Truth and dare

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“First word”, Condé Nast Traveller, July 2008

Five years ago I was asked if I wanted to write the authorised biography of Norman Lewis. I don’t much like biographies: too much pretend objectivity, too much elevation and dismantling, too much “personality”. I said yes. I was lucky enough to call Norman my friend for more than 15 years, and couldn’t stand the thought of reading someone else’s version of his life.

A quarter of a million words later, the book – more a blocking move really, more anti-book than book – is done. Am I wiser about biography? Better disposed? Once caught in the snare, I certainly became more sympathetic to the problems biographers face. I had a substantial one of my own.

It involves the question of truth. Norman was reckless with dates; disinformational about his personal life; an adjuster of chronologies. This is widely felt to be acceptable in books of travel. The book isn’t the journey. (It needs to be less tedious, for one thing.) But comparison of Norman’s notebooks and his published accounts revealed more.

In A Dragon Apparent, his great account of south-east Asia, he tells a memorable, detailed story of a grenade attack on a café across the square from his hotel at Saigon. The explosion “caused fifteen casualties – a Saigon record”. Except that it did not happen. Not to Norman: he heard about it, in Cholon, three weeks later. Elsewhere in Voices of the Old Sea, his elegy for pre-tourist Spain, one of the most indelible characters is a local aristocrat, Don Alberto, an emaciated Cervantean reactionary who possessed a banned copy of Montaigne and, like a modernised Quixote, “a two-stroke motorcycle on which he sits like a black praying mantis”. Except that Don Alberto possessed no earthly existence.

The further I went into Norman’s notebooks, the more puzzles emerged. The work of a writer praised, even idolised, for authenticity was regularly made up. Yet, after a short crisis, I found I wasn’t upset but applauding. In art – possibly unlike life – a lie is disbelieved not because it isn’t the truth, but because it isn’t aesthetic, because it doesn’t supply meaning. In art, the lie that is believed is the truth that matters. Norman didn’t make up these episodes or characters to make things more dramatic, himself more heroic. He placed them, as a composer does, like a phrase or theme. Far from being delinquent, impure elements of the truth, they are indispensable to his truthfulness.

What did Norman himself feel about the line between truth and fiction? In his 1949 diary he recalls how, as a ten-year-old 30 years before, he would be ambushed by the bearded ladies of Carmarthen, wanting a kiss. “All right,” he retaliated, “you know the fee,” and charged them a penny. Is the story true? “How much of it is fiction and how much of it isn’t I couldn’t tell you,” he wrote. “Leave anything to my imagination and nobody could recognise the facts after a few years.” The story might be made up. But that was how it was.

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