The stories in Delirium Eclipse and Other Stories are richly lacquered things. James Lasdun’s determination to get colors, scents, shadings of light and shadow down (in what often reads like a prose gone lush) gives his work an art for art’s sake quality. His way of writing recalls the sensuous models of Walter Pater’s prose of the late nineteenth century; “to burn with a gem-like flame” seems at times to become an end in itself. Indeed, so intense is Lasdun’s descriptive prose that the reader may get the impression he is reading a poet in disguise, or perhaps a prose-poet more interested in atmosphere than plot. At times he names too many flowers, traces a shading of color or light a bit too closely. John Keats was like that in his earlier poetry, and there is quite a bit of Romantic naturalism in stories such as “Delirium Eclipse,” where the protagonist drowns in the vertigo of India’s smells, sights, and sounds, or “Heart’s Desire,” in which the hero is a voyeur who spares neither himself nor the reader the graininess of virtually every sensuous detail—from the feel of an artichoke leaf to the glimpse of a girl’s naked back.
Nevertheless, it would be grossly superficial to dismiss these brilliant stories, a first collection by a twenty-seven year-old Englishman, as precious or self-consciously pursuing a latter-day literary aestheticism. Many pack a powerful blow, a trenchant psychological or social comment, that at once shakes the reader free of the hypnotic effect of Lasdun’s own language and imagery and proves that the style is part of the effect; that what seems ornate and decorative is actually sly, ironic—in all cases, pertinent. Lasdun reminds one that the greatest modern British short stories are those of D. H. Lawrence and that the genius of short-story telling requires more of rendering than telling, more of symbolic suggestion than plotting.
In “Dead Labor,” Lasdun juxtaposes with cruel irony the luxurious temptations of the self-indulgent life and the moral demands of principle and social responsibility. This story almost gives away the whole show of Lasdun’s art, because here the sinuous and sensual details are openly seductive and corrupting. In addition, the story is about writing, and the hero makes a choice; he forsakes morally aware writing—the shaping of his radical mentor’s fragments, the leavings of a dying idealist—for the banal and commercialized sensuousness of slick magazine commentary on gourmet dining. This hack work also gets him the sexual favors of a young journalist who uses her body to woo him away from his obligations to the dying radical. The story ends with the hero humiliated by a magician in a tawdry nightclub setting. The inference for Lasdun’s fictive intentions is clear: Writing that is not virtuous, that substitutes virtuosity for...
(The entire section is 1165 words.)