King, Francis (Vol. 145)
Francis King 1923-
(Full name Francis Henry King; has also written under the pseudonym Frank Cauldwell) Swiss-born English novelist, nonfiction and short story writer, and poet.
The following entry provides an overview of King's career from 1985 through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 8 and 53.
King is an award-winning author of over forty works that include novels, novellas, short story collections, nonfiction, and poetry. Known primarily for his fiction, King focuses more on people than events and his writing frequently includes sharp portrayals of characters finding themselves in different areas of the world. Sometimes referred to as a “dark” writer, King employs satire, humor, and perversity to explore his characters' eccentricities as well as the pain and fragility that lie beneath them.
King was born in Adelboden, Switzerland in 1923. He spent his childhood in India until age eight, when he was sent to an English boarding school. As a young man, King became a pacifist, avoiding World War II, and chose instead to work the land and study at Balliol College in Oxford. While he was at Oxford, King published three novels and various poems. In 1951, he joined the British Council, serving in Italy, Greece, Finland, Egypt, and Japan. King returned to England years later and worked as a reviewer and drama critic. He went on to hold professional positions as president and vice president of the English branch of the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN), and president of International PEN. He also cofounded the Writers' Action Group. The people and places encountered during his travels had a lasting impact on King, and his writings continually draw on his experiences as an expatriate and foreigner.
King's works include fictionalized accounts of his childhood, his life during the war years, his mother's life, his experiences in postwar Florence, his travels while employed at the British Council, and his life in Brighton after “retiring” from the council. Family relationships and sexual identity are two of the most prominent and consistent themes in his work. Several of King's early novels so openly addressed homosexuality that many critics during the 1950s refused to mention them. In fact, the homosexual subject matter in The Firewalkers (1955, reissued in 1985) forced King to find a new publisher. In this novel set in Athens, the narrator interacts with the elderly and eccentric Colonel Grecos. King uses a similar story structure in Punishments (1989), Secret Lives (1991), The One and Only (1994), Ash on an Old Man's Sleeve (1996), and Dead Letters (1997). In each work, a chance meeting between two men (often from different countries) is a catalyst for major and lasting changes in their lives. Punishments deals with the hardships encountered by Michael Gregg, who becomes enamored of German man during a student trip to Germany in 1948. In the highly praised Secret Lives, the plot centers around Sir Brian Cobean and his relationship with a Japanese boy, Osamu, who is fleeing an arranged marriage. When Sir Brian dies of AIDS, Osamu must explain to the world why he and he alone will receive Brian's estate. The One and Only examines themes of jealousy and obsession, feelings which arise when the protagonist Mervyn meets Robert, a man who is in love with Mervyn's mother. When Robert is shunned in favor of another man, he manipulates Mervyn's feeling toward his mother, who neglected him as a child. Robert and Mervyn's shared rage leads to their own sexual relationship and Mervyn eventually kills his mother. Years later, Robert writes a manuscript that details the crime extensively and Mervyn is desperate to keep it from being published. In Ash on an Old Man's Sleeve, sixty-nine-year-old Elliot Baker becomes infatuated with a wealthy, young police officer in Havana. As the two men travel through Cuba together, Baker's obsession with the officer makes him reflect on the theme of religious and sexual suppression. An Australian named Steve and an Italian aristocrat are at the center of King's Dead Letters. They meet by chance in Sicily, form a relationship, and the aristocrat becomes increasingly dependent on Steve. Abuse in Steve's past prevents him from being able to love; however, the Italian is still able to draw inspiration from him. One of King's most successful and critically praised novellas, Frozen Music (1987), is a fictional account of King's life in India. The narrator, Rupert, looks back on a trip taken with his father to India. During the trip Rupert is forced to come to terms with his mother's death and to accept the reality of a vastly changed country. The Woman Who Was God (1988) follows the path of Mrs. St. Just as she travels to Africa to investigate the disappearance of her son, presumably at the hands of a religious sect. As she searches for the truth, Mrs. St. Just becomes obsessed with reconciling her unwieldy preconceptions with what she observes firsthand. In Visiting Cards (1990) and The Ant Colony (1991), King makes clever use of location and satire. Visiting Cards is a campy, almost over-the-top narrative about Amos Kingsley, a little-known travel writer who has accidentally become president of the fictional World Association of Authors. At the Association's latest conference in Malindi, meetings are unproductive, writers are taken prisoner, wives become unfaithful, and a dwarf naval officer begs to display his exhibitionist tendencies. The Ant Colony, set in Florence, satirically explores the relationship between the worldly Iris and the frumpy Jack, while also commenting on the lives of British Institute instructors. King's autobiography, Yesterday Came Suddenly (1993) makes extensive use of reconstructed dialogues with several people, giving the book an anecdotal flavor that renders it readable and entertaining.
