I’ve been writing books, articles, and blog posts for a while now. My subjects are mercenaries and extremists, smugglers and peacekeepers, lost causes and short-lived countries, and the kind of writers who hammer out words on a busted typewriter with a 9mm in their belt and a bottle of vodka in the ice box.
Recently I wrote Lost Lions of Judah, the strange, untold story of the Nazis and adventurers who fought for Ethiopia against Mussolini’s invaders. And it’s all true.
That’s one of the revelations in non-fiction narratives. Almost everything that appears in a novels has already happened to someone real somewhere else. And it was weirder and wilder than you can imagine.
There are plenty of non-fiction writers out there with the talent to take all their research and interviews and summon up a living, breathing, technicolor world. Here’s six non-fiction books that do the job very well.
Michael Heyward is an Australian journalist and publisher. His speciality is the kind of vividness that brings cultural movements and the world around them back to life.
In 1944 James McAuley and Harold Stewart, a pair of late twenty-somethings in the small world of Australian avant-garde poetry, hoaxed their better connected contemporary Max Harris. They created Ern Malley, an unknown and dead Aussie Modernist who wrote, thought, and theorised just enough like Harris to bait the hook. They knocked out some poems (occasionally ridiculous, discreetly obscene) in an afternoon and sent them off. Harris fell for it and published Malley’s work in his magazine Angry Penguins. Chaos, humiliation, and court cases ensued.
Heyward recreates the Australian modernist poetry scene and spotlights the distinguishing features of its more colourful individuals. McAuley’s drinking, Catholicism, and depressions; Stewart’s isolation from the world around him and obsession with Japanese culture; Harris’ youthful enthusiasm and belief that Modernist poetry was more important than the War. Heyward’s real talent is in resurrecting 1944 Australia with its black outs, provincialism, and philistinism towards any abstract art.
He structures well. The first third of the book starts with a fake chapter that treats Ern Malley as real, segues into Harris’s reaction when he receives the poems and then zooms over to McAuley and Stewart on the other side of Australia, before the big reveal that the whole thing was a hoax.
There aren’t many writers who could make a poetry scandal enjoyable, fiercely readable, and thought-provoking. Heyward is one of them.
Colin Smith, former war correspondent for the Observer, first published this in 1975 when Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, aka international Leninist terrorist Carlos the Jackal, was still on the run. When the Sudanese sold Carlos out to the French, Smith added some extra chapters. There are more thorough books out there (like John Follain’s Jackal: The Complete Story of the Legendary Terrorist, Carlos the Jackal) but no better written ones.
Smith is the master of detail. That’s what years of front line journalism does for you. Ask questions, then question the answers. Others would tell you that on Sunday 15 September 1974 Carlos leant over the balcony of the Le Drugstore shopping centre in Paris and dropped a hand grenade into a kiosk below. Some might even tell you it was in support of the Japanese Red Army, whose members had taken over the French embassy in the Hague.
Only Smith will tell you the Le Drugstore was in St-Germain-des Prés; that it was patronised by wealthier young people who liked the chrome, light wood, and anglophile atmosphere; that Carlos dropped a American-made M26 fragmentation grenade; that the explosion killed two and injured thirty-four; that in the aftermath a twelve-year-old boy wandered through the mess looking for his missing left hand.
That level of detail makes Carlos: Portrait of a Terrorist more than just the story of a chubby Venezuelan terrorist who killed and got caught. It’s the difference between the naked eye and a telescope.
Allan Mitchell is an academic who understands the power of brevity. His account of German writer and soldier Ernst Jünger’s time in occupied Paris during World War II comes in at a slim 140 pages. I’ve had thicker instruction manuals for a dishwasher. But this works.
The Devil’s Captain is life with the fat cut out. Mitchell understands detail but supplies only what is required to illuminate Jünger’s psyche, that badly stirred mix of genius and banality, as the man in feldgrau travels among the bars and hotels of Paris, the wooden heels of French girls clicking on the cobblestones behind him. If Smith’s Carlos: Portrait of a Terrorist is the subject illuminated by arclight, Mitchell’s work is a face suddenly lit by a struck match down a dark alley.
