Introduction

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1133

Francis King 1923-

Illustration of PDF document

Download Francis King Study Guide

Subscribe Now

(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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 99

*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

Stephen Everson (review date 12 April 1985)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 347

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 King scope for some nicely judged vignettes and he finds a welcome sharpness in his observation of Cedric, the rich, promiscuous and queeny expatriate Englishman.

The Gay Modern Classics series has provided some welcome re-issues, but the danger in labelling a book like The Firewalkers a ‘gay classic’ is that it will be judged in the wrong way, as a gay novel. It is not. Homosexuality is certainly treated in the novel—and in a refreshingly unselfconscious way—but it is by no means the book's subject or even a major part of it. To read it as a gay book is to misjudge it from the start. That said, it is pleasant to have The Firewalkers in print again, especially as it appears under the author's real name for the first time.

David Profumo (review date 29 August 1987)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 646

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 pilgrimage he made back to India some decades previously in the company of his father, Philip, and his young Finnish step-mother, Kirsti. They visit the vicinity of Balram, where Rupert's mother died when he was a child, and through its interplay of memory and geography the book charts the painful resolution of earlier traumas in a way that proves most unsettling.

Although the ultimate focus of the trip is the now overgrown cemetery where his first wife lies, Philip struggles along the way to rediscover the India that he once knew. His old-world courtesy, and his policy of taking the line of least resistance, blinker his appreciation of the changes that have intervened; as the saga opens, he will not recognise the new topography of the modern Balram, a place soiled with industrial sprawl and the squalor of ‘bidonville’ slumlands, and maintains as they drive into it that they have taken a ‘wrong turning, something like that’.

This might be the motto to sum up his life. As his sniffy and often fastidious son gradually comes to terms with his own memories of the area it transpires that the mother who was dying from consumption was also being comforted by a young Canadian doctor, and this earlier deception is finally mirrored in the emotional imbroglio between Kirsti and Rupert when his father is also taken ill in one of the seedy hotels where they come to reside.

The title of this novella derives from one of the several unfinished studies on which the narrator's father has been working for years. All that Rupert knows is that it is about architecture (one of the loves of his amateur career in the world of books) but as the new India is experienced it becomes clear that the whole process of the frozen past is being thawed out for both father and son. Remembered details of his childhood quicken in the heat of the situation, and the memory of the past is seen as ‘the cruellest of all betrayals’.

But this cruelty—something at which Mr King excels—is finally wrenched round to create a perspective in which, for all its surprises, his characters seem to have arrived at an equilibrium. There is more than one act of darkness here, and in the end it makes for a book, novel or novella, that is as disconcerting as anything one has come to expect from one of our foremost observers of the friction that seems to be part and parcel of what we call love.

Martin Seymour-Smith (review date 27 March 1988)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 625

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: the successes of good authors are frequently to be found embedded in the basic critical concepts, since criticism was once founded on the example of literature rather than (as now) the other way round.

Francis King, although underrated, has certainly earned the title of a modern master, and is one of the best writers of fiction England possesses. He has written 19 novels and six story collections and is equally distinguished in both forms. The Custom House, The Last of the Pleasure Gardens, and, in particular, A Domestic Animal, with its brilliantly morbid, shrewd and finally deeply compassionate study in unreciprocated homosexual love and jealousy, are all novels of high achievement, and have been acknowledged as such. His best stories are models of economy, exercises in truth to life such as stories, after all—even if this is a cliché—ought to be. He has been thought of as a pessimistic and even depressing writer, but has not been given his due for the breadth of his tolerance and compassion. There is no substantial study of his work. This is both a loss and a scandal.

In Frozen Music King goes back to India, the setting of his memorable second novel, Never Again. By deceptively simple means he achieves subtlety, and the kind of broad irony demanded by Gide for short fictions. The narrator gives a retrospective account of his return to India in the company of his father and the latter's new young Finnish wife. From the context of this account he goes back even further, to the time of his childhood and the premature death of his mother from tuberculosis—a death which has always puzzled and distressed him. Ungenerously, even meanly, he finds his father a stupid old bore. But when we arrive at the present, which we do fleetingly, we understand very differently.

This, besides being a rewarding work in itself, ought to be a lesson to younger novelists. Certainly we see pessimism and world-weariness in the narrator's descriptions of the dirt and falsity of the India of the 1950s. But are these the author's feelings? We ought, too, to note that the narrator's sourness and hatred of his surroundings is mechanical: each time he makes an unpleasant judgment, the true circumstances correct him. All this is exquisitely understated, and amounts to short fiction as it should be written.

Philip Glazebrook (review date 23 April 1988)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1119

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 scene of the event a version of that event which will not tear such a hole in the interlocking trivia which comprises her own interior world as to cause her own disintegration. She sets out to alter the reality which does not fit in with her preconceptions; and (the author assures us in the book's last line) she succeeds. Truth is no match for obsession.

Mr King has conceived the idea of writing a novel from the subjective viewpoint of this woman whose mental instability, known to her friends and evident to observers, is not revealed to the reader, who is gulled into taking her views seriously. The irony of this trick played upon his credulity only becomes clear to the reader when he has finished the book—hence my pique—but, more important, the point and direction of much of the matter in the book is not evident (or was not evident to me) save in retrospect. Take for instance this passage:

At a meeting of the WI, when old Mrs Perrott, always out of touch because of the distance of her dilapidated, thatched cottage from the village, suggested that ‘that nice Mrs St Just’ should be asked to join the sub-committee for the summer fête, the vicar's wife said in a hushed voice, almost as though Ruth might be outside the door listening: ‘Oh, I hardly think … not at the moment …,’ and everyone silently nodded.

In retrospect I see that I might have gathered from this paragraph that Ruth was bonkers and everyone knew it; but, in reading the passage, I have to confess to impatience with what seemed an excess of detail about people and circumstances—old Mrs Perrott, the summer fête—which we never hear of again.

Altogether, in my unenlightened state, the narrative seemed to me at times excessively prolix and clogged with detail, every object and person weighted down with epithets. Though respectfully alert, as Mr King's reader is bound to be, I was looking for conventional direction-posts, and I did not see in the merciless accumulation of trivia the haunted, confused, threatening world that presses in upon a demented woman. I began to tire of characters who came in through one door, were minutely described in both appearance and background, only to disappear through another door forever. Fortunately I had my wits about me when the significant character at last burst into Mrs St Just's cabin on an African ferry. Dave is a journalist who wants to be a novelist: wants to be, that is, not a reporter of facts but an inventor of them, like a madwoman or God. He abets her. It is his newspaper article that hatches out her obsession into a cockatrice of mischief with the power to invade the real world, and to overturn the ‘community’.

The ‘community's’ motto is Aleister Crowley's apothegm, ‘Do what you will is the whole of the law’. The notion of such moral laxity, as applied to her son, is what has most horrified Mrs St Just. Here too is a difficulty for the reader, who sees, when he is at last shown the ‘community', that Crowley's dictum has led only to the usual sorry perversions of the Sunday papers, not at all to the ‘strange, terrible things’ that so darken and appal poor Mrs St Just's mind. Not privy to her dementia, the reader will not feel his flesh creep with horror, as hers does, at the notion of a white baby being raised by blacks in an African village, even if the child is the physical result of an incestuous relationship.

Such difficulties (which will perhaps not beset a more percipient reader at all) Mr King has brought on himself by the form he has chosen for his novel. I must not carp, or sound peevish. Seen in retrospect, Mr King's control of character and situation is thoroughly efficient—early in the book he shows us a predatory youth scrounging sustenance in a café, and shows us in masterly fashion how Mrs St Just dominates his aggression—and we may be confident that the effects produced are those intended. Now and again the heart of some matter is touched in a few words, so that we see the universal under the particular (I would cite the wretched woman trying to imagine her son normal and happy among friends, and finding it impossible: ‘the realisation of that impossibility,’ says Mr King, ‘filled her with sadness’). Then there is the felicity of images: watching an incident which hints at vices she dreads, Mrs St Just ‘felt knowledge glide into her, as slithery and venomous as a snake’. And then there is a down-at-heel Greek shipping-clerk who is called, I am glad to say, Taki. All these skills and congruities I enjoyed, and I found too that the atmosphere of the ‘community’ in its old slaving-station had worked into my mind (though readers familiar with Sri Aurobindo's ashram at Pondicherry, similarly ruled by a woman known as ‘Mother', may find the two places run together in their thoughts).

