Francis King: Novelist and man of letters who specialised in depicting people thrown together but longing to break free

"I have often said that I am never happier than when I am writing," runs the final paragraph of Francis King's autobiography, Yesterday Came Suddenly (1993). "But it might have been better for me and for those close to me if it had not been so." Here King, ever sensitive to what he perceived as his own shortcomings, was doing himself an injustice. A prolific and accomplished novelist, whose output in his 1970s and '80s heyday ran to a book a year, he was also a gregarious man, devoted to his friends and prepared to travel enormous distances – sometimes literally – on their behalf. In a career that extended into its seventh decade, he wrote at least half a dozen novels that deserve a place in the late 20th-century canon.

King was born in 1923 in Adelboden, Switzerland, where his tubercular father, a senior officer in the Indian Police, had gone for treatment at a sanatorium. In later life, he would remember the taste of salt – a symptom of the disease – on his father's forehead as he bent to kiss him goodnight. His early years were spent in India – an "earthly paradise" according to his memoirs, but with a distinct undercurrent of violence: at one point King's father was near-fatally poisoned by his cook; an uncle was later murdered by a vengeful sepoy. Act of Darkness (1983), one of his best novels, draws on these early memories. Sent back to prep school in England, he became a remittance child, farmed out (together with his three sisters) on a succession of relatives. His status as a piece of human supercargo was confirmed by his Aunt Hetty's computation of taxi fares: "four shillings for us and sixpence for Francis." A realist in family matters, King claimed not to resent this.

The news of his father's death was brought to him during his first term at Shrewsbury. By his own admission, this affected him less than his mother's return to England to make a home for her children. A "priggish, prudish, conceited boy", he was ferociously bright, won a Classics scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford – he later changed to English Literature – and published his first novel, To the Dark Tower (1946), while still an undergraduate. Much of the writing was done at a farm in Essex where, as a conscientious objector, he had gone to work on the land. Here the unwelcome attentions of the local female talent prompted much soul-searching about his sexuality. Finally, on holiday in Venice two years after the war's end, he allowed himself to be seduced by a gondolier.

Although the firm of Home & Van Thal, who had brought out three of his novels, went bankrupt before it could publish his study of the Brownings – the excuse for his Italian trip – King's star continued to rise. He struck up a friendship with JR Ackerley, who invited him to review books for The Listener, while the observational powers that distinguished his fiction were noted by Dylan Thomas. "He has eyes and ears in his bloody arse," Thomas suggested, after an evening spent in King's company.

Taken on to the staff of the British Council, he spent the next two decades combining the writing of a stream of well-received novels with the life of a cultural haute fonctionnaire, lecturing at local universities and institutes and acting as factotum to a succession of visiting British dignitaries. These postings took him to Italy, Greece, Finland, Egypt (where, arriving during the Suez crisis, he was briefly placed under house arrest) and Japan. Though prepared to make the best of any destination wished upon him by the authorities in London, King felt a special affinity for Japan, believing that he had achieved an understanding of the national psyche denied to most western visitors. Certainly, the experience produced three of his best books: The Custom House (1961), The Waves Behind the Boat (1965) and a collection of short stories, The Japanese Umbrella (1964).

Like the rest of his compendious oeuvre, King's early work was marked by an extreme sensitivity to minor personal inconvenience. As one critic put it, the character in his fiction who enters an unfamiliar lavatory is almost certain to find something nasty lurking in the toilet bowl. It also fairly seethes with nervous tension. As the early stories collected in a much later selected volume, One is a Wanderer (1985), demonstrate, King specialises in people thrown into each other's company by family ties or long association who do not much like each other and strain for the opportunity to assert their own independence. Highlights from this early period include The Man on the Rock, a bitter study of accidie, and The Widow (both 1957), a shrewd and affectionate portrait – the model was his mother – of a middle-aged woman coming to terms with the privations of post-war England.

Hindsight renders the homosexual themes of his early books more deliberate than they may have seemed at the time. King later acknowledged that in the pre-Wolfenden days he described gay relationships in a carefully occluded code, decipherable by anyone who knew of his sexual orientation.