Although his novels are well regarded, King is primarily known for his mastery of the short fiction and novella forms. David Profumo writes that the “pressures of the shorter genre … make so incisive his descriptions of psychology and place.” Some critics find King's prose loose and overwritten. Others describe his writing style as detached, commenting that he sometimes fails to elicit reader sympathy. King admits to a pessimistic world-view, but disagrees in part with critics who call his work dark. Commenting on the darker themes in his work, King has stated that “it is a darkness illuminated (I hope) by acts of decency, generosity and valor.” King has also been faulted for implausible plotlines and for including too many characters in his work. Many of his detractors concede, however, that the King canon is rich with keen observation and deep insights into his characters' emotional lives. His blunt, straightforward prose is regarded as one of his main strengths, and critics judge his ability to portray the intricacies of human behavior as one of his most effective tools. Critic Martin Seymour-Smith asserts that King is “one of the best writers of fiction [that] England possesses.”
*The Firewalkers: A Memoir [as Frank Cauldwell] (novel) 1955
Act of Darkness (novel) 1982
My Sister and Myself: The Diaries of J. R. Ackerley [editor] (nonfiction) 1982
Frozen Music (novella) 1987
The Woman Who Was God (novel) 1988
Punishments (novel) 1989
Visiting Cards (novel) 1990
**Florence: A Literary Companion (nonfiction) 1991
The Ant Colony (novel) 1991
Secret Lives: Three Novellas [contributions by Francis King, Tom Wakefield, and Patrick Gale] (novella) 1991
Yesterday Came Suddenly (autobiography) 1993
The One and Only (novel) 1994
A Hand at the Shutter (short stories) 1996
Ash on an Old Man's Sleeve (novel) 1996
Dead Letters (novel) 1997
*Reissued in 1985 under Francis King.
**Part of John Murray's Literary Companion series
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SOURCE: A review of The Firewalkers, in New Statesman & Society, April 12, 1985, p. 26.
[In the following review of The Firewalkers, Everson comments favorably on the novel's writing and on the character Cedric. He warns readers that although the novel was reissued in the Gay Modern Classics series, it does not treat homosexuality as a subject.]
The Firewalkers was first published in 1956 under the pseudonym ‘Frank Cauldwell’ after the British Council had given Francis King the choice of publishing it under his own name or remaining in their employ. This autobiographical novel describes the young narrator's encounters with Greece and with elderly eccentric Colonel Grecos. At the centre of the book, touchingly described, is the platonic but devoted relationship between Grecos and another misfit, the staggeringly ugly German youth Götz.
In his new introduction Francis King describes the ‘exhilarating sense of liberation’ he experienced as a ‘prim young man’ setting foot in Athens. The Firewalkers is very much a young man's novel, but, despite his liberation, a young man who remains rather serious. Grecos is an absurd as well as a magnanimous figure and King's affection for him blunts the humorous edge of the writing, which can hover a little uneasily between irony and sentiment. Nevertheless, the social and diplomatic community in Athens gives...
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SOURCE: “Mischief That Is Past,” in Spectator, August 29, 1987, pp. 28–9.
[In the following review of Frozen Music, Profumo asserts that although King's prose is looser here than in his short stories, the narrated novella succeeds in its exploration of a father and son coming to terms with the past.]
‘I promised my mother I should never use that wretched word “novella”', wrote Dorothy Parker, and for many readers the term does seem to be a taxonomical cop-out for something that is ‘entre chien et loup’. When Hutchinson launched its novella series, in which Frozen Music is the latest offering, it was good to see a new platform available for what is essentially the bonzai novel, more leisurely than the long short story, yet compact enough to be held in the imagination of a single entity.
