Francis King 1923-
(Full name Francis Henry King; has also written under the pseudonym Frank Cauldwell) Swiss-born English novelist, nonfiction and short story writer, and poet.
The following entry provides an overview of King's career from 1985 through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 8 and 53.
King is an award-winning author of over forty works that include novels, novellas, short story collections, nonfiction, and poetry. Known primarily for his fiction, King focuses more on people than events and his writing frequently includes sharp portrayals of characters finding themselves in different areas of the world. Sometimes referred to as a “dark” writer, King employs satire, humor, and perversity to explore his characters' eccentricities as well as the pain and fragility that lie beneath them.
King was born in Adelboden, Switzerland in 1923. He spent his childhood in India until age eight, when he was sent to an English boarding school. As a young man, King became a pacifist, avoiding World War II, and chose instead to work the land and study at Balliol College in Oxford. While he was at Oxford, King published three novels and various poems. In 1951, he joined the British Council, serving in Italy, Greece, Finland, Egypt, and Japan. King returned to England years later and worked as a reviewer and drama critic. He went on to hold professional positions as president and vice president of the English branch of the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN), and president of International PEN. He also cofounded the Writers' Action Group. The people and places encountered during his travels had a lasting impact on King, and his writings continually draw on his experiences as an expatriate and foreigner.
King's works include fictionalized accounts of his childhood, his life during the war years, his mother's life, his experiences in postwar Florence, his travels while employed at the British Council, and his life in Brighton after “retiring” from the council. Family relationships and sexual identity are two of the most prominent and consistent themes in his work. Several of King's early novels so openly addressed homosexuality that many critics during the 1950s refused to mention them. In fact, the homosexual subject matter in The Firewalkers (1955, reissued in 1985) forced King to find a new publisher. In this novel set in Athens, the narrator interacts with the elderly and eccentric Colonel Grecos. King uses a similar story structure in Punishments (1989), Secret Lives (1991), The One and Only (1994), Ash on an Old Man's Sleeve (1996), and Dead Letters (1997). In each work, a chance meeting between two men (often from different countries) is a catalyst for major and lasting changes in their lives. Punishments deals with the hardships encountered by Michael Gregg, who becomes enamored of German man during a student trip to Germany in 1948. In the highly praised Secret Lives, the plot centers around Sir Brian Cobean and his relationship with a Japanese boy, Osamu, who is fleeing an arranged marriage. When Sir Brian dies of AIDS, Osamu must explain to the world why he and he alone will receive Brian's estate. The One and Only examines themes of jealousy and obsession, feelings which arise when the protagonist Mervyn meets Robert, a man who is in love with Mervyn's mother. When Robert is shunned in favor of another man, he manipulates Mervyn's feeling toward his mother, who neglected him as a child. Robert and Mervyn's shared rage leads to their own sexual relationship and Mervyn eventually kills his mother. Years later, Robert writes a manuscript that details the crime extensively and Mervyn is desperate to keep it from being published. In Ash on an Old Man's Sleeve, sixty-nine-year-old Elliot Baker becomes infatuated with a wealthy, young police officer in Havana. As the two men travel through Cuba together, Baker's obsession with the officer makes him reflect on the theme of religious and sexual suppression. An Australian named Steve and an Italian aristocrat are at the center of King's Dead Letters. They meet by chance in Sicily, form a relationship, and the aristocrat becomes increasingly dependent on Steve. Abuse in Steve's past prevents him from being able to love; however, the Italian is still able to draw inspiration from him. One of King's most successful and critically praised novellas, Frozen Music (1987), is a fictional account of King's life in India. The narrator, Rupert, looks back on a trip taken with his father to India. During the trip Rupert is forced to come to terms with his mother's death and to accept the reality of a vastly changed country. The Woman Who Was God (1988) follows the path of Mrs. St. Just as she travels to Africa to investigate the disappearance of her son, presumably at the hands of a religious sect. As she searches for the truth, Mrs. St. Just becomes obsessed with reconciling her unwieldy preconceptions with what she observes firsthand. In Visiting Cards (1990) and The Ant Colony (1991), King makes clever use of location and satire. Visiting Cards is a campy, almost over-the-top narrative about Amos Kingsley, a little-known travel writer who has accidentally become president of the fictional World Association of Authors. At the Association's latest conference in Malindi, meetings are unproductive, writers are taken prisoner, wives become unfaithful, and a dwarf naval officer begs to display his exhibitionist tendencies. The Ant Colony, set in Florence, satirically explores the relationship between the worldly Iris and the frumpy Jack, while also commenting on the lives of British Institute instructors. King's autobiography, Yesterday Came Suddenly (1993) makes extensive use of reconstructed dialogues with several people, giving the book an anecdotal flavor that renders it readable and entertaining.
Although his novels are well regarded, King is primarily known for his mastery of the short fiction and novella forms. David Profumo writes that the “pressures of the shorter genre … make so incisive his descriptions of psychology and place.” Some critics find King's prose loose and overwritten. Others describe his writing style as detached, commenting that he sometimes fails to elicit reader sympathy. King admits to a pessimistic world-view, but disagrees in part with critics who call his work dark. Commenting on the darker themes in his work, King has stated that “it is a darkness illuminated (I hope) by acts of decency, generosity and valor.” King has also been faulted for implausible plotlines and for including too many characters in his work. Many of his detractors concede, however, that the King canon is rich with keen observation and deep insights into his characters' emotional lives. His blunt, straightforward prose is regarded as one of his main strengths, and critics judge his ability to portray the intricacies of human behavior as one of his most effective tools. Critic Martin Seymour-Smith asserts that King is “one of the best writers of fiction [that] England possesses.”