Francis King King, Francis (Vol. 8) - Essay

King, Francis (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

King, Francis 1923–

King is a British novelist, short story writer, poet, and editor. He has been writing subtle, atmospheric novels about the human condition for some years now, yet his name is hardly known outside of England. Perhaps the combination of a rather grim pessimism and a subdued, conservative writing style have mitigated his appeal. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Travellers' tales, of a modest kind, the two stories which make up Flights are evidently intended to relate to one another. The first, set in Hungary, is called "The Infection". The second, set in Greece, is called "The Cure". Both evoke a mood of insecurity, of unease with foreign ways, of helpless dependence upon airline staff, chauffeurs, interpreters and the supposed good will of unpredictable strangers. Passengers' tales, perhaps, rather than travellers'….

Plausibility and technical skill are what it is natural to admire in these stories. The author has set himself difficult tasks and succeeded: a mass of information about imagined people, real places and customs, is offered with a neat and graceful economy. But the stories can fairly be called modest, whetting curiosity rather than satisfying it. One feels that Mr King is wary of conjecture, that he describes nothing he is not pretty sure of. There is a real pleasure in following the work of a writer so firmly in command of his material.

"Tales of Travel," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers, Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 19, 1973, p. 1269.

Francis King is the sort of writer who deliberately underplays his material, letting each small incident and revelation make its own, often devastating point; and he is a master of the style appropriate to this narrative restraint. The balance and complexity of his writing, which seems simple, are constantly fresh and bracing. Of course it is never simple at all, nor is his subject matter. In the tight world of A Game of Patience, set in the Surrey countryside during the last months of the war, bombs fall, an old man dies and an old woman loses her reason, a tense CO commits two acts of terrible cruelty, a party of servicemen discordantly interrupts village life. A persistent sexual undercurrent flickers throughout. An entire network of relationships is explored and clarified with no authorial pushing or nudging, each response authentic and beautifully placed.

The exact sense of pace and touch means that King never has to violate his matter by sensationalising it. His selection of a 17-year old girl as principal foreground figure—all of the action is subtly filtered through her mind—distances the events of the book from the reader, who must fill in the chinks in her perceptions. This novel makes no easy choices and, in its cold, rather comfortless way, demands much more of the reader than its very English elegance seems to suggest. (p. 355)

Peter Straub, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), September 13, 1974.

[The Needle] goes for an info-packed intro, lobbing in a wordy image before you even know what it will refer to:

Like strangers thrown together fortuitously at the same table in an overcrowded café and determined not to be invaded by each other's indentities [sic], brother and sister breakfasted in the dark, high-ceilinged, old-fashioned kitchen above the surgery.

Even without the tiresome misprint, there's a lot to be getting on with here: time of day, location, mood, 'intriguing' personnel, and the additional worry of wondering quite why this evidently bleak and Sundayish tableau suggested an overcrowded café to Mr King's mind.

It's such an honest opening, however, that you might say the whole book is in it. Certainly the brother/sister tension stated here is the life of the narrative. Almost at once, we know that the brother, Bob, dunnit. What we want his GP sister Lorna to find out is what he dun…. [A] vaguely disgusting, semi-incestuous state of affairs sets up a whole series of sympathetic minor revulsions in the middle of the book, when Mr King dwells queasily on dog hairs, fleas, household muck, bowel trouble, a senile neighbour known as 'the grub', and Lorna's crippled partner Matty, who slurps tea and makes execrable slimy mousse.

All this suburban nausea is, of course, part of the build-up for Bob, who has to come through with something pretty sick in the way of a guilty secret to justify it. Mere queerness won't do. But guilt does finally explode into revelation (in a series of lugubrious pops); and Mr King shows a short-story writer's cunning…. The mood of the piece … swings almost right over to Bette Davis Gothic in the last pages…. [What] depresses me slightly, in the end, about books of this kind is that they drop back so snugly into the world they depict. The Needle is just the kind of book lonely women like Lorna will be reading this winter. (p. 285)

Russell Davies, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), September 5, 1975.

