Friday's book: Francis King, Dead Letters, Constable, pounds 16.99

Francis King, Dead Letters,

Constable, pounds 16.99

"You look as I've always imagined Prince Myshkin to look," says the Sicilian Prince of Francis King's 27th novel to the young Australian he has encountered in the rainy streets of Palermo, "except that you look so healthy. A picture of health." His reference to Dostoevsky is lost on Steve Alban, a garage-mechanic from Sydney, backpacking across Europe.

A lift has dumped him in Palermo; it's the weekend; the youth hostel will probably be full. The Prince offers him a room above the garage adjacent to his own shabby grandiose town-house; Steve accepts. The initial response of older man to younger gives us the most important truth about Steve. Like Dostoevsky's Idiot he has a deep innocence, a kindness of heart coexisting with detachment from the mess and intrigue of so much of life.

A self-styled loner, Steve is to bring pain to the Prince as he and his Swedish psychiatrist wife have him as their guest - and restorer of their prize Bugatti. But he never ceases to rejoice in Steve's good nature, so consonant with his strong, confident body.

The Prince is dying. The last of a grand family in decline, passionlessly married, he has for years suffered from accidie, his life's work inhibited: a novel of 19th-century stature reflecting our own mal de siecle. The original will be obvious: Prince Giuseppe di Lampedusa, author of The Leopard. After the Prince's death, the fruit of his years of apparent inactivity is found, delivered to the world - and acclaimed. His achievements are inextricable from Death, and its realm the subject of his novel.

But Steve belongs to life. He knows he has to break free of the Prince and Palermo. Francis King is the most subtle of psychologists, particularly with characters facing ways of life they can't understand. And his subtlety and empathy have never been so movingly revealed than in Steve.

Steve has suffered in his young life, hating his Lithuanian emigre father. He is a loner by temperament, but also by defence. The story of how he breaks through his self-imposed mould for the Prince's final crisis has a moral beauty, all the greater for its honesty.

For the Prince loves Steve, in all senses a foreigner to his emotion. It is an index of King's achievement that we never doubt that the Prince's posthumous novel is of the calibre of The Leopard. We can also see in King's oeuvre a kinship in sensibility and in artistry to Lampedusa. He has done nothing finer than Dead Letters, with its compassionate power and courageous acknowledgement of complexity.

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