Books: British, witty and smart? So she can't be serious - Several Deceptions by Jane Stevenson Jonathan Cape, pounds 15.99, 263pp

Jonathan Keates gives an ovation to a show of shameless sophistication
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
SUCH IS the state of things in Britain on the vigil of the millennium that a writer like Jane Stevenson runs an immediate risk of being accused of that most unpatriotic vice, pretentiousness. The term, in British culture- speak, means being able to construct syntactically varied sentences containing more than one subordinate clause, showing some knowledge of foreign countries and their languages, and not writing as if you genuinely believed that the summit of all past literary invention had been achieved in the works of Raymond Chandler. In a society where only football and rock music are taken seriously and everything else is condemned as "showing off", Jane Stevenson is a dedicated exhibitionist. She has been everywhere, read everything and is damned if she's going to conceal it to satisfy prissy egalitarianism or indolent incuriosity.

Cosmopolitan knowingness binds together the four stories making up Several Deceptions. In "The Colonel and Judy O'Grady", for example, the heroine is an Irish woman who becomes a nun in a Himalayan lamasery next door to a hill station populated mainly by British leftovers from the Raj, and her experiences are largely narrated to, or by, a Scottish lesbian in Edinburgh. "Law and Order", a chilling study of symbiosis between twins, takes place in Leyden and the text is strewn with appropriately authentic snatches of Dutch. Even in the final tale, "Crossing The Water", a deliberately old- fashioned caper whose Englishness appears almost overdone, as though in compensation for the rest, Alfred Brendel playing Mozart, Italian palazzi and fromage blanche all somehow get in on the act.

There's a tendency among the more high-minded species of fiction reviewer to refer to works like these as "performances". The word implies that you think the writer can't possibly be serious, both because of the techniques of mimicry and impersonation involved, and for the accretions of circumstantial detail. The more authors allow us to perceive how much they know about their chosen worlds, the less likely they are, so conventional wisdom declares, to be sincere.

A story such as Stevenson's first, "The Island of The Day Before Yesterday", falls an easy prey to such banal accusations. It is ostensibly the most elaborate of performances, since the writer is adopting a persona: that of Simone, a smug, Anglo-Italian semiotics professor, who uses Dora, the drab secretary engaged in sorting through his dead father's archive, in order to conduct a somewhat callous experiment intended to prove that history and biography are essentially forms of fiction.

Our latterday Frankenstein overeggs the pudding, as professors will. Dreary Dora, besides being given the requisite Harvey Nichols makeover which will bring her new-made character more vibrantly to life, is encouraged to parade her bogus memories of early 1960s literary London for the benefit of a gushing feature-writer, after which things get grotesquely out control.

As this now unstoppable monster turns the tables on her creator, we realise that what is being punished here is not the professor's thoughtless-academic wheeze itself so much as the vulgar, bobble-fringed, dralon-velvet preciosity of his personal style, in which a letter has to be "a missive", a house must become "a commodious villa", and behaviour is not allowed to be merely unsuitable if it has the chance of being "incongruent" instead.

Now and then Stevenson's pleasure in assuming fictional disguises trips her up. Judy O'Grady's Colonel, for instance, is made to talk in a manner so wearily parodic of music-hall galloping majors from Poona and Rawalpindi that we can only suppose the mode itself was meant as a pointer to the tale's twist, turning on the amazing reality cloaked by the old buffer's carefully engineered charade.

Even if we feel her grip faltering slightly here, what continuously sustains this and the other stories is an unfashionable concept of serious fiction as entertainment, an art in which the process is as enjoyable as the effects it is designed to produce.

Yes, Stevenson performs, she preens, she pranks, she pretends but - goodness - with what a robust elegance she does it! So ditch the inverted snobbery, stop worrying that she knows more than you do or that neither Manchester United nor Blur gets a look in on these pages, and relish the neat professionalism of a smart new act.

Jonathan Keates's new novel `Smile Please' will be published early next year