Mr King has constructed a novel which is cunningly planned and skilfully executed: my cavil is that its shapeliness is only apparent to me in retrospect, when the tendency of what has seemed supererogatory may be appreciated.

Wendy Lesser (review date 27 November 1988)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 830

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 ruled over by one Madame Vilmorin. This lady-guru is called “Mother” by all her disciples, and King allows us to believe for most of the novel that she is the “woman” of the title. St. Just—British, divorced, a fading beauty, a somewhat impractical owner of a not-very-successful restaurant in the Cotswolds—gets no support for her suspicions from either her ex-husband or the British Foreign Office. She therefore resolves to sell her restaurant, travel alone to French-speaking Africa, and find out for herself what happened to her son. Most of the novel is an account of her journey and her eventual discoveries mainly as seen through her perceptions.

There are exceptions, however, to this point of view. Early on, for instance, we get a Foreign Office employee looking out his London window at her and thinking, “Tire-some woman!” And throughout the novel King interjects little foreshadowing messages, such as “Ruth was to get used to ancient servants being called ‘the boy,’” or “Unlike most of her dreams, it was not one that she forgot on waking or, indeed ever forgot.” Who is telling us these things, if not Ruth? Are they meant to shake our impression that hers is in fact the perceiving sensibility of the novel? Are they intended to create a feeling of impending doom? Or are they merely Francis King's attempt to have it both ways—to pretend to be inside his main character and at the same time show us he knows more than she does?

The real problem with the novel is that it utterly lacks empathy. In a satire like Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities such an absence may not be particularly noticeable (though I noticed it and disliked it even there). But in a novel that's ostensibly about personal loss and grief the lack of feeling is a major hole in the fabric.

At one point Ruth thinks about a reporter's article on her “case”: “Sad, lonely, bewildered, bereaved, frustrated: well, yes, no doubt she was all those things, but she did not like him to call her them in print.” But it is King who really commits that journalistic error; it is he who seems to think he can convey this woman without identifying with her. That flaw becomes most noticeable in our utter lack of sadness about the lost son. Granted, we never knew him. But neither did we know the kidnapped little girl in Ian McEwan's The Child in Time, yet McEwan's novel is a wrenching, moving, terrifying portrait of a father confronting the loss of his child.

The Woman Who Was God, on the other hand, is a cold, calculated and, finally, unsuccessful effort to entrap the reader in a woman's anxieties. As a few throwaway remarks suggest (Ruth gets off the airplane in Africa, “the last of the passengers but for a mother with two small, fractiously bleating children”), this author doesn't even like children as a class; he's certainly unable to make us understand why a parent would mourn the loss of one of them.

King's excuse (this is a novel built around such booby-trap excuses) might be that it is Ruth, and not himself, who lacks feeling. But the problem is really the other way around. In King's vision, the characters have no integrity or existence of their own; they exist only to play a part in his pathologically clever plot. This book might well have been called The Author Who Was God—but in that case it would have made atheists of us all.

Nicholas Lezard (review date 3 June 1989)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 771

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 dedicated to the begetter of ‘that rarest of things, an act of totally disinterested kindness’; here Mr King focuses on disinterested unkindness. Michael Gregg, the narrator of Punishments, encloses his story in a four-page-long (two at each end) and contemporary parenthesis of acutely observed domestic disaffection which a less competent or confident writer would have dragged out to four or five times the length. The rest is his account of a summer trip, with a gang of reasonably well-meaning fellow-students, to the ruined Germany of 1948: increasing international understanding, reconciliation with the new generation and all that.

His host is a tall, impossibly handsome, blond German called Jurgen, given to wearing very short shorts and driving all the girls—and, it turns out, at least one of the boys—wild. Jurgen, of course, more or less breaks Michael's heart; Michael ends up married to one of his fellow-students but remains haunted by the experience etc.

The temptation to categorise the homoeroticism in Mr King's novels as special pleading (I am thinking, particularly, of Cyril, the irritating fake in Voices in an Empty Room) can at least partly be put down to one's own embarrassment in encountering the subject. Here the attraction Michael feels for the German boy, and their shocking, but discreetly described liaisons, make up the centre of the book and are not affectedly-placed causes for frissons of disgust or delight: the book very definitely does not portray homosexuality as a desirable alternative to heterosexuality. Whatever Mr King is, he is not an apologist: he knows that sex is a dark and deeply troubling business. In fact, the question of homosexuality is not really the question at all. (A good way of recovering the sense of disquiet that used to accompany even the most banal sexual matters is to swap one sex for another. Rather like the way Proust was dimly alleged to have created his female characters: by writing them as men and then changing their names, only here it is the other way round.) The greatest success of Punishments is that it finds an excellent objective correlative for the uneasy relationship between Britain and Germany after the war, as well as one for the uncomfortable state of the perpetually confused loyalties of post-adolescence. It goes without saying that the author gets a nuance and a verbal tick down so well that that one starts wanting to kick certain characters out of intentionally achieved irritation.

It is sometimes said that Mr King's novels are really expanded short stories, and whether that is true or not elsewhere, it is a technique that serves him well here. What he misses in the way of the broad sweep and tangled plot he catches by the intimate knowledge of his narrator's point of view and the frustrating, epiphanic near-insight of a story simply told, but unable to come up with any neat answers. This, and its central mystery (which you can find out for yourselves) might suggest that he is not doing his intellect justice (E. M. Forster, both A Passage to India and Maurice, is there in the background, somewhere). But what I think they really suggest is Mr King's continuing mastery of the subtle balancing act between our need and our reluctance for explanation.

Betty Abel (review date July 1989)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441

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 left behind ruins other than those of towns and buildings. The confrontation, culminating in a trip to the erstwhile beautiful town of Rosenheim, between the English and their German counterparts, all innocent but nevertheless resenting one another under the surface courtesies, brings about an abrupt end to Michael's association with the forceful Jurgen who vanishes, leaving his infatuated lover a ‘dry, disintegrating husk’. It is Sally who comforts and restores him, for she alone of them all understands that ‘one of the best ways to punish people is to show them what they really are’.

Beneath the manifold activities of a traditional summer school—lectures, seminars, swimming parties and picnics in the woods—Michael plays out his drama on two levels, one the psychological plane and the other a history of the generations and inherited notions of national identities. The ‘punishments’ are similarly two-fold. The first lies in the knowledge that these few weeks have scarred, even wounded him in a way that will affect him all his life; they have bequeathed a complex, haunting set of motives that are just as irredeemable as those felt by his German hosts. The other shows him that the role of self-congratulatory, ‘forgiving’ benefactors ill becomes the English students, even as that of ‘penitent', if also cynical, stance mars their German co-evals. This intelligent and moving book is highly recommended reading.

Toby Fitton (review date 15 June 1990)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 528

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 begin with seemed like a first-class freebie on the international circuit soon leaves him longing for the obscurity he was proud to have started from.

He arrives for the conference in Malindi, a vaguely oriental country famous for its purgative national dish, botni, the effects of which conveniently punctuate the story. Kingsley's comfortably proportioned wife is provoked by the climate (and the diet) into tantalizing infidelities, while he is left yearning for a Japanese delegate whose shopping bags contain less of oriental promise than of giggling little verses dedicated to President Amos himself. The perennial congressistes make their appearance: a plaid-trousered American soft-pornographer, an insistent Scandinavian bitch VIP, a Costa Rican giving cabaret impressions of Charlie Chaplin—and so on. Perennial congress issues—confrontations urgently requiring resolutions, or meetings on “literatures in languages of lesser currency”—seem somehow more important than freeing a handful of local writers in prison, the problem that furnishes Visiting Cards with its tenuous plot. The situation is saved largely by a Wunderkind Goanese fixer of an International Secretary.