In stylistic terms, Frozen Music has more affinity with Mr King's novels than with the stories that are perhaps his finest achievements; the pressures of the shorter genre, that make so incisive his descriptions of psychology and place, here give way to a looser prose that is even occasionally slack. What shines through, nonetheless, is the author's sure touch with the tensions and disappointments of life.
The three-layered story is narrated by Rupert Ramsden—the blurb writer knows him as Julian—a man recalling in his late fifties the fraught...
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SOURCE: “A Death in India,” in Washington Post Book World, March 27, 1988, p. 10.
[In the following review, Seymour-Smith praises the structure and depth of Frozen Music.]
There is some confusion about the nature of fictions that are too short to call novels but too long to call short stories. There are novellas, Novelle, novelettes—and even ŕecits, André Gide's invention. The novella, which we are used to from Boccaccio, was simply a short prose narrative. The Novelle, more self-consciously developed by Goethe at a time when the short story as known to us had hardly been conceived as a form, and then by other Germans such as Kleist and Storm, is more complex, but is often marked by an “unexpected turn” or a climax preceded by an outline masterly in its compactness (as may be seen in the best tales of the unjustly forgotten German writer Paul Heyse, who won the Nobel Prize in 1910).
The form has always been a risky one, because the most brilliant examples tend to eclipse the rest. In these days writers tend to call anything that falls between the two stools of the story and the novel, simply so far as length is concerned, a “novella”: while it is always a mistake to be too academic, some attention to what the Germans were actually trying to achieve might be salutary. This unusually good example by Francis King demonstrates why:...
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SOURCE: “The Sport of a Mad Mother,” in Spectator, April 23, 1988, pp. 31–2.
[In the following review of The Woman Who Was God, Glazebrook asserts that King includes too much detail and too many fleeting characters in his novel. However, Glazebrook does praise King's well-constructed narrative.]
There is a relief in putting yourself into the hands of so accomplished a constructor of fiction as Francis King, which encourages you to suspend disbelief, suspend too to some extent the critical organs, and allow credulity a long rein. You accept that the novelist in the pages of his book may claim to be God, creating a real world. So, if at the finish you find that your credibility, or naivety, has been manipulated, as it was in my case with The Woman Who Was God, you feel a little sore. I detected in my notes for this review a huffish tone (now eliminated, I hope) which would not reflect my admiration for the professionalism with which I had been taken for a ride by Mr King.
The novel's protagonist is a dimmish, drabbish woman possessed by the belief that her only son's death in a quasi-religious ‘community’ in Africa was not an accident. Unable to impose this obsessive idea on her ex-husband, or on the authorities—the official outward world composed of the interlocking trivia which prevents its disintegration—she resolves to travel to Africa to impose on the very...
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SOURCE: “The Haunter and the Haunted,” in Washington Post Book World, November 27, 1988, pp. 6–7.
[In the following review of The Woman Who Was God, Lesser criticizes what she perceives as King's lack of empathy for his characters, especially Ruth St. Just, and maintains that the too-clever plot does not allow readers to know or identify with Ruth.]
There's something disconcertingly wrong with Francis King's latest novel, but throughout most of The Woman Who Was God it's hard to put your finger on exactly what the problem is. Every time you think you've found a flaw, the novel justifies it by placing it in the context of the main character's thoughts. For instance, when we get a sentence like “The waves lisp in the luminous crescent of the beach, as they sweep in and then fold one over the other,” we think we've caught King in the act of over-writing—until we learn a page later that this sentence, like the rest of the short opening chapter, actually belongs to the character's vision: “She has imagined it as a novelist might have imagined it.”
The novel is cleverly written, but that very cleverness in the end proves to be its undoing. However, to begin with we are sucked in by the rather suspenseful plot. The “she” of the quotation given above is Ruth St. Just, whose only son has mysteriously perished on an island off the African coast, in a compound...
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SOURCE: “A Dark and Troubling Business,” in Spectator, June 3, 1989, pp. 34–5.
[In the following review of Punishments, Lezard claims that the novel's principal drawback is its simplistic plot, but that this simplicity is made up for by the depth of the Michael Gregg character and by King's refusal to provide the reader with clear answers.]
These days, we look at prolific authors as at mothers of unviably large families (when will they get fed up? We are); except, really, for Francis King. He is a very professional writer, one of the last who does not rely on producing rubbish to sustain his output. This is his 21st novel. His subject-matter takes him everywhere, but his surprises are psychological; Mr King is not someone you would go to for shockingly inventive prose.
