Cold Snap, By Francis King

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The Independent Culture

The cold snap that provides the title for Francis King's latest novel and 50th book is the terrible winter of 1946-47. It seemed to those facing it wearied by six years of war, like King's protagonists, a palpable symbol of the cheerless yet exacting world now theirs. And in retrospect its pitiless obduracy made it a fitting prelude to the Cold War.

Yet in 1946 King himself (born 1923) had something to feel extremely pleased about: the publication, while still an Oxford undergraduate, of his first novel, To the Dark Tower. Its attentive depiction of emotional states makes it highly characteristic of its author, who, ten years later, identified sufficiently with the young writer in it, Frank Cauldwell, to use that name as a pseudonym for a novel he feared offensive, The Firewalkers (1956).

Novels by King appeared in 1947 and 1948, though he sees his literary career as truly taking off with The Dividing Stream (1951). Set in Florence, it opens up layer after layer of hopes and despairs, in a post-war society uncertain of its identity and needing a novelist's restorative powers of archaeology.

Introducing a reprint of his 1948 novel, An Air that Kills, King painted a vivid picture of himself as a young writer: the product of a childhood in the India of the Raj, and then of exile from it into boarding schools and surrogate families. King's critical awareness of the tensions within English society probably derives from having been a sensitive outsider. This, in turn, made him a determined explorer of other societies and ethnic groups: the Japanese in The Custom House (1961), the Germans in Cold Snap.

Such insights have been compounded by King's understanding of his own homosexuality which, ever more openly, has been a disseminating presence in his fiction. King cites his two greatest literary influences as Forrest Reid, the Ulster novelist of quiet lives and homoerotic feelings, and Somerset Maugham, connoisseur of the exotic and popular spellbinder. King often exhibits - in the same book - both his mentors' attributes.

His Reid-like evocation of trapped existences is at its acutest in A Domestic Animal (1970), with its narrator's slow-burning obsession with a handsome Italian lodger. But, in his later years particularly, King has also partaken - in Act of Darkness (1983) and in the unputdownable The Woman Who Was God (1988), with their narrative thrust and deft creation of mysteries - of the bestseller genres which Maugham commanded.

Cold Snap began, says its author, as a companion-piece to what I believe his single finest work, Punishments (1989), in which an English medical student visits war-devastated Germany in 1948 and is forced, by a young student to whom he is sexually drawn, to acknowledge what his fellow British did to the country. In Cold Snap, the situation is the other way about. In wintry Oxford, Michael, a young don at Balliol, and his cousin Christine, now an undergraduate after wartime intelligence work, do their best to establish relations with German POWs from a camp on the outskirts of the city. They have to work not to see those they befriend as guilty men.

For the Forsterian Michael, his very attempts to connect constitute a self-challenge: "The whole trouble with me is that I've always been so soft... All my life I've been desperately careful not to offend people, tread on their corns... do anything that might seem the least odd or immoral."

Michael's dedication to the mortally ill Klaus defies, undoes, the smoothness of his life. Christine has a very different temperament; nor is she circumscribed by an academic position. When she falls for Thomas, formerly a schoolmaster who pined to be a composer, and realises that he reciprocates her feelings, she cannot accept the difficulties that lie in the way of union. She determines to overcome them.

Yet, true to the essence of King's art of 60 years, it is the image of Michael, who achieves an appropriately modest apotheosis, that lingers in the mind. Nearing old age, he unexpectedly declares in public: "Isn't that the most important thing in life – to be happy, to make others happy?"