There has always been a dark side to Mr King's novels, somewhat contradicting the conventional view of him as one of our more placid writers; although he is no Poe, and would not want to be, he is adept at casting various forms of terror and unease within his apparently calm, collected prose. (p. 316)

[His novel, The Needle,] is no mere pot-boiler, since Mr King never dabbles in over-statement. He is also too fastidious to bother with the thoroughly modern under-statement; he is, rather, a master of the precise statement—going very well with his constant effort to keep up appearances: the appearance of his characters, of his prose, and of the neatly but tightly formed shape of his narrative. But beneath this surface, some dark fantasies swoop and glitter. The novel is invaded by images of decay. Sexual violence—aptly suggested by the title of the book—and physical decrepitude … are somehow connected in Mr King's mind, and his darting imagination is only barely kept in check by the iron discipline he imposes upon his own writing. But order and control, however self-willed, have their disadvantages.

I wish that Mr King would take a leap into the dark—the real dark: not the dark of fantasy and imagination, but the dark of language—and although he would run the risk of massive failure …, he might also in the process add to his considerable powers of observation and description. The plot of The Needle, for example, is carefully and cleverly developed but it is just a little too neat…. It is all very intriguing, very well told, very plausible, and I admire the way in which he manipulates his narrative; but, it may be that Mr King is putting his points too well, and manipulating too cleverly. The darkness within should become visible on the surface, too. (pp. 316-17)

Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), September 6, 1975.

No one could accuse Francis King of flaunting his consciousness or even of imposing a slanted attitude towards the Human Condition on his readers. His best novels—of which The Needle is certainly one—are like chamber pieces for their delicacy of tone and clarity of line, but also for their apparent lack of a conductor. The Needle has a third-person narrator, not a participant in the action, who unobtrusively sets scenes and times, moves characters from bed to bath, offers a little personal history where necessary, describes a gesture here, a facial expression there, reads the mind of a character when there is no occasion for dialogue. He combines the functions of reciter and attendant in a Japanese Noh play, moving the story along between incidents and stepping forward from time to time to rearrange the actors' costumes.

If King's London seems grey and seedy (though never apocalyptically so, as in Our Father), it is because the characters happen to live in grey and seedy circumstances rather than because King has got it in for London or contemporary society. When his heroine, a G.P. with a practice in Parson's Green, says: "That's life—a perpetual state of vague worry, or at least, that's what it is for me", the sentiment stops with her, not spilling over into the relation between writer and reader. Her partner's warning: "There'll always be mess and inefficiency in this country. More and more of it. So you'd better reconcile yourself" is belied as a counsel of despair by the speaker's own sturdy efficiency in the surgery. Belied, but not entirely cancelled, since she is physically crippled and her home is squalid. King is adept at introducing little knots of complexity like this into the clear line of his narrative. They neither impede nor advance it, but belong somehow to a separate level of the book, the observation of character.

Our unobtrusive attendant is more of a tyrant than at first appears. Though he never uses settings to convey attitudes, one begins to suspect that he loves his settings more than his characters. He certainly loves his plot best of all. The Needle sounds nasty and it is. What seems, to begin with, ordinary and sad turns twisted and sharp. The early impression of independence in the main characters is an illusion caused by not knowing them well enough and they cannot be properly understood until the plot has tightened round them. For this reason the novel's after-taste is stronger than its taste in the mouth. What one goes away with is no substitute for biography but a real sense of place and a frisson from the virtuosity of the plot. (pp. 78-9)

John Spurling, in Encounter (© 1975 by Encounter Ltd.), December, 1975.

There are alarming signs in Hard Feelings that Francis King admires his own undeniable deftness and economy rather more than is good for his writing. At the end of several stories, there is a suspicion of a faint sigh of self-satisfaction—'is there no end to the man's resourcefulness?'—which is unutterably irritating and, in fact, not always excused by the work's merit. Some of the plot devices creak with old age and over-use; sometimes the reader gets restless waiting for the smashing—and predictable—blow of dramatic irony. Mr King is capable of combining extreme flashiness with an air of sober craftsmanship in a fashion reminiscent of Annigoni.

None of which denies that there is much to admire in Hard Feelings. Mr King has an appallingly accurate ear, eye and nose for hypocrisy, and teeth to match. He also has a somehow unexpected capacity for tenderness towards his characters, when he can break clear of his deep rooted contempt for their failure to see their situation as clearly as he does himself. In stories like 'A Nice Way to Go' or 'The Brothers', he tempers justice with mercy, so to speak, remembering that an author is a member of the human race, too, despite his temporary advantage of omnipotence. (p. 22)

Nick Totton, in The Spectator (© 1976 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), October 2, 1976.