In spite of Kingsley's ingrained silliness, which retains “Gosh”, “Lordy” and even “Golliwogs” as his favourite expletives, all turns out quite well for him in the end. His ingénu virtue (and his marriage) remain intact in spite of international tensions (“one vote only, please, from the Suisse Romande”) on the conference platform. There are the mandatory hangovers, even a bit of mandatory congress slapstick when he slips across the ballroom floor into a bowl of botni. This is lowlier stuff than one would expect of Francis King, though his confection has some moments of alarming plausibility. No doubt in his real-life period of high international office he has actually—perhaps often—come across a dwarf Malindian naval officer who insists on an introduction that will enable him to demonstrate to the Queen of England his special talent for imitating the war speeches of Winston Churchill.

Mark Illis (review date 16 June 1990)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 603

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 ideas, which are a little wishy-washy but undoubtedly humane, on rebellious delegates. Amos has several other problems. He finds it difficult to say no. This is how he comes to write a preface for the collected works of an author he has never heard of, who turns out to have been a Nazi. It is also how he finds that he has promised to inform the Queen of a man from Malindi who gives a remarkable impression of Winston Churchill. These are his minor problems. He has two major problems. The first is that he is facing a revolt within WAA, because he has brought a conference to Malindi while that country is holding three writers as political prisoners. The second is that his wife, a ‘beautiful giantess', is unfaithful and that he, while occasionally attracted to other women, never has any luck with them.

The novel enjoyably resolves all of these problems. International literary conferences in which ‘screwing, boozing and bitching’ are major activities are David Lodge territory, but this book is more reminiscent of Malcolm Bradbury's Cuts. It is short, entertaining and determinedly topical, although, like Cuts, it is not as topical as it might wish, since one of the conference resolutions is to call for the release of Nelson Mandela. It is what tends to be dismissively called a confection, implying something tasty but insubstantial, and probably unhealthy. It is certainly lightweight, but the form is very effective for pinpointing human frailty. Amos speaks with uncharacteristic cogency for a page and a half on the subject of self-righteousness, condemning the hypocritical, self-serving moral stances of certain delegates:

So now I beg you—put aside your own feelings of moral superiority and moral outrage and self-righteousness and just think, think solely, of the three men whom … I visited yesterday in their prison.

It is an argument for pragmatism, for doing the most effective thing, which may well also be the most discreet thing, and it is inevitable that it sounds like King's unfiltered voice giving it. In this comic novel it takes a kidnapping and a series of fictions developing out of it to resolve all of Amos's problems, but King is also giving a more serious response to the more serious problems.

Paul Binding (review date 7 June 1991)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 589

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 sometimes simultaneously both lived off and patronised Italian society. The war having so recently ended, the shadow of Mussolini is everywhere. A good number of those trying to keep up old, elegant ways, and thoroughly looking down on all who haven't known them, had accommodated themselves, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to the “bullfrog” and his regime. Pre-eminent among these is the perverse queen of the colony, Isabella Lambreni, with a collaborationist past, who intimately links its members to one another.

Nor is kindness much more in evidence in the world of the institute itself (which, of course, has always one eye upon the Florentine beau monde). Bitchier even than its greater counterpart, it is animated by gossip and by the preservation of classfeuds imported from England. English snobbery being what it is, Jack suffers more than Iris from the cruelty of its tittle-tattle, and a principal reason for our sympathy for her is her defence of him in the face of it.

Yet it must not be suggested that Francis King is doing anything so simple or limited as offering a satiric portrait of an out-of-touch, incestuous community, for his interest in the individuality of his people, in their uniqueness combined with their comparative helplessness against social, economic and cultural forces precludes easy judgment and demands understanding.

Hugely rich, camp, idle Ivor Luce, who takes such a shine to Jack Prentice, has, superficially, little admirable about him; but numberless small touches in his evolving portrait confer on him dignity, even a nobility of nature. Giles Conquest, director of studies, would seem a sorry figure with his literary delusions and infidelities. Yet, how moving his breakdown is, and his salvation by a (well-evoked) dog! And, conversely, Iris's discovery of what she can accept, because of the strength of her sexual desire, is chilling, alarming—only we are made to suspend tempting censoriousness.

Francis King is a “pure” novelist, who, faced with the complexity of people and their inter-relations, denies himself any idiosyncracies of style or opinion in their presentation. The result of his sacrifice is a novel (this is one of his very finest) of great subtlety and a humane richness.

Lorna Sage (review date 7 June 1991)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 770

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 grandly penniless, like Audrey Heaton, who scrapes a living on advances for unwritten books, reviews for the TLS (a touch implausible, that) and dunning richer friends, while she tends the shrine of her dead lesbian lover Johnnie. Others are wealthy, like Ivor Luce, who is also nearly young by the colony's standards, and who contemplates Jack (“A butch piece. With possibilities. Definitely”) in vampiric anticipation. Ivor urges Jack to “behave like an Italian”, but that's not exactly what he means: going native here is a matter of becoming one of the characters in the play of sex and patronage; learning the language means acquiring a fund of voyeuristic stories about Edith Wharton, D. H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Reggie Turner, Willie Maugham and “Percy Lubbock in Lerici.” And possibly adding your own contribution, canonized in whispers.

King, who was in Florence in the 1940s, has fun with his name-dropping characters, while carefully not dropping any names himself. He is disposed to be forgiving, at this distance: their snobbishness and their self-consciousness and seedy glamour do conceal some small pearls of wisdom, along the lines that moral black and white do not make up the whole spectrum. In one or two corners of the plot there is even room for pathos—particularly in the treatment of ancient Harry Archer, a failed painter tended in his decline by sixteen-year-old Franco who, according to the gossip, is a thief, but in fact sells himself in the Loggia and to save the old man's dignity pretends that the money comes from peddling Harry's shaky handiwork. Vice and violence take place off-stage, so that good humour can, on the whole, prevail. If you don't look too closely, what you see is a community of eccentrics.

Jack does rather better than Iris. Though on the face of it he's a great deal more gauche and vulnerable, those, it turns out, are his saving qualities. Yorkshire innocence survives unscathed (he loses his virginity to a brisk and obliging English nanny, who's very definitely not a member of the charmed circle), only his rough edges are smoothed by the disappointed but gallant Ivor. Moreover, browsing among the bookstalls, he comes on a copy of Coventry Patmore, and, we're told, “It was that volume which was fortuitously to propel him in the direction in which his career as a redbrick academic was eventually to meander.” (The syntax itself at moments takes on a leisurely, rootless flavour.) Jack is a lucky Jim, but Iris—precisely because she has connections and introductions galore in the colony—loses her innocence rather more thoroughly, thus illustrating the old fictional adage that men's sexual lives are educational episodes, while women take theirs personally. So in a sense the plot is as “period” as the setting. The darker implications serve mainly to spice the comedy, however. The only seriously wicked characters, and the only seriously good ones for that matter, aren't English in any case: the English, it seems, are saved for niceness and nastiness. King's Florence is a busy limbo where this version of the national character can flourish without encountering any resistance: he mocks his colonists, but colludes with them too, so that their world becomes the closed system implied in the title, comfortably pickled.

