edouard Baer and worked alongside Tom Conti in the 1995 film Someone Else's America. He hosted his own radio show in Paris and was latterly a stringer for Global Radio News.

Lane was always close to artists, having had an exhibition himself at the Centre Pompidou of his own limited-editions, drawings and prints, and he performed often with the leading Brazilian artist Tunga, who illustrated his last published work, The Real Illusion. Lane's "Paris Trilogy", beginning with Still Life with Books followed by Fear and Twist, is in some ways comparable to Edward St Aubyn's trilogy, a classic of English social-tragic-comedy surely ripe for revival in a single volume.

Several other books were published in Brazil including Boca a Boca [Word of Mouth] and Noite Em Pigalle, all the more evocative in Portuguese. Lane also left behind a final manuscript, considered by those lucky enough to have read it as perhaps his masterpiece: Brazil, Eternal Promise, a portrait of his adopted home.

Oliver Simon Lane, writer, wit, raconteur and performer: born Birmingham 19 May 1957; married Mallory Roberts (one daughter); died London 28 December 2012.

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