Germaine Greer described biographers as ‘vultures’. I prefer to think of myself as a version of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade: vultures hunt by instinct but the two private investigators went after secrets with deliberate foolhardy masochism.
It’s human nature to want to know more about the writers we admire — but what you discover isn’t always pleasant.
Most recently, I completed a life of Ernest Hemingway. It was a joy to write mainly because after reading thousands of unpublished letters I felt relieved at having been spared an encounter with the living ‘Papa’. I knew of his reputation as a fibber but I was astonished to find that from his teens onwards he was pathologically incapable of distinguishing fantasy from truth. He entertained friends and family, wives included, with stories of his heroics as a member of the crack Italian regiment the Arditi on the Austrian front at the close of the first world war. He’d volunteered for frontline service after his horrible injuries while serving with the American Red Cross; despite having one leg almost shredded by machine-gun bullets he’d rescued several injured Italian infantrymen. For this act of gallantry he had been presented with the nation’s highest military honour, in the main square in Milan, by a member of the Italian royal family. He had made much of it up and he continued to embellish the fables for decades. Other biographers had treated his inclination to lie as something that affected Hemingway just a little more than it does the rest of us, and they did their best to sideline it. Aside from this he was above average in terms of anti-Semitism, arbitrary vindictiveness, egomania, racism and misogyny.
Time spent in the company of dead literary heroes is often a bracing business. Reading the unpublished letters between Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin (I wrote biographies of both men) was like eavesdropping on a terrible private conversation. Soon after marrying Hilly, Kingsley informed Larkin that he’d been to a dance ‘to see if there were any young ladies worth getting on top of’. One, with ‘noticeable breasts’, flirted with him. ‘She’, Amis disclosed to Larkin, ‘is 12 years old 12 years old 12’. Amis bombarded Larkin with his catalogue of sexual conquests and tales of his success as a novelist, along with his various neuroses, including his fear of sleeping without the light on, his refusal to walk down dark streets or board an aeroplane, and most of all his terror that Hilly would find out that he was a serial adulterer. Eventually Kingsley was talking mainly to himself and Larkin had grown sick of what he had to say. It was eerie, listening to the strange cultivation of lies, disclosures and secrets in the archive rooms of various libraries. I felt they were all there, speaking exclusively to me, despite all being long dead.
Kingsley’s ghost is dismaying, but it has nothing on the vibrant, living presence of his son. And in truth, I can’t really explain my decision to do a life of Martin Amis. I didn’t enjoy his conceitedly experimental fiction and, as it turned out, he didn’t like me.
His house was always strangely empty. Once, I found one of his daughters toiling over her homework in the sitting room where we sometimes talked. No introductions were proffered and with brisk efficiency he ushered me out of the main house to his ‘office’, a concrete shed across the terrace at the back. He tolerated me during our talks but his mood changed when I sent him the first draft. ‘The honourable thing,’ one of his emails opened, ‘would be for you to withdraw your book, with apologies’ [to him]. A few days later he reflected that ‘It is quite something to have a biographer who is even more hostile and mendacious than even the scurviest of tabloids’. That would make an eye-catching cover blurb, I thought.
He agreed to maintain contact, so long as I provided the ‘apology… with full decorum’ and I did so. But this, he replied, was ‘Not good enough. You sound like a child doing a chore before it gets its sweets.’ I swallowed what was left of my pride and tried again, but no: ‘You have missed your second chance to express many needful things.’ Moreover I must ‘change [my] attitude and [my] hideous tone, and go about this soberly’. He added: ‘What I want from you is a letter, not a self-defence (you have no defence) but of appalled contrition. If that satisfies me you can start all over again [that is rewrite the entire book]… you have no ear, no empathy and no respect for the truth. And on this showing it seems you have an ugly nature. I also want you to show this communication to your wife. Start again.’
I think class had something to do with it: background, accent, and my confession during one of our meetings that Shakespeare bores me. Perhaps this is why I became a close friend of Alan Sillitoe, who stands out among my subjects. We were in his study discussing my suitability as his authorised biographer and after searching drawers for a file he turned to me with a Luger automatic in his hand, a second world war relic. I asked, nervously: ‘Does it still work?’ ‘Well, if Blair sends round one of his apparatchiks to size us up for ID cards, we’ll find out.’ Alan played me as a cat plays a mouse, but with no malice. He’d hand me a parcel of old letters, or an address of someone from his past who’d be willing to talk, and later he’d ask me what I thought, sometimes correcting me, often raising questions and leaving them unanswered. He was drawing me in; all the time bringing me a little closer to the truth while testing me as someone he could trust with it.
Did I get to know the real Alan? I think I did. I knew that the Soviet Union had cultivated him as one of the few genuine working--class radicals of the early 1960s, of his garlanded visits to Moscow and Leningrad. Useful idiot? A literary Corbyn? Quite the opposite. I saw letters from men and women in Canada, the US, western Europe and Israel, thanking him for getting them out of the Soviet bloc. ‘I hope you remember when we met in Prague, you with your beautiful wife… You helped me and others so much’ (J. Skvorecky to Alan from Toronto, 1972). There are many other testaments to his skills in rescuing people, Jews especially, which he begged me not to use. I still don’t know how he did it and I never will. But he risked his life to save men and women from regimes he’d grown to hate. Alan is gone too but he towers above the rest.