‘I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized I had been born into the wrong body and should really be a girl. I remember the moment well, and it is the earliest memory of my life.’
In 1972 the man who wrote those words booked himself a return ticket to Casablanca, where he underwent what would now be called gender reassignment surgery. Soon afterwards he wrote a book about what it had felt like to live – or try to live – for forty odd years with the absolute conviction that he was a woman trapped in a man’s body, and how this agony had finally been resolved. That book was Conundrum and when it was published in 1974 it caused a sensation.
Anyone, however, who expects the book to be in any way sensational will soon discover otherwise. Conundrum is a moving and often humorous dispatch from an inner world of which the great majority of us will have no experience. It is not, as its author emphasizes, about sex, but about soul.
‘That night something happened to me on the mountain. The weight of the rice coupled with the awful cough which I had to try and repress broke something in me. It was not physical; it was simply that part of my spirit went out of me, and in the whole of my life since that night it has never been the same again.’
It was the winter of 1943 and young Eric Newby, later to become known for his jaunty accounts of his adventurous travels, was facing probably the hardest test of his life. Captured by the Germans in 1942 while on a secret mission to bomb a German airfield in Sicily and incarcerated in Northern Italy, he had escaped during the chaos of Italy’s surrender to the Allies and was on the run in the mountains.
This is the story he tells in Love and War in the Apennines, a book he dedicates ‘to all those Italians who helped me and thousands like me, at the risk of their lives’. During those long months on the run he was fed and sheltered by poor peasant farmers who hated the Italian Fascist militia as much as he did and risked torture and execution to help him. As well as being a spine-tingling escape story it is a fascinating picture of life in these remote mountain communities which at that time had changed little since the Middle Ages.
It is also the story of a love affair which lasted the rest of Newby’s life. Readers of Something Wholesale (SFE No. 41), his hilarious account of his brief career in the fashion business, will know that after the war he returned to Italy to seek out a Slovene girl called Wanda, whose cool head and steadfast character had helped him for a long time to evade recapture and survive. As he tells us in an epilogue, after surmounting ‘every kind of obstacle’, they married in 1946. So, though his wartime experience in the mountains may have marked him for ever, Newby’s extraordinary story ends on an upnote. An irresistible book by an irrepressible man.
A Leap into the Light
I first met Jan Morris in the offices of the publisher Random House in New York in the early 1980s. I was a junior editor there, and was invited to meet someone I considered to be one of the most...Read more
A Romantic Escape
Love and War in the Apennines is a book of romantic escape, overseen by the suffering of war, which shows how it ripples out across society and into fragile human lives.Read more