The book gives us exactly what is necessary to understand Jünger: the vivid dreams, often involving a nightmarish Hitler, experienced during the last years of the war; how the diaries record a placid stay in hospital with no mention of the firing squads audible outside; the young French waitress felt up in a cinema during the newsreels by this fortysomething married man. Each detail shows Jünger as the king of internal migration, the true Anarch, who lived his life behind smiling, sociable armour that kept out everything from the Third Reich to his own family.
‘Not being able to govern events,’ wrote Frenchman Michel de Montaigne in 1595, ‘I govern myself.’
Stick that in a pair of jackboots and you’ve got Jünger.
Good writing is the art of knowing what goes without saying. Mitchell does it well.
Ernest Hemingway arrived in the French capital during the winter of 1921 with a plump wife, a limp from an Austrian trench mortar, and a mission to mix experimental Modernism with all-American populism. He left at the end of the decade with a new, slim wife, a reputation as a sporty bruiser, and a literary talent that impressed important people.
In the post-war years Paris was a magnet for avant-garde artists, rich wasters, and foreigners after a good time. Hemingway was one of the artists. He sat at the feet of literary giants like Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, read cutting edge and classic texts at Sylvia Beach’s place, and drank too much. He learned how to write. The minimalism of his spare, bleak style seemed to sum up the stoic masculinity of the time.
Michael Reynolds’ book is the best on Hemingway’s formative artistic years. US academic Reynolds drilled deep into the archives and brings 1920s Paris to life with well chosen detail: cafe locations, shop fronts, daily menus, newspaper headlines, weather reports. Along the way he disassembles the myths Hemingway peddled in his memoir A Moveable Feast (and a new version recreated from the original manuscript), to paint a vivid picture of a boyish, often cruel man who became the most influential writer of his generation.
Reynolds died in 2000. He devoted his life to Hemingway. The old man should be grateful. Not many biographers would be this understanding. Not many academics would write this well.
The monolith at which all narrative non-fiction writers should worship. Roger Crowley came out of nowhere with this vivid recreation of Byzantium’s last days. The Turks are at the gates, Christianity’s divided, and the walls are crumbling.
Narrative non-fiction is the art of making real events read something like a novel. You deduce psychology from action, recreate environment from records and photographs, and keep the narrative drive humming like a high-performance engine deep beneath the words. Most non-fictioners twitch at the wheel and reveal the moments they extrapolated too far from too little. Crowley doesn’t. In Constantinople: The Last Great Siege, 1453 he turns dusty Arabic, Latin, and Greek into the colourful, living story of a city falling.
Crowley’s talent is for the narrative of inevitable defeat. A more recent book with a happier ending (Empires of the Sea: The Final Battle for the Mediterranean, 1521-1580) is less gripping, although a description of the siege of Malta works well. His account of Christianity’s fall in the east will remain his best work until he finds another self-contained downward spiral to document.
Bruce Chatwin was a British novelist, travel writer, and journalist. He combined the clean lines of Hemingway’s prose with flashes of jewelled aestheticism, which sparkle all the brighter for being rare.
What Am I Doing Here is a collection of journalism and new pieces assembled on Chatwin’s deathbed. Reviews, articles, memories. It is hard to find a weak piece or bad sentence. The worst you can say about his carved, icy prose is that it occasionally crosses into archness or effect for its own sake. But you won’t say that often.
Chatwin’s other books are always worth reading. Prague novel Utz is the neatest; Welsh-set On the Black Hill the best; The Viceroy of Ouidah a failed attempt to update Flaubert; In Patagonia the starkest travel book ever written; and The Songlines alternately excellent and lazy in its look at Australia and Aborigine culture.
No-one ever regrets reading Chatwin’s crystalline, detached prose. He was a huge influence on a generation of journalists. Anyone who ever bought a Moleskine journal or a leather rucksack is following in his footsteps.
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