BOOK REVIEW / Costs a packet in taxi fares: 'Yesterday Came Suddenly' - Francis King: Constable, 16.99

THE fragments of Francis King's life already lie scattered around the two dozen or so novels written since To The Dark Tower, first published nearly half a century ago when the author was a precocious 22. It is impossible to read A Domestic Animal, for example, his claustrophobic novel about a doomed homosexual love affair, without deducing that its basis lies in fact rather than fancy. The Action, a terse account of a novelist enmeshed in a libel suit, peddles a similar message: no one could doubt that someone once took bitter exception to a novel King had written, bit him good and hard, and that King didn't like it.

One of the more mundane satisfactions of Yesterday Came Suddenly, at any rate to anyone who is at all familiar with King's novels, is the proof of their anchorage in the occasionally stormy waters of the author's own career. The inamorato of A Domestic Animal, it turns out, was an Italian philosophy don named Giorgio. The Action, it transpires, is a devious account of King's legal drubbing at the hands of a ludicrous former Labour MP named Tom SkeffingtonLodge. This tendency is pervasive - even minor characters from short stories will suddenly declare themselves by means of a catchphrase or an intonation. The result avoids the snares of the life-into-art concordance but the effect - amid a large amount of socialising and a fair amount of sex - is to remind you that this is in the last resort a literary life. An industrious and far from Olympian one, too.

He has never been a fashionable or particularly successful writer. Even now, despite a minor renaissance under the wing of the Gay Classics lobby, there cannot be more than half a dozen of his books in print. This is a pity, as his Fifties and Sixties fiction, novels such as The Widow and The Custom House, are brilliant evocations of post-war English (or in the latter case, Japanese) life: low-key, ironic, forever clawing away at badly concealed psychological scars. Many a critic has commented on the air of fastidiousness that rises from the average King novel - the sort of books in which the lavatory is always unflushed and the sheets always stained - and the spinsterish hypersensitivity over illness or minor inconvenience. Again, autobiography exposes the roots of these obsessions. Brought up in India, King spent his early childhood trailing round expensive foreign sanatoria, watching his father die by inches from TB. Sent back to England as a 'remittance child', he passed his days in the care of relatives who enjoyed working out exactly how much he cost them in taxi fares. But King did not repine. Public school and Oxford showed him that he had the glimmerings of a talent, and two years spent as a conscientious objector working on the land (which must have taken courage) gave him the chance to exploit it.

Trapped by the chill post-war embrace of the Attlee regime, King found a saviour in the British Council, who allowed him to write his novels while pursuing undemanding desk jobs in places like Florence, Athens and Kyoto. When the routine became too burdensome - though the evidence suggests that the chief drawback was vainglorious superiors - he retired to England, the freelance literary life and its traditional cargo of sweats and anxieties. Inevitably, much of Yesterday Came Suddenly is slightly old-fashioned literary reminiscence, memories of a rather fade group of writers including Ivy Compton-Burnett, Angus Wilson, L P Hartley and Olivia Manning, large numbers of whom seem to have marked these friendships by appointing King as their litetary executor. In fact, judging by the trouble he seems to have expended in clearing up J R Ackerley's affairs, much of his later life must have been taken up in interviewing solicitors.

King is scrupulously fair to these old friends - Ivy ComptonBurnett mouldering in her flat, Ackerley and his wretched dog - but not above injecting a shrewd note of asperity. This is an unassuming memoir, modest about its subject's achievements, both literary and administrative (he was an effective president of International PEN), but never bland: the sections in which he describes the death of his adored mother (from old age) or his lover (from Aids) are characteristically unsparing. Beyond, the tense, neurotic world of his fiction stretches out to meet the silent darkness.

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