Book review: Paths of Glory, by Jeffrey Archer

MACMILLAN, 400pp, £18.99 Review by DAVID SEXTON

YOU WOULD HAVE THOUGHT that being sent to prison for perjury and perverting the course of justice would have tended to diminish a chap's plausibility a bit.

But you can't keep Jeffrey Archer down, even with a stiff custodial sentence. His ambitions to be Prime Minister may be far behind him, but his career as the self-styled Ultimate Storyteller marches on. He has sold another 4.2 million books in the UK alone since signing with Macmillan after coming out. Paths of Glory, his 14th full-length novel and his first based on a real life, boasts an initial print run of 230,000 copies here, 300,000 in the States.

Archer relates that the project was inspired by the steeplechaser Chris Brasher, to whose memory the book is dedicated. According to Archer, Brasher told him: "Jeffrey! You don't seem to realise that the best story that's never been told is George Mallory! He's more interesting than Shackleton, his story is better than Scott's – and you're the one to do it!"

Brasher was right at least to think it a good story. It has already been very well told, however, by the mountaineering writers Peter and Leni Gillman in their biography The Wildest Dream: Mallory, His Life and Conflicting Passions (2000), a source that Archer does not acknowledge. Mallory's story is also at the heart of Robert Macfarlane's superb cultural history, Mountains of the Mind (2003).

George Mallory was born in 1886, the son of a clergyman. After winning a scholarship to Winchester, in 1895 he went to Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he met many of the Bloomsbury Group, including Rupert Brooke.

Mallory, who was strikingly good looking and well built, had a brief homosexual phase, including a bout with James Strachey, who coldly reported: "He insisted, before we parted, on copulating. I didn't enjoy it much, I was rather bored."

After graduating, Mallory published a study of Boswell, before, in 1910, becoming a history master at Charterhouse, where Robert Graves was among his pupils. In 1914 he fell in love with Ruth Turner, the daughter of a local architect, and they married a few days before the outbreak of war, going on to have two daughters and a son. Mallory served in the artillery on the Somme, surviving to return to teaching in 1919.

Mallory's first experiences of mountaineering had been in the Alps with a master from Winchester, and he resumed climbing while at Cambridge. In 1921 he participated in the first British Reconnaissance Expedition to Everest, and in 1922 went back again, for a serious attempt on the summit.

Mallory's Australian climbing partner, George Finch, climbed to a record height of 27,300 feet using bottled oxygen, which Mallory refused to use. When Mallory tried without Finch, seven Sherpas died in an avalanche.

In 1924, Mallory, by now 37, went back to the Himalayas for another attempt, using oxygen and partnered by Andrew Irvine, an inexperienced 22-year-old. On 8 June 1924, Mallory and Irvine were spotted just beneath the summit – and never seen again.

Seventy-five years later, in 1999, the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition discovered Mallory's frozen body at a height of 26,760 feet, remarkably preserved. After the corpse had been photographed and investigated, it was buried. Nothing on the body allowed it to be determined whether or not Mallory and Irvine had stood on the top of Everest before they died or not. Officially, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay took that honour in 1953. Some 2,434 people have now followed them.

The story is fascinating and moving. As Robert Macfarlane observes: "Mallory's story has a purity of form or plot about it, which has contributed to its survival in the imagination. It is, structurally, a myth or a legend. Three times the beautiful Mallory – brave Sir Galahad – ventures into the unknown at the risk of his life, leaving behind the woman he loves. Twice he is repelled, and the third time, returning despite his better judgment, he disappears into a cloud of unknowing."

Of this great story, Jeffrey Archer has made mush. It is not so much what he has left out that's the problem, although it is a problem. He has chosen, daftly, to streamline his plot by giving Mallory only two expeditions to Everest instead of three, thereby losing the three-act drama in which Mallory's urge to climb Everest ultimately proved stronger than his love for his family. He has omitted almost all of Mallory's intellectual life and his involvement with the Bloomsbury group. He makes no mention of his homosexual experimentation or his predilection for nudism which has left us an extraordinary picture of him in Tibet wearing only a hat and rucksack.

Never mind. What's really terrible about Paths of Glory is that George Mallory is infused from beginning to end with the spirit of Jeffrey Archer.

Archer understands life to be a parade of tricks and that's how he has presented Mallory's story. When he goes up for interview at Cambridge, he is late and only gets in by climbing over an unscaleable college wall. When he goes to Paris, he clambers up the Eiffel Tower.

To win the attention of his wife to be, he climbs St Mark's Basilica in Venice. When a sexy American heiress tries to purchase his services ("she crossed her legs to reveal the top of her black stockings"), he simply climbs out of the window.

It was to be expected that the level of narrative would be no higher than that previously attained by Jeffrey Archer. It's still painful to find him crediting Mallory with words, both in dialogue and in letters which Archer has "fictionalised", sometimes on the basis of Mallory's real letters, that could only ever have been produced by a character in a Jeffrey Archer novel.

Archer presents the great conflict in Mallory's life as between two females, his wife Ruth and "Chomolungma", as he calls Everest.

In a fictional last letter from Everest, to be delivered after his death, he announces to Ruth "without you I am nothing, as many less fortunate men with envy in their eyes have oft reminded me, and they do not know the half". And he promises her that nothing will ever take her place, "certainly not this ice-cold virgin that slumbers above me".

"I'd like to conquer Everest," Jeffrey Archer says. In the worst possible way, he has.