There was the leaden sky and there was the flat, interminable plain with its ruined houses and factories and its fractured trees and stunted bushes, all looking as though they'd been drawn in sepia with a clumsy brush.
The adjectives cuddle up to the nouns like faithful old dogs. He is a novelist who seems quite happy with the English language just the way it is.
That does not mean he likes people the way they are, or, better perhaps, his people are at their best when they don't like the way they are Act of Darkness was...
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SOURCE: A review of Punishments, in Contemporary Review, July, 1989, p. 45.
[In the following review of Punishments, Abel briefly describes what she feels are the two “punishments” found in the novel.]
Punishments by Francis King is a subtle, thoughtfully planned novel in which a strong under-stated theme underlies the plot. A young medical student, Michael, recounts his experiences during a journey to Germany almost immediately after the second world war, in the company of a number of other English university students. They are to stay in the homes of German undergraduates. Theirs is a voyage of reconciliation and Michael later calls it a journey ‘into a knowledge of others—and, more important, into a knowledge of myself’. His narrative is set between two brief passages dated 1981, although the experiences which he describes, with hindsight, occurred in 1948.
The account of his falling reluctantly but unmistakeably in love with an attractive, even seductive, young man, Jurgen, who leads most of their expeditions to bombed and ruined cities like Dresden and, more significantly, Rosenheim reveals that Michael is finding out much about himself which he had never previously suspected. Subsequently he marries Sally, one of the other English students, but not until he has realised that the encounter between himself and his former ‘enemy’ turned lover has...
(The entire section is 441 words.)
SOURCE: “Botni for All,” in Times Literary Supplement, June 15, 1990, p. 653.
[In the following review of Visiting Cards, Fitton praises the novel, despite his questions about its unlikely premise.]
Visiting Cards, a jocose novel about the conference procedures of a World Association of Authors (WAA), by a former world president of PEN, contains much salutary sending-up of the scheming (and screwing) that seems to accompany worthy international gatherings. The donnée may appear all too familiar; the writers’ conference novel, or memoir, may even be a symptom of writer's block. In the practised hands of Francis King, however, some liveliness is imparted to well-worn themes and a pleasant enough tale emerges from rather unpromising material.
Amos Kingsley, a minor travel writer more deserving of the Royal Literary Fund than the Order of the British Empire, finds himself, in his mid-forties, nominated for high office in the international writers’ guild. The Japanese vote has mistakenly inverted his name (geddit?), but although originally a compromise candidate he proves himself just the compromiser the organization needs. Kingsley has a talent for moderation and becomes a skilful drafter of accommodating resolutions, always preaching cool when all about him are losing theirs. In spite of his instinct for the workable compromise, a promotion that to...
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SOURCE: “The PEN Is Mightier Than the Word,” in Spectator, June 16, 1990, p. 54.
[In the following review of Visiting Cards, Illis notes that there is a serious side to King's comic novel.]
Francis King, former President of PEN International, has written a novel about the President of WAA, the World Association of Authors. Given that this fictional President is called Amos Kingsley, and that two early and fleeting characters are called Gabriel Lopez Martinez and Fukushima Kazuo, the novel at first looks like an extended literary in-joke. This is deceptive. The world in which WAA exists is not a satirical construct in which members of PEN, and others, are intended to spot themselves. It is, almost, the real world, the world in which Kingsley Amis exists. It is in fact central to the plot that he exists, because Amos only becomes President because he is mistaken for Amis.
It is hard to be sure which of the two would be less suitable for the job. Amis would at least know how to stand up for himself. Amos, however, is neatly characterised early on, when standing at a urinal beside a macho American author:
[He] continued to urinate in the nervous spurts which always afflicted him when not alone at this task.
One of Amos's problems is his nervousness. He finds it hard to express himself freely, to impose his...
(The entire section is 603 words.)
SOURCE: “Internal Combustion,” in New Statesman & Society, June 7, 1991, p. 44.
[In the following review of The Ant Colony, Binding finds honesty and objectivity in King's satirical novel about the British Institute in Florence at the end of World War II.]
To Florence, not long after the end of the second world war, two young people come to teach English at the British Institute: Iris Crediton, who arrives with a whole string of connections (her mother was a famous pianist, well-known in Florentine expatriate circles), and Jack Prentice (his very surname significant), from a workingclass northern family with no social pull anywhere.