Mark Illis (review date 8 June 1991)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 695

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, transferring its attention from Jack to Iris and back again. Jack pines for Iris, and makes a half-hearted pass at her, but in fact they do not see very much of each other over the year. At first everyone but them seems to be having an active sex-life, lesbian, gay or heterosexual, and they miss innuendos, mistake sexualities or overhear orgasmic cries without realising what they are. Iris, however, begins to spend her time with Dale Somers, a gigolo with a weakness for violence. He introduces her to sex. Jack, often lonely, spends his time with Ivor Luce, a middle-aged aesthete who would like to perform a similar service. Ivor eyes him before meeting him in a library: ‘A butch piece. With possibilities. Definitely.’ This is a refreshing voice disrupting the pervading languid tone of the novel, but it quickly becomes more subdued, and their friendship is purely platonic. Jack has to wait until almost the end of the novel before his inevitable deflowering. He is eventually seduced after a liberating swim by a convenient tourist who first had sex when she was 13. Francis King discreetly leaves the room, or the beach, before any of his characters start to make love. It might be more appropriate in some cases to stay there for the gory details. It seems odd to desert his characters when they are having experiences crucial to their development.

The characters around Jack and Iris slip and slide in their feelings for each other, sometimes in mid-conversation. A smile of ‘extraordinary warmth’ interrupts cold dislike. A wife despises and then pities and forgives her husband. People seem to be in the wrong relationships, feeling neither love nor hate for each other. They irritate each other but do not arouse passions. A man, losing his mistress, out of love with his wife and children, transfers all his affections to a stray dog he has rescued from being put down. The ones who come off well are the older ones, who retain their dignity, show bravery in small, unostentatious ways and are, above all, kind. These characters are likeable, but likeable characters are not enough to make this a satisfying novel. The Ant Colony does not seem to have quite made up its mind. It approaches, but never reaches, the sparkling, sophisticated malice of Mapp and Lucia, while it hints at a darker side which is never explored. Ian McEwan's The Innocent, as its title suggests, has a very similar hero, and The Ant Colony might have benefited from some dramatic happening to disturb the well-drawn but slightly staid picture it presents. There are a suicide and a broken nose at the end, but both are subordinated to a nostalgic mood of departure, which dominates the final chapters, and seems in retrospect to have dominated the whole story.

Richard Davenport-Hines (review date 2 August 1991)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 711

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 almost too terrible to imagine. His military background, his fellow Benchers at the Temple, his own self-contempt have driven him to an extremity in which his life is separated from his feelings. Like other secretive people he fears that without secrets he will lose control of his life. He lives always in a panic of discovery, his polished overglaze a tragic deception. Denying even the nature of his mortal illnesses, Brian lives and dies in a state of lonely, ruthless fright. His predicament is unforgettable.

Tom Wakefield's “The Other Way” is the weakest part of the collection. It is a wistful study of a fat, awkward, gaudy spinster called Brenda who wins a package holiday to Tunisia and befriends a lonely gay male nurse. The story has some attractive moments, a strong ending and its message of self-reliance comes across convincingly; but its action depends on both Brenda and the nurse talking aloud to themselves in monologues which can be overheard by sympathetic strangers. Life is not like that. There are clichés, such as beaches strewn by lager louts, with used condoms and the scene which Wakefield intends as the most repellent moment of Brenda's holiday is both predictable and unsuccessful. The sight, on a beach, of a man's churning buttocks as he and his girlfriend indulge in what Australian teenagers call cement-mixing is not as unpleasant as Wakefield pretends, and certainly it cannot justify the heavy message of panic and estrangement with which he loads it.

Patrick Gale's “Caesar's Wife” is a cheerier and more consistent piece of writing. Its narrator, Mary, is a bright, witty woman working as a senior editor in publishing. For many years she has enjoyed an affair with a rich industrialist, but this is disrupted by the sudden death of his wife. A comedy of manners ensues as Mary tries to resist his proposals of marriage. Although Gale's characterization is not particularly original, the dialogue is sharp and the overall effect entertaining. He also tries a few literary tricks which are all the more successful for not being too ambitious.

There are several consonances between these three novellas. Like one of the authors handled by Mary, their writing has “an air of poised depression”; but the similarities extend beyond style to content. Many of their most sympathetic characters—Brenda, Osamu, and Josh in Gale's story, for example—are people whose parents had bad or non-existent sex lives, children who grew up with no sense of the possibility of successful union or integration with other people. They recognize the potential for grief in monogamy, shy away from the compromises that are required of couples, settle for their integrity alone. The sanest people, these three novellas seem to suggest, are those who respond to people who are attracted to them. Submit without hope or rancour, even to deceptive, self-deceiving Holland Park smoothies.

Paul Binding (review date 23 August 1991)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 597

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 woman, is a compulsive competition-entrant. She wins a holiday in North Africa, where, bored, afraid and confused, she flees her ghastly camp to cohabit with a fellow-Briton, Leslie, who broods on his own unsatisfactory love life (gay, it turns out). As the two come closer, we learn through a beautifully done confession of the animating passion of this passionless-seeming woman: her mother, with whom she shared so much, and whose treatment by her father has conditioned her.

In Patrick Gale's first-person contribution, Mary is the mistress for one night each week of a famous tycoon. When the tycoon's wife dies, she has to re-appraise this long relationship and prepare to expose what has been carefully hidden. But another secret in the novella is the narrator's feelings for the tycoon's gay son, a handicapped young man who is also a publishing colleague. Camp, spiteful, affectionate, imaginative, Josh most movingly counterpoints the central duo.

King's Secret Lives, in its intensity and subtlety one of his finest productions, makes overt that conflict that hugged passion sets up. Does one betray it the more by conforming to the world's cruel demands in order to preserve it, or by translating it into terms comprehensible to all which inevitably change and diminish it? Sir Brian Cobean, a distinguished QC, keeps his relationship with a young Japanese, Osamu, secret from everybody. Osamu seems content with this background existence, accepting as Brian's right a social life (including, we understand, a sexual one) exclusive of himself.

Brian grows ill—with Aids, we gradually and appalledly realise. At his death, Osamu, sole beneficiary of his estate, decides that he must let the world know, in the most quietly dramatic manner possible, the truth of their relationship. Francis King's novella haunts the mind with its portraits of people carrying the burdens of emotional situations they can't admit. It also must stand as one of the most sensitive accounts to date of the anguish inflicted by Aids.

What seems to me English in the execution of this un-English form is its strong sense of interconnecting social worlds, and this goes for Tom Wakefield and Patrick Gale as well. Brenda's life as a teacher and Mary's as an editor enhance the delineations of private stress, not just by giving them a context, but by emphasising the baffling coexistences in all our lives.

Penelope Lively (review date 4 September 1993)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 976

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 (‘… a Baked Alaska—sweet, warm and gungy on the outside, hard and cold within’).

Francis King spent his early childhood in India and was then sent to England as a ‘remittance child’ at the age of nine, just like Kipling, by whose harrowing story Baa Baa Black Sheep he had already been unnerved. In the event, he was never treated in any way like Kipling was, but he cites vividly the feeling of being an ‘extra’ in other people's homes and attributes to that experience his subsequent tendency to please and placate. The account of childhood and of his family is in many ways the most attractive part of the book. Especially strong is Francis King's honest and perceptive view of his loving but ambivalent relationship with his mother, who lived to a great age and remained always a central figure in his life.

It has been a life very much on the move: Italy, Greece, Finland, Japan. Francis King went overseas for the British Council at the time when the Council attracted colourful and maverick figures as much as or rather than career officials. The Council may have lost out on efficiency, but it was vastly enriched. He began with the British Institute in Florence soon after the war, from which period spring chatty and anecdotal descriptions of expatriate Florentine society centred around such as Harold Acton and Bernard Berenson which set the tone for the rest of the book. From then on we are in the thick of it—Francis King seems to have known everyone you've ever heard of (and a fair number that you haven't)—and the names hurtle forth upon each other's heels: Angus Wilson, Edith Evans, Merlina Mercouri, Harold Nicolson, Louis MacNeice, Somerset Maugham, Anthony Blunt … there is no end to it. And if at points this unstoppable catalogue has a whiff of Jennifer's Diary, the writing certainly does not. Francis King seems to be endowed with the gift of total recall (or else with an unusually rich archive of diaries and notes)—flicking back through the autobiography you realise that it is as richly spattered with dialogue as a novel.

