Gide wrote to Simenon: ‘You are living on a false reputation — just like Baudelaire and Chopin. … You are much more important than is commonly supposed.’ Something of the kind could, I feel, be said about Francis King (1923–2011), who was prolific, like Simenon (his last book, Cold Snap published in 2009 was his 50th), an active, sociable member of the British literary community, conservative but beguilingly tolerant, and an internationally respected professional.
But now that Macmillan Bello have reissued 24 titles from his large output, of commendably equal artistic quality, we are better placed to appreciate just how unflinchingly penetrative was the gaze he turned on individuals and societies and how unusually daring his imaginative scope. Always firmly constructed and lucidly, flexibly written, his novels regularly confront distress and violence, often in their ugliest forms. In them, passions fight hard, even viciously, for assertion, but also go cruelly under, back beneath the suffocating blankets of conventional life. But they may well re-emerge, dangerously transmogrified.
All this is abundantly apparent in King’s first book, To the Dark Tower (1946), written when he was a 22-year-old Oxford undergraduate. Its certainty and ingenuity of structure, presentation and analysis are dauntingly impressive. General Sir Hugh Weir, soldier, explorer, writer, lives in august isolation above Dartmouth Bay, by a spartan code that already has (literally) killed his son and now represses his young daughter, Judith. But Judith’s teacher, Shirley, entertains a desperate fixation on him, her only desideratum being a meeting ending in loving union.
At the end of the novel a disappointed Shirley writes to Hugh:
I have no thoughts of the future. I do not know what will become of you. I see you still as a superman, the embodiment of my own and perhaps this country’s destiny…if you will only awake to your power.
By this point readers have realised that the tangled, unhappy life-stories — the novel’s longest section is entitled ‘Labyrinths’ — amount to a paradigm of England trembling before the inevitability of 1939. Yet they have also seen how each character — Shirley is an uncannily observant portrait of an insecure woman trapped in social obscurity — is the victim of unique psychic demands.
King’s fourth novel, The Dividing Stream (1951), established a recurrent pattern in his oeuvre, increasing his readership and critical reception: the English, inquisitive, confident yet also bemused, abroad, in this case in Florence where King worked for the British Council. An obvious comparison here is with E.M. Forster, yet characteristically (as we can now see) King never presents his foreigners as offering some saving corrective. His Florentines, suffering palpably from the depredations of the war and its long, penurious aftermath, are as shot through with doubts and ambivalences as the English and Americans. King was a highly regarded employee of the British Council for 15 years; his period with them in Japan produced, among other fiction, a novel that King himself rated as one of his best, The Custom House, which employs an ample, well-populated canvas.
Perhaps his childhood experience of India and consequent separation from his loved family — both of which appear in his second novel, Never Again (1948) — equipped him peculiarly well to deal with individuals at a tangent to the culture around them. As did his homosexuality, increasingly, as British publishers’ attitudes progressed, become a dominant theme in his fiction. A Domestic Animal (1970) is a first-person narration by a gay writer of his frustrated obsession with a handsome, heterosexual Italian academic. Its self-lacerating honesty earned King many readers’ gratitude.
Increasingly, however, frankness over sex allied itself to a galvanic preoccupation with the murkier, more extreme eruptions of human emotion, and with the psychic maladies responsible. The prize-winning Act of Darkness (1983) deals with the murder of a six-year-old boy in a colonialist family in prewar India, the compulsively readable The One and Only (1994) with matricide. In both, disturbingly, same-sex consummation ties in with the vindictive infliction of death. For all their stylistic brilliance, their eerie power, they represent for me a contraction of King’s imaginative interests. We should look beyond them for the more durable writer.
King was of the generation over whose childhood lay the shadow of the first world war and whose youth involved facing the threats from Nazi/Fascist dictatorships and from the Soviet Union. And in his case one must add to these the loneliness caused by knowing his natural sexuality was a criminal offence in his own society. It is hardly surprising therefore that his greatest novels — and I believe they do have a greatness — are correlatives for this crucial national/personal experience. The Widow (1957) takes Christine Cornwell, neither particularly intelligent nor instinctually perceptive, from marriage to a high-ranking Indian civil servant to life in London, bringing up a son and daughter alone on less money than she is used to.
The novel moves through the uncertainties of the 1930s into a wartime evoked with rasping address to the senses, and into the bleakness of the late 1940s. King’s rendering of Christine’s children is nothing short of genius — daughter Gwyneth, clever, ambitious, covertly passionate, son Tim, unconscionably spoilt and expecting this treatment as his right, from early prep school years onwards a materialist snob, yet charming, winning, with his brief flashes of kindness, and both bold and brave: he becomes a fighter pilot and survives appalling injuries. The pair are profoundly interesting as themselves and yet stand for complexities of gender, class, moral values, psychological type and place in history. And in her relations to them Christine herself undergoes literary transfiguration, receiving not only our affection but our admiration.
Smaller scale but no less remarkable is A Game of Patience (1974), set in the last months of the war, and deriving from King’s experience as a conscientious objector working on a farm. Circumstances bind its characters more closely together than their natures or backgrounds would otherwise allow; here is a perfect laboratory for King’s scrutiny of the interplay of inner and convention-ruled exterior selves.
The girl at the novel’s centre, Valerie, innocent, sharp-witted, at once fearful and tough, is surely King’s most likeable creation. A pendant to these two novels is Punishments (1989), set in a Germany shattered by saturation bombing. This was the world of my own infancy, so I can vouchsafe for this fine book’s accuracy. It is this that convinces me that, at his best, Francis King is one of the English novel’s uncompromising truth-tellers.
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All the titles mentioned belong to the 24 published by Macmillan Bello as Books on Demand. Details can be found at www.panmacmillan.com/author/francisking.
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