They contrast in other ways: pretty Iris has a natural sense of style and a flair for languages, both of which serve her well as life opens up beyond the institute; Jack, clever though he is, and a natural scholar, is defeated by the Italian language. As for style, he won't forsake the scuffed brown shoes, Harris tweed jacket, and shapeless grey flannels that proclaim him everywhere as English. But the reader sees that, at a deeper level, they share other more important qualities. Among these, a lack of experience (both of them are virgins) takes second place to a gentle sense of duty and, dictating this, an inclusive kindness.
Kindness is certainly much needed, and at a premium, in the British colony of Florence, which has...
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SOURCE: “Name-Droppers,” in Times Literary Supplement, June 7, 1991, p. 22.
[In the following review of The Ant Colony, Sage examines King's treatment of his characters, especially Jack and Iris.]
Export the English if you want to have a good look at them, their absurdities and anxieties thrown into high relief against a foreign backdrop. It is the formula of Forster's A Room With a View and Woolf's The Voyage Out (in her exasperated début she transported them as far as South America), and countless novels before and since. Francis King's The Ant Colony is back on Forster territory, in Florence, just after the end of the war, where rubble is still piled round the Ponte Vecchio and the expatriate community is reassembling and dusting off the anecdotes—“What was it that Norman Douglas had said to him?” They are avid for “new blood”, which duly arrives in the form of innocent Jack (Yorkshire and Oxford, but much more Yorkshire) and Iris (upper-middle class, ex-ATS) who turn up to teach English at the Institute.
The education of Jack and Iris at the hands of “the colony” is of course the theme. Their separate adventures provide a guided tour of the Florence of camp tradition, mapped-out not in paintings or palaces of Florentines, but in these personaggi who have superimposed their own network of intrigue and gossip on the city. Some are...
(The entire section is 770 words.)
SOURCE: “Expatriates Gossiping in Florence,” in Spectator, June 8, 1991, p. 36.
[In the following review of The Ant Colony, Illis writes that despite the many likeable characters in the novel, the story is not compelling.]
The English novel is regularly accused of being too quiet, too polite and too safe. It is often described in negative terms: it is unadventurous or unambitious. Francis King has written novels, such as Act of Darkness, to which none of these adjectives apply. They are all, however, appropriate in the case of The Ant Colony.
Jack, a young, diffident, working-class virgin, and Iris the ‘classy’ titled daughter of a famous mother, and also a virgin, arrive in Florence to teach English after the war. They spend a year acquiring experience and then leave, sadder and wiser. The circle they inhabit is the expatriate colony, which has the usual characteristics of expatriate communities: it is gossipy, bitchy, and disconsolate, there is a lot of sex of different varieties, and there is a suffocating sense of futility in the air. Its members are like tourists who have stayed too long, and run out of things to do and sights to see. They watch each other. ‘Here', says one of them, ‘all private lives are public ones.’
The novel moves slowly around a large cast of characters, many of them engaging, some of them sketchy,...
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SOURCE: “Only the Lonely,” in Times Literary Supplement, August 2, 1991, p. 19.
[In the following review of Secret Lives: Three Novellas, Davenport-Hines judges King's novella, a tale of emotional isolation, as the strongest in the collection, which also includes novellas by Tom Wakefield and Patrick Gale.]
By far the most arresting of the three novellas in this collection is that by Francis King [Secret Lives] which gives the volume its title. This tells the story of a poor Japanese painter named Osamu who comes to London to escape a forced marriage, and becomes the houseboy and lover of a QC, Sir Brian Cobean. The latter is an elegant, persuasive, ruthless, stealthy homosexual who has ruined his wife's life and lives in the grandeur of Holland Park. He falls ill with pneumonia, loses weight, tells his family he has leukaemia, eventually dies of meningitis. Osamu nurses Brian, holds him as he dies, then faces the cold, stilted family and friends who seem never to have suspected the secret life of the dead man.
King's story has a chilling authenticity that makes the reader feel still and icy. Every sentence is beautifully crafted, but with no show of fine writing which would be out of place in such a story. It is a tale of emotional isolation, written (perhaps too easily) from the standpoint of Osamu as victim. But the real sufferer is Brian, and his isolation is...