The second half of the book is taken up with the author's years back in England, having left the Council, living first in Brighton and then in London—packed years in which he writes most of his novels and short stories, does theatre reviewing, and weathers a libel action, the account of which will have many another novelist breaking out in a cold sweat and anxiously reconsidering their own latest typescript. Needing information for literary purposes about the life-style of Brighton deckchair attendants, he puts an ad in the local paper and thus meets the young man who is to become his lover and companion of the next 20 years, and of whose death from Aids he gives an unflinching and acutely painful account. His beloved mother dies also, and he himself encounters cancer. The last section of the book is both brave and sad, and takes the reader back to the author's own comment at the beginning, that at times he feels ‘as if life were a matter of picking one's way over the thinnest crust of earth above a sleeping volcano’.

Public events are curiously absent—except for a flurry of international involvement when the author is International Chairman of PEN (a sprightly account of this, and various people's hash settled). I would have liked a little pruning of the parade of personalities in favour of more appraisal of the countries in which he lived. And, especially, it would have been illuminating to hear more of the author's reaction to an entirely changed climate of opinion about homosexuality. For today's young, the pre-Wolfenden days when sex between consenting adult males was an indictable offence must seem like the Stone Age. Francis King has surprisingly little to say about this, except for the comment that an increased toleration made possible for him intense and valued friendships with women. But the revolution in opinion seems to me such a significant one that it would have been enlightening to hear more about it from someone centrally involved.

These are relatively minor carps. This is an autobiography with all the appeal of a compelling novel, and no doubt right now those of the large cast of characters who are still around will be busy letting the author know what they feel about their roles.

Penelope Fitzgerald (review date 5 September 1993)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 923

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 seduced (there is no other word for it) by a gondolier’. He joined the British Council, with assignments in Italy, Greece, Egypt, Finland and Japan, and the pattern of his life seemed set. And yet in 1966, when he was 43, he cut short his career and came back to England to support himself as a novelist.

In Kyoto he had been content, and ‘just as I could have opted for an academic career instead of the British Council, and for a domestic life with children and grandchildren, instead of a sexually unorthodox one, so now I could have passed the rest of my years in Japan, instead of at home’. He was haunted, as most of us are, by the path not taken. But he had committed himself to an uncertain, colourful, emotionally adventurous existence, which, however, he was to lead with all the decency, punctuality, sense of family loyalty, orderliness and capacity for hard work to which he has been brought up. This contrast is one of the most attractive features of the book.

Yesterday Came Suddenly, like Francis King's novels, is intensely, almost painfully, true to what his senses record, but also to what other people feel and the curious ways in which they express it. When his father died, for instance, his house-master, ‘a decent, unemotional, inarticulate man', sent for him and in his embarrassment offered him a cigarette from the silver box in the study, then hastily moved it away again.

Anthony Burgess and his first wife ‘would lurch into the room, arms round each other, faces glistening, hair bedraggled, as though, victims of a shipwreck, they had just emerged from a turbulent sea. By the end of the evening both of them were often hardly coherent. Yet there was something extraordinarily touching about their dependence on each other.’

The middle section of the book expands, not into gossip so much as into brief lives, as memory calls back an exceptional number of friends. King has always been attracted to difficult women and hard cases, and the reader has the opportunity to attend Ivy Compton-Burnett's strange nursery tea-parties, to argue with Melina Mercouri (who ‘might have been the captain of a Greek caique bawling out a sailor ordered to wash down the decks’), and sit through an affectionate evening with Somerset Maugham, who ‘looked as though at any moment he might crumble into dust’.

He is too judicious to be taken in—he refuses to accept that either E. M. Forster or L. P. Hartley was ‘a sweet old thing'—although he perhaps thinks Edmund Blunden rather simpler than he was, and does not quite sound the depths of Louis MacNeice's unhappiness. Meanwhile, we can only be grateful to him for sharing these superbly clear and beguiling memories, and possibly for concealing some of them.

Very few autobiographers can have said so little about their own successes. King does mention the Writers’ Action Group, of which he was a cofounder, and which battled for the Public Lending Right, but he says almost nothing about his CBE, or about his Yorkshire Post award for Act of Darkness. His international presidency of PEN is treated—particularly his stand-off with a battered Norman Mailer—in terms of high comedy. ‘The sole real achievement of my Presidency', he says, was the establishment of a PEN centre in the then Soviet Union. He was in severe pain at the time from a recent cancer operation, which was fortunately made better rather than worse by caviare and vodka.

The truth is that Yesterday Came Suddenly has been designed from beginning to end as a story, not so much of a career as of love and friendship. Its true weight falls at the end with the death from Aids of David Atkin, Francis King's lover and companion, in 1988. King, the novelist of separation and loss, ends his book with a description of the pain and guilt of his own bereavement. This must have been a difficult chapter to write. The one compensation is that he never feels happier, he says, than when he is writing, even though ‘it might have been better for me and for those close to me if it had not been so’.

Jonathan Keates (review date 8 October 1993)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 826

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 himself when young means he gives short shrift to his undergraduate pacifism, and is scarcely more charitable towards the prankster and smart alec be became on his return to Oxford, refreshed after a tumultuous initiatory sexual fling with a Venetian gondolier, having published two novels and begun contributing the sort of Listener review in which Elizabeth Bowen could be dismissed as “a high-class sob-sister, the intellectual's Godfrey Winn.”

The happiest, or least troubled portion of the career mapped out here was spent as a teacher for the British Council. From a Britain of shrivelled aid budgets and reduced international influence, we look back with an envious sourness at the fortunate author, “seeing life” against exotically arranged backdrops, in that old-fashioned mode which combines an acceptable measure of domestic bohemianism, a strong dash of café society, and fruitful liaisons with local boys of suitable intelligence and principle.

Meanwhile, the sommités littéraires made anecdotal landfall. In Athens, Louis MacNeice, officially entitled “Fun.O” (Functional Officer), was emphatically no fun at all, while Maurice Bowra, whose trousers King tugged off with some difficulty in a hospital operating-theatre after a motoring accident, became positively Neronic in self-esteem: “When I saw that bloody great juggernaut coming straight at us, I remember my last thought was ‘My God, what a loss to English culture!’” In Kyoto, Joe Ackerley, his air ticket having been thoughtfully provided by Morgan Forster, became the author's Man Who Came To Dinner, spoiling his Akita dogs rotten, swilling his ruinously expensive Beefeater and satanically playing him off against James Kirkup, towards whose studied japonnaiseries and “creative” autobiography King exercises what might be termed a waspish indulgence.

The same mingling of tones, acidulated and compassionate, typifies his approach, elsewhere in the book, to those he befriends either during his British Council years or as a working novelist and reviewer. His strongest suit as a writer has always lain in tracing the incalculable outlines of a relationship, and the most absorbing moments of Yesterday Came Suddenly all involve the resilience or sudden implosion of friendships and love affairs, little hard-edged dramas of acceptance or betrayal.

If the names sometimes bunch too thickly (the incident involving Daphne du Maurier staring at an ashtray, for example, might have fallen a harmless victim to the blue pencil), it is worth waiting for them to thin out in front of extended portraits such as those of Ivy Compton-Burnett and Olivia Manning, drawn in the indelible colours of exasperated affection.

“It is better to be drunk with loss”, the former tells him, “and to beat the ground than to let the deeper things gradually escape.” At two crucial points, the sound of Francis King beating the ground helps to focus and discipline the narrative One is the death, at the age of 102, of his mother, a woman whose power over her family was asserted through a lifetime's submission to their needs, this event leaves him in a state of anguished incredulity. The other is the loss through AIDS of his lover, David Atkin, whose gallantry under fire, as it were, is evoked without the least hint of maudlin exaggeration.

