Dirk Bogarde David Wilson - Essay

David Wilson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The island setting of A Gentle Occupation] is fictional, but the narrative is based on a chaos of facts which Dirk Bogarde clearly remembers from experience. He has assembled a large cast of characters—British, Indian, Dutch, American and mongrel—and deploys them with a structural adroitness and an imaginative range which belies the fact that this is his first novel.

His catalyst is Rooke, an actor by trade, a captain in Intelligence who is happily anticipating repatriation when he is posted to the island as a "surplus replacement"…. [Rooke learns quickly]—and the manner of his education reflects both the precision and the density of the novel—an appreciation of the hidden wounds of war and of its messy aftermath in the ruins of a dying colonialism….

Dirk Bogarde avoids [sentimentality] by tempering his narrative (and there is more than a touch of Greene-land in this seedy setting) with dialogue whose lightness of tone both masks and relieves the general gloom…. But the mood here is Chekhovian: words suppress but cannot conceal. Bogarde has a fine ear for the clipped, cultivated banalities of military small-talk, but the irony in his dialogue is far from facile.

The complexity of the characters is the more persuasive for their capacity to surprise even—if not especially—when they might be expected to respond conventionally. Nettles, perhaps the book's most interesting character, is a waspish homosexual with a practised contempt for the mass of humanity ("plankton", "whale soup"). He lives for the brave, rare moment; yet his genuine pleasure when Rooke and the Eurasian woman he loves momentarily chase off their common fears is both consistent and credible—the vicarious emotion of a man burnt out by self-hate.

Characters occasionally overarticulate their emotional frailty, and here and there a descriptive passage strains for poetic effect. A passing analogy—between, for instance, a nursery lead soldier with its head knocked off and a brigadier spattered over his Jeep by a rebel bomb—might have been avoided. But these minor blemishes are more than compensated by the novel's evocation of place. No one who has read Dirk Bogarde's volumes of autobiography will need further evidence of his ability as a writer. All the same this novel impressively confirms it.

David Wilson, "The Rumble Bumble," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4017, March 21, 1980, p. 312.