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SOURCE: “Coexistences,” in New Statesman & Society, August 23, 1991, p. 19.
[In the following review of Secret Lives: Three Novellas, Binding praises King's title novella for its portrayal of characters carrying burdensome secrets and of a man dying of AIDS.]
In conversation with Professor Barbara Hardy for the European Gay Review, Francis King observed that the novella “is not an English genre. It was developed in France and Russia as a concentrated form for narratives of sexual passion.” He cites Prevost's Manon Lascaut and Turgenev's First Love. Now he has followed his own masterly contribution to this un-English genre Frozen Music, with Secret Lives, the title-novella of a triptych, the other two being by Tom Wakefield and Patrick Gale, both already known for their explorations of the heart.
King's title suggests the theme that gives the book its unity: the intimacy, more properly the secrecy, consequent on obsessive passion. For passion, paradoxically, makes us collude with convention, to which it would seem, in its disregard of reason, to be opposed. Our terror that the love-object will be taken from us renders us anxious to appease authority and honour all its shibboleths.
Tom Wakefield's novella seems superficially less concerned with passion than its successors. Brenda, a fat and almost comically tall...
(The entire section is 597 words.)
SOURCE: “Places and Friends He Still Can Recall,” in Spectator, September 4, 1993, p. 26.
[In the following review of Yesterday Came Suddenly, Lively commends King's memoir, which she feels is an engaging and moving work, in large part because of King's use of anecdotes and lengthy dialogue segments.]
Autobiography comes in many guises—as stern narrative, as expiation, as justification, as smokescreen. Francis King is an accomplished raconteur and it is in this style that he has chosen to write his—a sequence of anecdotes by means of which the great array of people with whom he has been associated trip in and out of the pages. The result is [Yesterday Came Suddenly] a book which is always entertaining and sometimes moving. It is a book about others quite as much as it is about the author, which is appropriate, since clearly Francis King's consuming interest is in the quirky behaviour of other people—just as well, for a novelist. He notes that someone once observed that he loved his friends for their faults—a point which is evident indeed as one reads of the egotism of Olivia Manning or the perversities of L. P. Hartley or of Joe Ackerley. Though it should be said that all such portraits are as affectionate as they are candid. Malice is reserved for the few who really got up the author's nose: Lindsay of Balliol, a hapless British Council representative, C. P. Snow (‘…...
(The entire section is 976 words.)
SOURCE: “Words Break the Pain Barrier,” in London Observer, September 5, 1993, p. 53.
[In the following review of Yesterday Came Suddenly, Fitzgerald summarizes King's autobiography, commenting on its story-like quality and on King's modesty in relation to his achievements.]
Francis King, the brilliant and distinguished novelist, poet, critic, travel-writer and biographer, turns out also to have been a successful Brighton landlady (his own definition), short-order cook and agricultural labourer. These experiences have led to ‘an attitude of profound, if resigned, pessimism about the world. I do not expect people to behave consistently well, and my observation is that few of them do.’ But he has to admit—he could hardly help it—to his own tolerance and compassion.
He is at the same time open-hearted and inexplicable, generous and alarmingly precise. His epigraph is from ‘I Look into my Glass', in which Hardy regrets that he ought to have outlived sensual emotion, but never has.
His father was in the Indian police, and he was brought up as a child of the last days of the Raj. He was sent to Shrewsbury, became a pacifist and did his National Service as a conscientious objector, working on two farms and a commune.
As an Oxford undergraduate, he published his first three novels. On his first visit to Venice in a long vacation, ‘I was...
(The entire section is 923 words.)
SOURCE: “Wasp at Large,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 8, 1993, p. 30.
[In the following review of Yesterday Came Suddenly, Keates praises King's “busy, populous chronicle of a literary life.”]
The boy Francis King tasted “a brine-like salt” on his father's forehead when, reluctantly, or at any rate unspontaneously, he kissed him goodnight. The taste, his autobiography's Proustian memory spur, turned out to be a malign portent of disease and death, and it is the presence of these two elements, spectral or all too palpable, which lends a melancholy consistency to [Yesterday Came Suddenly, a] busy populous chronicle of a literary life.