Both in the innocence of its discursiveness, which assumes that the reader can always make time to linger over what the writer has to say, and in its author's candid self-presentation as something of a punctilious fusspot, this book recalls certain of the more pleasurable literary memoirs of the nineteenth century, books such as Thomas Adolphus Trollope's What I Remember or Cyrus Redding's Fifty Years' Recollections. The genre is fast disappearing, and, in what may be one of its last and most accomplished examples, we should enjoy it while there is still time.

Patricia Beer (review date 16 December 1993)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2992

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 recall the name of the funeral parlour where Tennessee Williams lay in state nor can he remember the venue (‘some pub in Fleet Street’) where he was to meet Gore Vidal. Probably it had been so with us had we been there, but we might not have thought it necessary to say so, especially if, like Gordon himself, we had not in the event bothered to visit the funeral parlous or actually speak to the live celebrity. The motif of forgetfulness is heard throughout the book. Gordon held an umbrella over Judi Dench on her way ‘to I think it was Heal's in Tottenham Court Road’. He made some changes to an article by Ronald Harwood but as to what they were: ‘I really can't remember.’ This motif could be a useful technical device in another context but in this case it can only be a motive: to cut the great and famous down to size.

It is difficult to catch the intended tone of this book partly because Gordon presents himself as essentially a man with a keen sense of humour, and you never know where you are with people like that. He laughs in the wrong place at a friend's poetry reading. He giggles at names like Rees-Mogg, and splits his sides at the list of those who supported Count Tolstoy (ha ha) in the recent painful court case: Prince Dmitri Galitzine, for instance, and Princess Tatiana Metternich (ho ho). He finds his jokes good enough to repeat, like the one about Sue Townsend: ‘creator of Adrian but no mole’. Confronted with such a merry madcap I see that I have no sense of humour at all, and am rather glad about it. On the other hand, in reading this book, I must be missing a lot of jokes. When Gordon speaks of other writers, ‘including he who was to become Lord Archer', and a little later tells us that he was employed to teach Prince Andrew to write grammatically, I am at a loss. I feel there must be a joke in there somewhere.

Of course it is a perfectly acceptable ploy for a writer to be deliberately silly but I simply cannot decide whether or not this is what Giles Gordon is doing. When he speaks of syllabics as ‘a briefly fashionable, and easy, way of writing verse by counting syllables’ is he (I am assuming he knows better) being naughtily provocative or is he inventing a comic pig-ignorant character, the Alf Garnett of the world of literature? When he reveals how ‘Prince Harry even let my baby daughter Lucy sit on his horse’ is he lampooning people who talk like that, or is he talking like that? And then there is the mystery of his sneering. He mocks the writer of the farming column in Private Eye who, he says, ‘eager to reveal his pseudonymous identity at one of their parties, introduces himself as Old Muckspreader’. (A natural and friendly thing to do, I would have thought.) Does he forget, or is it meant to be funny, that he himself is extremely eager to make sure that we all know about his own contributions to the Eye?

Any autobiographer who has a well-defined role, even at a lowish level, in any particular environment can reasonably be expected to give an interesting and informative account of it. We really can learn a lot from Giles Gordon about the British literary scene of the present and the recent past. The facts are there, rather too many of them sometimes: his article, as it must be called, on PLR, which is embedded in the text, contains material which deserves to be known but could more easily be acquired from a reference book. Length rather than depth is his object and many of those who would read the book might expect the latter and not need the former. It would make a splendid present for a visiting Martian. Gordon deigns to remember enough to provide a great many personalities to look out for—or to mention, should they have died. He gives an accurate portrayal, for instance, of Edith Sitwell and her ill-bred public manners. But here comes a drawback. He makes no real suggestion as to the quality of her work or the possibility that it might be good enough to counterbalance her arrogant rudeness. I do not think for a moment that it was but some do and an alien might and should be given a chance. Gordon's portraits, of course, have to be highly selective as to detail; but his choice in this respect is often unsure. Having described, quite relevantly, Arnold Goodman as ‘physically a dauntingly large and hairy man', he adds that there was a Goodman brother who ‘was smaller in stature’. Now I come to think of it, though, that might interest an alien.

Francis King, in his autobiography Yesterday Came Suddenly, writes as straightforwardly as he has always done. Every so often in the course of his long career as a novelist critics have spoken of the detachment of his style, nearly all of them meaning it as a compliment. For most of his formative years and on into middle age, King was an expatriate, born in Switzerland, spending his early boyhood in India, and in manhood working for the British Council in Italy, Greece, Finland and Japan successively. This long exile—and most of it, the British Council part, was voluntary—would affect anyone's prose style, unless of course it was the other way round, the temperament behind the prose style being the prime mover. It is significant that when he said, half-jokingly, that he felt so much at home in Japan he must in a previous existence have been Japanese, an English friend commented that it was a pity he hadn't remembered more of the language. When in 1966, at the age of 43, he returned to England he made Brighton, where he settled for some time, sound just like a foreign country, where they do things differently and you have to try to learn the language but not get too involved.

Detachment in an autobiography is a mixed blessing, but the calmness of King's style is rather welcome when he is speaking of both his own homosexuality and that of the men he met while working abroad. There were a great many. Indeed the reader's first impression is likely to be that the British Council in the Forties and Fifties was, by way of its staff, visiting celebrities and general contacts, only a few citizens short of a latterday Sodom. This turns out to be not quite true; a closer reading shows that in fact gays were numerically outmatched—just—by staid heterosexual husbands. It is a question of treatment. King almost invariably describes the married couples as kind—a word he cruelly overworks—and not much else. His presentation of the homosexuals, on the other hand, is lively and explicit. He refers to a respected member of the teaching staff as ‘an inveterate cottager', and recounts how he arranged for Anthony Blunt, who was giving a lecture tour for the Council in Greece, to meet and assess young men (‘That one's rather jolly,’ ‘I rather like that one over there’) and sometimes paid them on his behalf, a part of the proceedings about which Blunt displayed great delicacy.

He has nothing detailed or penetrating to say about the politics of the countries he lived in while working abroad, many of which were going through periods of desperate re-adjustment. He can give harrowingly vivid descriptions of the squalor that war had brought to many of the towns and cities he knew, but his accounts of governmental politics tend to be cursory. His attention is caught by people. He may not explore their minds and hearts but he sees the full surface.

Back in England he soon assembled and carefully cultivated a kind of floating salon of compatriots, of both genders and varying sexual tastes, most of them known writers such as J. R. Ackerley, Ivy Compton-Burnett, L. P. Hartley. They were nearly all middle-class, by birth or advancement, and middle-aged, and as by now they are nearly all dead as well, the series of spirited portraits which forms much of the later part of King's book has an intriguing tone which is both racy and funereal. He has already told us that he likes his women friends to be difficult and in London there seems to have been no lack of choice. The sketch of Olivia Manning is one of the best. He presents her irritating, often unpleasant vagaries with something like affection.

It is part of King's technique that when he has something nasty to say he quotes somebody else as saying it: a device that is several years older than Methuselah but still seems to work. He relates that when at a British Council gathering a newcomer asked if Ronald Bottrall was handsome, Roger Hinks replied: ‘Well, that all depends on whether you're attracted by men with eyes on the tops of their heads.’ It was perhaps rather unwise of King, after that, to include a photograph of Bottrall which shows his eyes to have been in the normal human place. But the inclusion was probably an oversight for King would certainly not set out to discredit one of Hinks's sallies, which he admired excessively, as he did those of Maurice Bowra. His appreciative quotation of their spiteful and meaningless quips seems to indicate that he mistook inaccurate bitchiness for wit.

King's book is mercifully free of the pretence of amnesia which Giles Gordon flaunted and which has been creeping up on the reading public for some time. Penelope Mortimer's parade of forgetfulness, for example, in her recent biography About Time Too, knows so few bounds that the only fair comment can be Private Eye's: ‘Every time she says she can't remember something the reader simply thinks then why on earth am I paying you to say so?’ Francis King permits himself the occasional admission of failure to recall, yes, but not all this disingenuous forgetting.

