Prospero's lost magic. It is often said that Orson Welles lived his life backwards, moving from Citizen Kane to Carlsberg ads. Just how did the "world's greatest film-maker" become the world's biggest joke, asks Mark Kermode

Orson Welles: the stories of his life

Peter Conrad <em>Faber & Faber, 384pp, £20</em>

ISBN 05712

There are innumerable myths about the life of Orson Welles, the most popular of which is the idea that he was some kind of artistic time traveller who lived his life backwards - starting out directing the greatest radio and film events of the 20th century (The War of the Worlds and Citizen Kane) and graduating to performing in movies by Michael Winner (I'll Never Forget What's 'Is Name), before winding up using his mighty voice and reputation to advertise low-budget alcoholic drinks (Paul Masson wines, Carlsberg lager). As the current season at the National Film Theatre in London demonstrates, the assertion that Welles never did anything of value after Kane is simple laziness; films such as The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil remained breathtakingly impressive despite the studio interference and butchery that became a trademark of Welles's work after his brief moment of supreme power. Yet even the most sympathetic linear approach to Welles's huge body of work inevitably leads one to wonder exactly when it all went wrong - to attempt to pinpoint the moment when the "world's greatest film-maker" (the NFT is publicising its season with the phrase "the director who gave the world Citizen Kane") started to become the world's biggest joke.

Peter Conrad's engrossing and audacious new volume on Welles is subtitled "the stories of his life", although it could equally have been called "the story of his lives". Unlike the many Welles biographies and overviews currently cluttering the shelves, Conrad's sets out to define not a single artistic personality, but the legion of creative manifestations that inhabited Welles's ever-expanding frame. Eschewing the standard biographical format, Conrad identifies a host of multiple personalities coexisting throughout the mirrored halls of Welles's work. "Orson Welles was a metamorphic, even a metaphysical man," he writes with appropriate overstatement, "[who] lived a life of allegory" and who (mockingly?) described himself as "author, composer, actor, designer, producer, director, scholar, financier, gourmet, ventriloquist [and] poet". As Conrad points out, he could legitimately have added cameraman, lighting designer, gaffer and sound mixer - not to mention political columnist, painter, book publisher, violinist and ("thanks to a wheezing pop record he made in 1984") singer. He could also have been a bullfighter, but as Conrad notes: "This vicarious profession stayed on his wish list - an unrealised life, like an unmade film." But more than this, Welles was a magician, a film-maker who (like Woody Allen after him) was engrossed by conjuring tricks and optical illusions, thereby earning himself the reputation of amateur wizard at play in the field of the arts.

Intertwining biographical detail with close analysis of Welles's screenplays, radio dramas, films, stage shows and even advertisements, Conrad presents us with a psychological map crammed with interlocking characters. "Citizen Kane was an early instalment of his autobiography," he declares boldly, tossing aside the notion that Charles Foster Kane was really William Randolph Hearst in disguise. He searches for the "meanings" of Welles's lives through analysis of his work - rather than vice versa. "[He] was all of the Ambersons, whose loss of magnificence rehearsed his own decline. Even his Harry Lime in The Third Man was a self-portrait, however indignantly he denied it." More audaciously still, Conrad identifies a range of mythical and literary archetypes into whose form the splinters of Welles's identities crystallised: from the Great God Pan (whose name recalls the boy who wouldn't grow up and who, like Welles, was the chaotic orchestrator of panic); Joseph Conrad's Mr Kurtz ("Welles . . . made his version of Heart of Darkness by stealth, distributing it through other films - Citizen Kane, The Lady from Shanghai, The Third Man"); and, most convincingly, Faust (Welles once declared that "all the characters I've played . . . are versions of Faust", and said that he would have sold his soul to play the Godfather).

