BOOKS: LITTLE ORSON ANNIE ; His Parents' Deaths Freed Orson Welles to Lie Constantly about His Past - but Who Cares? for Matthew Sweet, His Whole Career Was a Glorious Hoax; Orson Welles: The Stories of His Lives by Peter Conrad FABER Pounds 20 Pounds 18 (+ Pounds 2.25 P&P PER ORDER) 0870 800 1122
Sweet, Matthew, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
When Ken Tynan was still in short trousers, Orson Welles was his principal pin-up. He offered an encomium to his hero on the pages of the school magazine, hailing him as "a major prophet, with the hopes of a generation clinging to his heels". He compiled a dinner-party wish- list that included Jesus Christ, Picasso, Joyce, Cezanne and D H Lawrence, and put Welles at the top of the table.
In a letter to his best friend, he related an anecdote in which "the master" rolls up in a two-horse town to give a lecture, and is dismayed to discover that only a handful of people have turned up to hear him speak: "Ladies and gentlemen," Welles announces, "I will tell you the highlights of my life. I am a director of plays, a producer of plays, and an actor on the legitimate stage. I am a writer, a producer, and an actor in motion pictures. I write, direct, and act on the radio. I am a magician. I also paint and sketch, and I am a book-publisher. I am a violinist, and I am a pianist." (A dramatic pause here, to give time for the slackjawed lickspittles to watch the parade pass by.) "Isn't it a pity that there are so many of me and so few of you?" Like so many of the narratives that adhered to Welles, it may never have happened.
The critical biographer of Welles has one great advantage: every performance that the man ever gave, every word he wrote, was a form of memoir. Even when acting in other people's pictures - from Carol Reed's The Third Man to Michael Winner's I'll Never Forget What's 'is Name - he reshaped and polished his lines until he saw himself reflected in them. His work is as full as mirrors as the crazy house in The Lady from Shanghai, or the hallway through which Charles Foster Kane lurches to his death. So there's no need for Peter Conrad's new critical study to issue an embarrassed cough before it draws its comparisons between Welles's art and life. Welles was Kane, Quixote, Harry Lime and Kurtz. He was Falstaff, Macbeth, Othello, all of the Ambersons and a one-man Martian invasion. He would have been Prince Hamlet, too, had he not eaten all the pies.
Peter Conrad is that rare thing, a British academic with a sharp, stimulating prose style and an infectious enthusiasm for the complexities of his subject. He has nerve, too, having gaily thrown away scholarly apparatus - an act which may well prevent this new book from counting towards his institution's total of research points. He has dispensed with footnotes. (They would have doubled the length, as well as removing the tantalising possibility that every story related might be apocryphal.) He has declined to supply a bibliography. (If your subject's personae include Peter Pan, Prospero, Mercury, Kubla Khan and Faust, what exactly would you leave out?) Though such textual anchors might have prevented him from the odd error - his bizarre assertion that the Kennedy assassination took place in 1964, for instance - they would also have added useless weight. This is a book for devouring on the bus on the way home from the cinema.
Fortunately, he has not produced a conventional biography. A whole corral of people have already submitted Welles to that process: Barbara Leaming believed every word he said, and wrote it down; Simon Callow gushed at his feet and ignored his capacity for failure; David Thomson declared that he was "magnificent and a poor bastard"; Pauline Kael, in a hard little essay in The Citizen Kane Book, took a chisel to his reputation. Conrad celebrates the contradictions and untruths that some of these commentators have bust their guts attempting to eradicate. His interest is not in cracking the carapace of myth that accrued around Welles, but in examining how, Quixote-like, he was both sustained and imprisoned by this armour.
The facts relating to the deaths of Welles's parents, for instance, are allocated a couple of sentences: Beatrice Welles was felled by hepatitis in 1924, Richard Head Welles by drink in 1930. …