Knowing as we do that the authors of the three autobiographies under review all write or have written fiction, are all living in England, and have covered much the same period of time, we might expect them to have something in common when they turn to fact. We should be wrong. A tinker, a tailor and a soldier, living in various centuries, might well have more in common when it came to writing their life stories. It could be said, I suppose, that Giles Gordon and Francis King, though very dissimilar, stand in much the same part of the field, but no one could deny that William Trevor in Excursions in the Real World is somewhere else, in a world that seems more real then theirs.

In the first place his use of memory, or perhaps one should say his relationship with it, sets him apart. He does not pretend to remember and, more significantly, he does not pretend to forget. He accepts that in this book he must renounce invention. It is an anthology of memories rather than a straightforward narrative but it begins traditionally: ‘My earliest memories are of County Cork.’ The chapters are arranged in more or less chronological order. In his introduction he turns the whole enterprise over to memory, explaining that this faculty alone has chosen the real people he depicts here; in an excellent clause he describes them as those ‘who for one reason or another have remained snagged in the memory’. Later in the introduction he states his approach very clearly by identifying himself as ‘the figure whose memory has been tapped in order to provide these forays from the territory of fiction into that of reality as it was’.

I think it is not fanciful to see this voluntary passivity expressed in Trevor's syntax. He certainly uses the passive tense or an intransitive verb much more frequently than he does in his fiction. In the schoolroom ‘poster paint was produced,’ ‘errors and aberrations were corrected.’ On holiday abroad, ‘postcards are written.’ And—best example of all—in Venetian churches, lire drop into ecclesiastical boxes’; look, no hands.

Of course, as Trevor says himself, ‘in any record of personal fascinations and enthusiasms, the recorder cannot remain entirely in the shadows,’ and this is certainly true in his case. Not all his fine qualities as a writer of fiction can come through into the new territory of fact—not all fiction's techniques are appropriate to autobiography—but many do. One of them is what might be called, if it were not too dull a word, decorum. After the outpourings of biographers who insist on deluging us with more than we wish to know, his delicacy is telling. It enables him to deal with sensitive material—the harrowing deterioration of his parents’ marriage, for example—with no loss of eloquence.

Memory could, and presumably did, put forward many important names for him to drop if he wished, but he markedly has not used them. Any writer in search of lost time can exercise his right of veto. Almost the only authors Trevor speaks of are Somerville and Ross; they are allotted a four-page chapter and one of Lucy Willis's engaging illustrations. He never met Ross; she died before he was born. He might just have met Somerville who lived on to be 91, but he says nothing of it here. Trevor's memory of them must be attached to something they were or did in their prime, something which made an impression on him later. Perhaps, for him, they represented the fraught theme of Anglo-Irishness whose implications were made even more complicated, one imagines, by the fact that Trevor, too, was a Protestant. Somerville and Ross, daughters of the Ascendancy, considered themselves to be totally Irish, whereas the Irish they wrote about with such patronising mirth did not consider them to be Irish at all. This situation might well snag in Trevor's memory, though he writes temperately.

One of the most real of the ‘real people’ whom Trevor presents is Miss Quirke, the girl who ‘had been found in a farmhouse at Oola, a few miles from Tipperary, where she'd been vaguely waiting for something to happen’. She was employed to teach William Trevor and his brother at their home before they went to boarding-school; she taught a stimulating hotchpotch of skills and information, not much of it apparently suited to the immediate needs of untravelled schoolboys, like the names of Parisian streets and the history of the electric chair in America. Looking back, Trevor says that ‘learning was never again to be as calm or as agreeable as it was in that upstairs room with Miss Quirke’; and the boys half-suspected this at the time. It is a delightful description; the tone made me think of the ‘lovely Miss’ of D. J. Enright's schooldays as he evokes her in his poem ‘And two good things As with many of Trevor's fictional characters, Miss Quirke is mysterious, at first because she is seen through the eyes of young boys but at the end because the adult author asks: ‘Did she simply slip back into the County Tipperary landscape?’ Although we are in the real world we feel uneasily that that is exactly what happened. After all she was ‘found’ there.

Now that this new book has told us so many of the facts of Trevor's life, we can see how time has worked with memory to create episodes and situations in his fiction. In the story ‘Matilda's England', for example, surely his distress at the disintegration of his parents’ once happy marriage has surfaced in the feelings of the child Matilda, whose glad though not fully conscious awareness of the harmony her parents enjoyed is broken for ever when her father is killed in the war. Trevor's ability to represent the passing of time is as keen as ever in this new world. Social mores process in front of us. A man kisses a strange girl: ‘she'd have slapped his face in the Fifties and taken him to court in the Nineties, but in the Sixties … everybody laughed.’ His dexterity in passing from today to fifty years ago is as marked as it has ever been. In the way we all take through the dark wood William Trevor is one of the few who can look round at the past without bumping into a tree.

Gregory Woods (review date 23 September 1994)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 647

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 mind, are justifiably less lucid.

Francis King has published more than twenty novels. Long ago, his career reached that condition of reliability which prompts critics to call a writer “distinguished.” Beyond that, there does not seem to be a firm consensus on his status. His gay readers will have respectful memories of the early novels which dealt with homosexuality so sanely in such neurotic times. One thinks not only of the books which came out in the 1950s, such as The Man on the Rock, but also of later examples like A Domestic Animal, which appeared on the very cusp of Gay Liberation but managed to satisfy pre- and post-liberationist readers alike. King's quality has been variable. It may be that we have Graham Greene to blame for the fact that so many English novelists waste so much of their time writing “entertainments” between their more thoughtful books. It would be hard otherwise to account for the fact that a fine novelist like King will occasionally produce a wretched potboiler like Visiting Cards.

Although The One and Only is better than that book, there are moments of clumsiness, particularly in the obtrusive hooks at the ends of some chapters: “What none of them even guessed was that one day I would be someone of whom Gladbury”—his old school—“would be ashamed.” At times, the narrative is over-explicit: “What she really hated, I am sure, was the idea of having to entertain a number of dull people (as she would see them) scarcely known to her.” the redundant parenthetical phrase only looks like a flaw because the book as a whole is so short and the story otherwise so economically told. As in Christopher Isherwood's novels, the blandness of the narrative voice throws up the occasional embarrassing banality: “My life, like a cavernous room, has been full of such echoes, ricocheting back and forth, back and forth. I often wonder if in other people's lives the same thing happens.” The crime itself, when it comes, virtually evaporates before one has registered its monstrosity—presumably because the narrator, who perpetrates it, cannot bear to dwell on the details.

At its weakest points, The One and Only gives a slight impression of a hoary old yarn: repressed queer with insufferable, suffocating mother, meets and mates with sinister, detached friend, with murderous consequences. It is a measure of King's considerable skill that he leaves the reader with the sense of a tale well told—and a tale we had not heard before.

Charles Godfrey-Faussett (review date 29 March 1996)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 588

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 biographies, because “I remembered that in countries like Cuba the authorities tend to be suspicious of writers.” His more than biographical interest in Eneas (who takes a week off to be with him) adds salt to his observations on the country's beleaguered and oppressive regime.

King projects his narrator as a sensitive and enquiring man, the soul of probity who, none the less, cannot help enjoying the special relationship with a young man that conditions in Cuba afford him. While he quite clearly despises a promiscuous Yorkshire communist staying at his hotel, there is something precious about his own guilty conscience. The novel's confessional style might excuse some of the clumsiness of the writing (“It was years since I had run, really run. But now I ran.”), but it cannot account for the literary posturing or the contrived imagery: the Colombian coke-dealer speaks English “and yes, with a slight lisp, as though each word were a pip that kept getting stuck to his teeth or his lips as he tried to spit it out”, and the paintwork on his Oldsmobile apparently looks like the skin of a bruised pear. Most irritatingly, such symbolism is then pressed into the service of an artificial symmetry in the telling of the tale.

