Is Sir Alec's Sex Life Just a Fantasy? Book Reviews

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), October 5, 2003 | Go to article overview

Is Sir Alec's Sex Life Just a Fantasy? Book Reviews


Byline: CRAIG BROWN

Alec Guinness: The Authorised Biography by Piers Paul Read Simon & Schuster [pounds sterling]20 .[pounds sterling]16 (0870 165 0870) ***

At a literary festival last week, Piers Paul Read attacked newspapers for presenting a distorted view of this, his biography of Alec Guinness. One headline had read, 'Alec Guinness was a vicious bully who tormented his wife and son. Was the actor's gay past to blame?' and another simply accused Sir Alec of having 'An Unkind Heart'.

All this was, said Piers Paul Read, a perversion of the true intent of his biography. 'I loved him - cautiously - in his lifetime,' he said, 'and after living with him through his letters, diaries and the recollections of his friends over these past two years, and coming to know his strengths and weaknesses, I find that I still love him - indeed I love him much more.' Read is primarily a novelist, and a very interesting novelist too. His novels are concerned with religion, particularly Roman Catholicism, and illicit sex (the last one I read contained a scene in which a woman is pleasured by dogs).

Although he has written non-fiction (most famously Alive!, about the survivors of an air crash in the Andes), this is his first biography.

It is, I think, very much a novelist's biography, infinitely more serious than most books about actors, never slipping into the usual folderol of theatrical anecdotes. It is also very finely constructed, interrupting the relentless CV of biography with long passages devoted to particular themes in life: friendship, mother, money etc.

But is Read too strong a novelist to be a biographer? As an actor, Alec Guinness was famously able to put aside his own character in order to become someone else. Much the same skill is required of the biographer. But the novelist spends a lifetime cultivating his own particular views and obsessions, played out through a variety of characters of his own creation.

There is a danger, then, that faced with the infinitely more restricting job of recording the known details of the life of a real person, he will be unable to lose himself, preferring to view the subject of his biography as a blueprint for a new character, someone who, with a bit of blotting out and underlining, will make a suitable embodiment of his own particular obsessions.

It seems to me likely that, as a friend of Alec Guinness, Read honestly believes his biography reflects his great affection ('I still love him - indeed I love him much more') for the man. But the book tells another story.

It devotes far more space to Guinness's vices than to his virtues, even though, in life, they seem to have been pretty equally divided.

Acts of kindness - lots of gifts of cash for the needy and for actors down on their luck, a cottage for his son, a trip to Lourdes for a fellow parishioner, etc, etc - are disposed of in a few words. Sometimes, they are even preceded with the author's acidic spin: thus when Guinness's son Matthew announces his engagement, Read writes: 'Inevitably, Alec tried to take charge.' Only then does it emerge that 'taking charge' means buying his son three suits, his fiancee a necklace and the two of them a country cottage.

When an old friend of Guinness gets slightly tipsy and declares her love for him in a letter, we are told that 'Alec put her firmly in her place'.

But there then follows the transcript of a letter from Guinness refusing her entreaties with the most exquisite tact and kindness, a letter described by its recipient as 'the kindest, most thoughtful, most facesavingfor-me letter I've ever read'.

This stinginess by the biographer extends even to Guinness's one area of unquestionable expertise: his acting.

Read is often niggardly in his response to some of Guinness's greatest creations. He treats his deathdance at the end of Alan Bennett's Habeas Corpus, for instance, as little more than an act of misplaced vanity: 'Alec prided himself on his mimelike dancing, occasionally suggesting it to sceptical directors, and in the case of Habeas Corpus, succeeding in tagging one on to the end of the play. …

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