A remittance child, like Kipling's Punch in “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, he was shipped home from India to be shuffled between aunts and uncles; the Kings, radical Bohemians who lunched him at Rules and talked to him like a grown-up, and the Reads, gushing, ribald, philistine and supremely practical. The comparative cheerfulness of this boyhood in exile confounds expectation as much as his apparent serenity at Shrewsbury where he felt mingled indignation and pleasure at discovering “King is the house tart” scribbled on a lavatory door, and worshipped his fagmaster, Bagott, who later (inevitably, one is tempted to suppose) shot himself on the eve of marriage.
King's vinegary, no-nonsense attitude to...
(The entire section is 826 words.)
SOURCE: “Memories Are Made of This,” in London Review of Books, December 16, 1993, pp. 22–3.
[In reviewing King's Yesterday Came Suddenly alongside Giles Gordon's Aren't We Due a Royalty Statement? and William Trevor's Excursions in the Real World, Beer concludes that King's “detached” prose style serves Yesterday Came Suddenly well.]
I was well into Giles Gordon's Aren't We Due a Royalty Statement? before I noticed that other readers were taking the book seriously, often to the point of denunciation. Up to then I had been assuming that it had set out to be an ingenious spoof, a sort of hoax or parody which had failed to make its intentions thoroughly clear, and that was nothing to be censorious about. But all leg-pullers have to declare themselves eventually otherwise there would be no point, and as I read on it dawned on me that Gordon was not going to declare any such thing. But there is so much to support my original impression that I have still not been able entirely to give up the idea that the book is a spoof.
There is a kind of innocent absurdity about it which belongs to the very nature of a good spoof. To begin with, having firmly introduced his book as an autobiography, Gordon puts on a consistent act of not being able to remember a thing, which in the circumstances seems a ‘smidgen', as he would say, foolish. He cannot...
(The entire section is 2992 words.)
SOURCE: “Criminal Connections,” in Times Literary Supplement, September 23, 1994, p. 22.
[In the following review of The One and Only, Woods criticizes what he views as overwritten passages, but states that the story is “well told” and unique.]
The past comes back to haunt you. It does in fiction, at least. One does not need a large-scale obsessive, like Proust, to demonstrate how heavily the structure of the novel itself has come to rely on this banal idea. Come-uppance is the key.
The narrator and protagonist of Francis King's [One and Only], Mervyn Frost, is sent the typescript of an old school friend's autobiography and finds, to his dismay, that an appalling episode in his own past—which led to his being institutionalized—is described there in full detail, with identities barely disguised. Bob, the friend, will not edit these revelations from his book until a certain price has been paid.
The novel alternates its account of the circumstances leading up to the past crime with Mervyn's reactions to having his sins raked up again. Three of his relationships are pivotal: those with each of his parents, and his one-sided love affair with Bob. All three are conveyed in some depth, with Mervyn's love for his father and lack of love for his mother being particularly clearly and plausibly delineated. His love and hatred for Bob, confused in his own...
(The entire section is 647 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Ash on an Old Man's Sleeve, in Times Literary Supplement, March 29, 1996, p. 22.
[In the following review of Ash on an Old Man's Sleeve, Godfrey-Faussett objects to the novel's “confessional style” and to its forced imagery.]
With [Ash on an Old Man's Sleeve] Francis King juggles the epithets in the aphorism attributed to William Lecky that “sensuality is the vice of young men and old nations.” The “ash” of the title doesn't only get on the narrator's sleeve but also up his nose, as a brief encounter with cocaine launches his Cuban holiday in a way he never expected. He writes: “my head, so far from resembling some sealed, over-crowded storeroom, was now a vast, open arena, full of light and air.” When he reports a failed bag-snatch by a small boy, he meets Eneas, a handsome young police officer. The book is a recollected account of Elliot Baker's inner life, as homosexual infatuation, culture shock and drugs rearrange his sixty-nine-year-old public-school self-image.
The story derives much of its impetus from Baker's acute awareness in Havana of his isolated but privileged position; not solely because of his white skin and hard currency but also because of Eneas's companionship and the insight it affords him into officialdom under Castro. A retired civil servant himself, he avoids mentioning in the police station that he writes...
(The entire section is 588 words.)
SOURCE: “Love in a Hot Climate,” in Spectator, March 30, 1996, p. 29.
[In the following review of Ash on an Old Man's Sleeve, Scammell praises the novel's treatment of sexuality.]