Conrad also defines Welles as "Mercury with a conscience"; as Renaissance Man (when not deriding the invention of the cuckoo clock, he could explain the principle of nuclear fission); as Don Quixote made flesh (if not made film, as Welles never completed the Quixote project); and - most significantly - as everybody in Shakespeare, particularly Prospero (whom he never actually played). This is "everybody" as opposed to "everyman": Welles claimed that "Shakespeare said everything", and proceeded to give voice to all his characters in much the same way as he regularly took on multiple parts in his radio plays, and often recorded the dubs for other actors' parts, in their absence, for his films. "There were so many Welleses," writes Conrad, "that, somewhere inside himself, he could find an affinity with virtually anybody and everybody in Shakespeare's plays." He adds: "Welles did more than act in Shakespeare's plays. He enacted them in his own life."

Two factors make such potentially outrageous conclusions seem both profound and astute. First, Conrad is a terrific writer. The density of his prose is tempered by a joyous relishing of the language, which comes increasingly to the fore as this weighty volume proceeds. It is a very readable book, despite the occasional use of words like "palimpsest" to which I have an irrational but powerful aversion. Second, Conrad writes from what appears to be a position of overarching knowledge, as if the whole of Welles's career were spread out around (rather than in front of) him, allowing him to pick and choose disparate elements without reference to chronology, drawing thematic parallels between works that would otherwise remain compartmentalised. Occasionally, this process teeters on parody, such as when he reads "psychologically sinister purposes" into a goofy conjuring trick that involved sawing Marlene Dietrich in half for the amusement of US troops in Follow the Boys ("The upper and lower halves of the female body, goddess and beast, do not belong together . . ."). But one can only applaud the chutzpah with which Conrad convincingly reads mythical significance into one of Welles's "Probably" ads for Carlsberg, slyly comparing the not-quite-lying claims of the advertising salesman with the legendary antics of Mercury, who "agreed not to tell barefaced lies, but reserved the right to alter the truth, or conceal it". Gods and monsters indeed.

In the context of the bizarre anecdotal stories that surrounded Welles, many of which are documented here, such connections seem not only plausible, but sensible. Did he really (as he claimed) stumble across Hitler in a Tyrolean beer garden in the 1920s? Did his philosophical rival Ernest Hemingway really describe his richly fruity voice as "faggoty . . . [like] a cocksucker swallowing"? And did RKO actually cancel his "scriptless documentary" It's All True after a shark got bored with eating an octopus and swallowed a featured performer instead? Considering the lessons on forgery delivered in F for Fake, one is sorely tempted to believe none of it - and indeed, for those (like me) whose knowledge of Orson Welles's life is scrappy, the question of whether Conrad has simply entered into the playful spirit of Welles's opus, making up fantastical episodes and interpretations for our amusement, crosses the mind more than once. In the end, the layman is required to rely on trust - and, like Welles, Conrad has a knack of engendering trust even in the most outrageous circumstances.

That Conrad should both acknowledge and appreciate the farcical aspects of Welles's career is greatly to his credit, enabling him to praise and bury Caesar simultaneously. When the tragedy of thwarted artistic ambitions threatens to engulf the man who lived backwards, Conrad concedes: "Welles was too good a Shakespearean not to be tempted by the alternative - a comic life that permits you to eat, drink and make merry indefinitely, so long as you keep your head low and pass yourself off as just another human animal, merging with the mob." When a New York critic complained that his 1946 stage show Around the World (which included film, magic, a live elephant and songs by Cole Porter) featured everything but the kitchen sink, Welles appeared the next night dragging a kitchen sink, "not wanting to leave anything out". Reading Orson Welles: the stories of his life, one feels that Conrad has not only left little out, but has made more than a kitchen sink-full of insightful, witty and entertainingly original additions to the unruly myths of Welles's many lives.

Mark Kermode is the author of The Shawshank Redemption and The Exorcist, both published in the BFI Modern Classics series (priced £8.99). The Orson Welles season is at the National Film Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 until 22 October (info: 020 7928 3232)