Cinematically inclined English novelist Faulks (Charlotte Gray, 1999, etc.) mourns the beautiful, talented sons of Albion, doomed to early graves.
The youthful accomplishments of the three men depicted here promised renown, for better or worse, but they died prematurely. Faulks doesn’t have much of a thesis, apart from the belief that “young or short lives are more sensitive indicators of the pressure of public attitudes than lives lived long and crowned with honours,” a nice enough point that goes unbuttressed. Still, his brief biographies are marvels of economy and good writing, reason enough to read them. His first subject, Christopher Wood (1902–30), was the toast of beau-monde Paris, a first-class painter who haunted the smart cafes and was on a first-name basis with Diaghilev and Picasso. Gifted though he was, Wood never quite got over the shock of childhood polio (“he was shamefully removed from the world of other children, and was in continual pain”) and killed himself before he could fulfill his gifts. Unluckier still was Faulks’s second subject, RAF pilot Richard Hillary (1919–43), handsome and confident until badly burned in a plane crash during the Battle of Britain; he survived but was severely disfigured and died three years later during a training-flight accident. Fans of John le Carré will be most drawn to the final portrait, of tortured Jeremy Wolfenden (1934–65), hailed as the most brilliant Englishman of his generation and beloved of Oxford University’s female students, for whom “his acknowledged but still illegal homosexuality added to his mysterious glamour.” Wolfenden ended his days playing, and being played by, spies and counterspies of the English, American, and Soviet intelligence services, all of whom found use for the easily tempted and blackmailed young man, who drank himself to death by age 31.
Well-crafted and intelligent sketches of particular interest to students of nonfiction writing, who’ll find a useful model here.