[In Francis King’s novel, Ash on an Old Man’s Sleeve,] Elliott Baker arrives in the ‘hot, dark, mysterious’ city of Havana, a valetudinarian of fixed habits and declining powers, more accustomed to watching his step for cracked paving-stones than sniffing ‘that strange fermentation of the air’ which greets his traveller's enquiring nose. ‘You want a good time?’ he is asked on his first morning by a couple of prostitutes. ‘Of course I wanted a good time. Who doesn't want a good time? But I didn't want a good time with either of them’.
To his own amazement this ex-civil servant and part-time biographer finds himself accepting another offer soon after, and happily snorting cocaine in the back of an old American car. After a short sleep at the hotel he wakes up feeling only 50 instead of 69, and ready for anything. When his carrier bag is snatched by a young boy he is able to give chase, and when later he meets Eneas De León, the ‘extraordinarily beautiful young man’ who is the police officer assigned to the case, he responds by striking up a friendship and ultimately falling in love with him.
Eneas, a body-builder and ex-stevedore, turns out to be the...
(The entire section is 908 words.)
SOURCE: “People of a Certain Age,” in Times Literary Supplement, December 6, 1996, p. 22.
[In the following review of A Hand at the Shutter, Smith comments on King's “sly” storytelling and on the brave female characters found in this collection of stories.]
A Hand at the Shutter brings together sixteen of Francis King's stories, half of them already published in journals and anthologies, written over a period of thirteen years. Elegant, well-bred stories, ranging in location from Maida Vale to Slovenia, Buenos Aires to Japan, they form a varied, subtly challenging collection which confirms the author's creative longevity. King focuses on characters of a certain age and class and places them in circumstances fraught with emotional significance. Thus, “Sukie” ends with an elderly visiting lecturer, desperate to believe in the tears of the prostitute he has rejected—“That could not be acting, could not!” Elsewhere, obsession, loneliness and frustration provide the themes for some sharply observed portraits.
At first sight, the stories seem technically competent but slight in terms of plot and apparent intent. Certainly anyone looking for conventional narrative satisfaction and an easily extractable meaning would be disappointed in King's work. But he is a sly story-teller. Uncertainty, even implausibility, lie at the heart of works such as the recent story,...
(The entire section is 584 words.)
SOURCE: “Sicilian Overtures,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 24, 1997, p. 25.
[In the following review of Dead Letters, Haigh takes issue with the main plot, which concerns Prince Stefano and Steve's relationship.]
There is a tradition of novels whose power resides in allusiveness and suggestion rather than story-telling. It is as part of this tradition that Francis King intends Dead Letters. His aim is to indicate, rather than to tell, to leave things in the shadows or off-stage, rather than to expose them to the glare of sunlight; or, like a De Chirico painting, to give them the mythic resonance of a train in the distance.
The plot is unremarkable. In the 1970s, an Australian on his European trip meets a faded Italian aristocrat in Sicily and accepts his hospitality. The Australian stays longer than he meant to, partly because of the chance to restore the Prince's ancient Bugatti, and partly because the Prince comes to rely on him. But he chafes under the obligation, so he moves on.
Beneath this simple structure lies a whole range of issues. Prince Stefano has no children, and, like his crumbling ancestral home, his line is coming to an ignominious end. Steve, the mechanic, comes from an unhappy background with an abusive father, and he has difficulty loving anybody. The Prince has been writing a book for years, and Steve's presence...
(The entire section is 553 words.)
McDadd, Susanne. “Francis King: An Interview.” Pen (Autumn 1989): 24-25.
McDadd interviews King, focusing on his life and various works.
Mellors, John. “Waves and Echoes: The Novels and Stories of Francis King.” London Magazine 15, (December 1975–January 1976): 74–82.
Mellors offers a critical assessment of King's work, concluding that The Custom House, The Waves Behind the Boat, and The Japanese Umbrella are his “most impressive achievements.”
Williamson, Malcolm. “Lechers on world peace.” Observer (London), No. 10365 (10 June 1990): 54.
Williamson offers a positive review of Visiting Cards.
Additional coverage of King's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1–4R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 1, 33, and 86; Contemporary Novelists; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 15 and 139; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists; Major 20th-Century Writers, Edition 1; and Literature Resource Center.
(The entire section is 130 words.)