The narrative is also hampered by Baker's repeated reflective questioning, which only pays off when he accompanies Eneas on a climactic and dangerous trip into the interior in order to witness the anniversary of a miraculous manifestation of the Virgin. When he is forced to stay overnight by a police raid, it is fortunate that we are accustomed to our narrator's equivocations. It makes King's comparison between the effects of expediently suppressing either faith or sexuality much more easy to swallow. Baker is not even sure whether it was necessarily the narcotics that had affected him so vigorously on his arrival in Havana. Equally, he is prepared to put the miracle down to mass hallucination brought on by the local water. In the mountain village, at some cost to himself, he finally sees the fulfilment of his homoerotic fantasy and of the villagers’ primitive religious belief as springing from the same deep source.

William Scammell (review date 30 March 1996)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 908

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 son of a doctor, but one who disappointed his father by neglecting his studies. A trip to Hemingway's house, now a museum, is foiled by Cuban inefficiency so they go to the beach instead, where Eneas shows off his muscles and flirts with the girls, while Baker is badgered by touts. Cuba's awful poverty, and its inhabitants’ permanent hunger for a better life, form a backdrop to the events that follow.

One evening Baker looks up a dyspeptic Dutch gay called Raoul, to whom he has an introduction, and is warned: ‘Cuba is not a good place for homos … Be careful, my friend, be very careful.’ No less a figure than El Commandante himself has proscribed homosexuality as ‘a bourgeois perversion', even though he, Raoul, has personally buggered many of his soldiers in this very room. He offers to arrange some ‘safe sex’ for his guest, which is politely declined (though in a later episode Baker finds himself reversing that decision).

The friendship with Eneas grows apace, Baker treating the childlike young man to a great many presents, and it culminates in a weird trip to a remote village to visit a church where children have reputedly seen a vision of the Virgin Mary. A livid storm blows up; a dog hurls itself at the car, the young carrier-bag thief turns out to be an altar-boy. (We're somewhere between Lowry's volcano, the Marabar caves, and Greeneland.) During a long and melodramatic evening they duly witness a miracle: three children actually appear to fly in the caves, like birds, and the head of a statue of the Virgin moves and speaks. Baker is told later that it gave a message of hope:

In October El Commandante would die, would die by an act of violence. Then everything would change, everything would be better … The Virgin would never break her promise.

Communist policemen break up the remnants of the service. Baker and Eneas spend the night at the local priest's house, sharing a big old-fashioned bed, and a sexual miracle follows the religious one:

In comparison with innumerable other nights spent with innumerable other people in the course of a promiscuous and much-travelled life, I found the love-making which followed abrupt, hurried, clumsy, crude. And yet, with total truthfulness, I can say ‘That was the best’ … I lay in the dark. I felt an extraordinary energy and a happiness no less extraordinary. ‘Milagro,’ Diego had said of what happened with the children. This was another miracle, smaller, yes, but a miracle nonetheless. It was as though a withered branch had suddenly put forth flowers.

When he tries to repeat their caresses in the morning, Baker is angrily rebuffed. After their return to Havana Eneas disappears, and Baker spends a miserable time searching for his lost happiness, still nursing the ‘disorientation’ of ‘having fallen in love so totally, so irrationally, so unexpectedly, at so advanced an age’. None of his questions finds an answer. The apparent miracle, Eneas's arrest or flight, Cuba's mysterious brand of ‘African’ Christianity, buzz in his head like flies. Someone tells him he is just ‘a silly old foreign queen’ who should know better than to get mixed up with a disappointed young man and a paranoid government. Beaten up and robbed, he finally takes the plane home, still puzzling over his good and bad fortune.

It's rather a four-square and old-fashioned sort of a novel, from the allusive title to the habit of filling in each character's appearance and history from the first moment of his or her appearance on the page. The verbal repetitions—note that triple ‘good time’ in as many sentences, in the quotation above—give it an air of precise innocence; the economy of means reminded me a little of Anita Brookner. The subtext worries away at bisexuality. The topsoil is content to nourish whatever takes root. In an age of idiom-mongering and neon street-cred the view of sex as an old-fashioned miracle, rather than as an excuse for more verbal humping comes as something of a pleasant shock.

Sarah A. Smith (review date 6 December 1996)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 584

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 Web”, which sees middle-class Liz take up with a fraudulent beggar, first sexually and then professionally. Even his seemingly straightforward comic tale, “The Cloven Hoof”, unsettles the reader with its mischievous symbolism, while, in the bleak account of “The Tradesman”, Death only calls for Mrs Masterman after meals-on-wheels and the hairdresser have already been.

King dares his characters, especially his female characters, into acts of outrage, whether sleeping with a waiter or simply helping an unstable and now law-breaking neighbour. Normally cautions, self-conscious figures thrill to the danger of action without thought, as emotion takes over from dignity. This is a world in which humiliation is inevitable, love unattainable and rebellion a release, in which a wife can leave her neurotic husband and then feel embarrassed: “She did not want to put into precise words that she was jealous not of another woman, of his work, or of a hobby, but of something as abstract as time. It would sound so foolish.” Characters are sometimes nudged towards tragicomedy. Do we laugh or cringe over Lauris, a mother so madly possessive that she is jealous of her daughter's budgerigar? Does “Panama”, one of the best pieces in the collection, end in irony or poignancy? The stories themselves are coolly open-ended.

There is a recognizable King cast of characters here: the asthmatic, the spinster with her pet dog or cat, and the ageing homosexual with his eye on the waiters. Those familiar with the author's other work will be able to spot some of his minor personal preferences in this collection: a fascination with hot countries and foreign cultures, an admiration for clean finger-nails and large teeth and an equal dislike of undercooked steaks. A neurotic distaste for the next-door neighbours also runs through the book. King's previous novel, Ash on an Old Man's Sleeve, opens with the invocation “Surprise me!,” and goes on to do just that, after a few pages, describing its seventy-year-old protagonist snorting cocaine in a park at midnight. A Hand at the Shutter, Francis King's forty-second book and his seventh collection of short stories, does not hold many surprises. But it offers graceful prose and works which stretch the form and the reader alike, leaving both improved by the exercise.

Tim Haigh (review date 24 October 1997)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 553

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 galvanizes him into finishing it. It subsequently becomes an important work. (Steve sees a movie version of it back home in Australia, and he receives a letter from an academic asking for his recollections of Prince Stefano.) These are the shadows which King throws, filling them out with a host of minor events: a family retainer is killed by the Mafia, Steve repairs a vacuum cleaner for a friend of Stefano's wife, a louche playwright interrupts an agreeable lunch in a restaurant.

More problematic is whether King brings it all off. We can read between the lines, but is there really anything there? We never learn anything about Prince Stefano's book. The novel draws on Lampedusa's life, but in an uncertain and unresolved way. We never know what it is about Steve that changes everything for the Prince. Several times he murmurs that there is much he would like to say, but he cannot bring himself to do so. Then he has a stroke and is unable to say anything. Only after his death can he speak. He sends the boy a handful of postcards bearing gnomic observations, a one-hand-clapping conversation which adds up to an oblique declaration of love. It is not clear whether this love is sexual—Steve is beautiful, but he is not otherwise a very interesting young man—or just a longing for youth and vigour as contrasted with his own decline.

The major theme of the novel is the tension between love and obligation. Steve discovers that he did, after all, love Prince Stefano, and he later wishes he could feel more for his own family. In the end, King's sensibility is simply too delicate. In his reluctance to pin down the details, he has simply let them go. Several times, the Prince almost touches Steve, but draws back. Bringing that issue to a head, or revealing how Steve helped the Prince's book, might have given Dead Letters the focus it needed.

Further Reading

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 130

CRITICISM

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.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial
Next

King, Francis (Vol. 8)