In 1966 he resigned from the British Council and returned to England to devote himself to his writing. To supplement his income – never large – he took freelance jobs, working as literary adviser to Weidenfeld & Nicolson and contributing book reviews to The Sunday Telegraph; he later graduated to the post of theatre critic. He was a generous if occasionally feline reviewer, remarking once of a work by Kingsley Amis: "Not many people could write a better comic novel than Jake's Thing, but Mr Amis is one of them."

He also, aided by his friend and benefactor, the novelist CHB Kitchin, bought a house in Brighton and set up as a landlord, renting rooms to language students and visitors to the local university. This provided the background to his novel A Domestic Animal (1968), which contains a thinly-disguised account of his affair with an Italian economist, Giorgio Balloni.

Unfortunately, the book – one of his best – involved him in a bruising libel case. One of King's acquaintances in Brighton was the former Labour MP Tom Skeffington-Lodge. A vainglorious man, convinced that his brief time in the House should be marked by a peerage, Skeffington-Lodge had written to senior figures in the Labour Party urging them to intervene on his behalf. The one-line reply he received from Lord Attlee, expressing the hope that he would "get what he deserved", Skeffington-Lodge took at face value and read aloud at a dinner party at which King was present. All this King put verbatim into A Domestic Animal, taking the precaution of disguising his original as a female character named "Dame Winifred Harcourt". By chance Skeffington-Lodge, thought never to have read a book in his life, picked up a proof copy at the house of a mutual friend, was outraged and threatened legal action. Withdrawn, rewritten and eventually re-issued, the novel was, King believed, denied the reception it merited. Ten years later he used the situation in which he had found himself as the basis for a second novel, The Action, which narrowly missed the 1978 Booker shortlist.

In later life King lived in Kensington, surrounding himself with friends, most though by no means all of whom were drawn from the literary world he inhabited. He had a taste for what he called "difficult women", and enjoyed the confidence of Ivy Compton-Burnett (of whom he left a memorable portrait), Olivia Manning, Sonia Orwell and Jean Rhys. Efficient, courteous and anxious to do his best by his friends, he was in demand as a literary executor, performing this service for Ackerley and Kitchin, among others, and occasional ghostwriter. Both LP Hartley's novel Poor Clare (1968) and the second volume of the journalist Godfrey Winn's memoirs benefited from King's attentions. "It is not often that, in his fifties, a writer can drastically improve his style" one reviewer noted of the Winn opus, somewhat to the nominal author's annoyance. This solicitousness extended to the literary community as a whole. In the 1970s, together with his friends Brigid Brophy and Maureen Duffy, he was a founder member of the Writers Action Group which agitated for Public Lending Rights. Later he was a notable chairman of International PEN.

In certain respects, King's later years were not easy. His novels, as he often pointed out, were well reviewed but sold modestly. The relative commercial success of Act of Darkness was a welcome boost, but by the late 1980s this impetus had diminished, and there were several changes of publisher. His personal life, too, was in disarray. David Atkin, his long-term companion, died of Aids in 1988, and in the same year King survived an operation for cancer. Meanwhile, his mother, to whom he was devoted, had reached her late nineties: she was to die at the age of 102. Typically, these concerns had no obvious effect on his output. He was as industrious in his seventies as in his twenties, producing a series of novels that, if anything, got better as he got older. The Nick of Time, which covers the plight of an asylum-seeker, made the 2003 Man Booker longlist.

Nattily dressed and greatly at his ease, King continued to charm festival audiences into his mid-eighties, often with his friend Beryl Bainbridge. There was a memorable performance at the 2008 King's Lynn Fiction Festival, at which he discussed his sex life before an audience of admiring north Norfolk bourgeoisie. By the time of his death the literary category in which he reposed was all but extinct – the old-fashioned Man of Letters who relies on his pen and whose position grows ever more precarious with each new lurch in book-trade economics. But few 20th-century British writers have filled this vanishing niche with such indefatigability or distinction.

Francis Henry King, writer: born Adelboden, Switzerland 4 March 1923; OBE 1979, CBE 1985; died 3 July 2011.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketers / Sales - Home Based - OTE £23,500

£19500 - £23500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced B2B Telemarketer wa...

Recruitment Genius: Showroom Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This global company are looking for two Showro...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This publishing company based i...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor