My Writers: Simon Callow

When I first saw Simon Callow’s biography on Orson Welles on the Borders new releases shelf, I was skeptical about my need to read it. At the time, I’d recently completed Frank Brady’s Citizen Welles. While I have a deep, abiding fascination for the iconoclastic cinematic genius, I also reasonably thought I’d had my fill for a while. If anything, I could wait until it showed up–undoubtedly in abundance–at the used booksellers in a few years. Then I made a rookie mistake. I picked it up and turned to the opening page. Past the preface, the first line of the first chapter hooked me completely: “The road to Xanadu begins in Kenosha, Wisconsin.” If that didn’t already win over this boy born and bred in America’s Dairyland, then the elaboration a couple sentences later locked in my devotion: “Every country has its joke towns, good for an easy laugh, and if Kenosha is not quite in the league of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, or Normal, Illinois, it is still sufficiently redolent of bookdockery to seem to mock the very idea of aspiration in its sons and daughters.” I bought it then and there. The dust jacket tells me it cost as much as $32.95, an almost inconceivable sum for me to drop on a single acquisition in 1995. It didn’t matter. I needed it.

Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu is a hefty tome, pushing 600 pages before it reaches its appendices. My recollection is that I raced through it, somewhat atypically, completely caught up in Callow’s meticulous, constantly questioning appraisal of the storied history of Welles. In the preface, Callow calls attention to the great filmmaker’s propensity for indulging in embellishment and downright deceit in interviews over the years, using it as an opportunity to openly ruminate on the shortcomings of biography in the first place. Nothing can be taken at face value, according to Callow, though the temptation to do is great, given that it is much easier to lean on the contemporaneous reporting of Welles’s varied exploits than to scratch away at hidden truths. Welles was a shrewd maker of his own myth, especially in the early days, and there was a fleet of eager, pliant reporters ready to serve as his conduit to the masses. On the unique pleasures of Road to Xanadu is the ways in which Callow openly struggles with the veracity of the story as he’s putting it down on the page, occasionally second-guessing his own suppositions. There could be no finer methodology employed for the director who’s finest late career achievement was the deconstructionist documentary F for Fake.

The other notably unique aspect to Callow’s work stemmed from his main gig as an actor. When the book came out, he was in fact still flush with the success of his showy, entertaining supporting performance in the previous year’s Four Weddings and a Funeral. He brings his own study of the craft of acting, writing and filmmaking to the consideration of Welles’s achievements, and, in the later volume, his many setbacks. At times, Callow even switches from biographer to full-blown critic, breaking down the good and bad of what Welles created, going to so far as to level complaints against the actors occasional propensity for hamminess and overreliance on heavy makeup to create character, a remnant of his stage days that he never quite gave up when working in comparatively intimate world of film. If the goal of any biographer is to develop a deep understanding of their subject, then Callow strives for that in the way that it makes the most sense: as a peer separated by generations.

It would be ten years before Callow completed and published the second volume in the biography, a slightly thinner book entitled Orson Welles: Hello Americans. Where the first book (as the title implied) only got Welles up to his debut film, Citizen Kane, made when he was only twenty-five-years-old, the follow-up pushes through the next several years, many of them fairly troubled. All the attributes are still in place, although it does sometimes seem as though Callow mildly regrets the mammoth undertaking he’s chosen. In particular, the last few chapters of the book read like the effort of a man who’s determined he won’t miss yet another deadline. I recognized this, but it didn’t bother me. I appreciated returning to this towering figure with Callow again as my guide, and if the writer had a wholly evident cantankerousness, it at least suited the material. Welles had his own creative impatience as he pushed on in life. The book mirrored that, certainly unintentionally.

A third volume looms, with Callow announcing a couple years ago his intention to get underway with the writing of it. This is presumed to be the last, but it’s easy to conceive of the project overwhelming Callow’s creative life, in much the same way that Robert Caro has been bound to Lyndon Johnson for so long that they’ve gone well past their silver anniversary, with the biographer constantly claiming that he’s just one more volume away from finishing. If that’s the case, I’m determined to stick with Callow for as long as it takes. If I committed upon reading his first sentence, I should damn well see it through to his last one.

Previously…
An Introduction
Margaret Atwood
Anne Tyler
Michael Chabon
Ian McEwan
Don DeLillo
Stephen King
John Steinbeck
Donna Tartt
Jonathan Lethem
Bradley Denton
Zadie Smith
Nick Hornby
Kurt Vonnegut
Thomas Hardy
Harlan Ellison
Dave Eggers
William Greider
Alan Moore
Terrence McNally
Elmore Leonard
Jonathan Franzen
Nicole Krauss
Mike Royko