When Francis King returned to Oxford at the age of 24 in order to resume an education interrupted by the second world war, he had already published two novels. ‘Eager to publish more’, he decided to switch from Classics to what he saw as the easier option of English so as to leave more time for his writing. And publish more he did, with a bibliography that eventually ran to over 50 items, comprising not only novels and volumes of short stories, but poems, plays for radio and several distinguished works of non-fiction. He had an equally prolific career in literary journalism, which started during the war when J.R. Ackerley recruited him to review first poetry and then fiction for the Listener. He went on to become a long-serving contributor to a wide variety of publications, including this one. In addition, he worked tirelessly on behalf of his fellow writers, campaigning for PLR as a founder member of the Writers’ Action Group, and serving on the committees of numerous organisations, most notably as President of both English and International PEN.
Although Francis was an enormously convivial host, with a vast circle of friends, he was at his happiest when working. An early riser, even on holiday, he would be at his desk long before the rest of us were stirring from sleep, and was inclined to pre-empt rather than merely meet any deadline he had been given. He remained a consummate professional to the end: two weeks ago, aged 88, seriously ill and with little hope of recovery, he insisted from his hospital bed on getting messages to editors apologising that he would be unable to file copy.
In what now seems like a portent of his peripatetic life, Francis was born in a hotel in Switzerland. He spent his early childhood in India, but like most children of the Raj was sent to England for his education. After graduating, he worked for the British Council in Florence, Salonika, Athens, Alexandria, Helsinki and Kyoto and remained an inveterate traveller well into his eighties. There can be few writers whose fiction is set in so many different countries, many of them explored while attending conferences on behalf of PEN, an organisation he loved but which he amusingly satirised in such novels as Visiting Cards (1990).
Indeed, his fiction often, and sometimes recklessly, drew upon his own experiences or on those of people he knew. The Firewalkers (1956), a riotously funny novel which he later admitted was ‘all too clearly a roman à clef’ based on his time with the British Council in Greece, had to be published under a pseudonym. The original of that novel’s Colonel Grecos boasted about being ‘immortalised in a book’, but Tom Skeffington-Lodge, the former Member for Bedford, took a rather different view when he appeared as Dame Winifred Harcourt in A Domestic Animal (1970). Threatened with an injunction, the publisher withdrew the novel and Francis had to rewrite it, losing a great deal of money in the process. Francis typically put this disaster to good use in The Action (1978), in which a tiresome woman imagines she has been portrayed in a novel as a man. His rate of production slowed a little in his eighties, but many people consider his late novels, such as The Nick of Time (2003) and Cold Snap (2010), among his finest.
Both as a writer and a raconteur, Francis was fascinated by the less admirable aspects of human nature and was a brilliant analyst of emotional manipulation, self-deception and treachery. This found its best expression in his short stories, which are perhaps his finest achievement, winning him the Katherine Mansfield Prize, and in his compelling novel Act of Darkness (1983), in which the famous mid-Victorian Constance Kent murder mystery is relocated to 1930s India. Asked to read from this book at a literary event with a large number of elderly women in the audience, Francis characteristically selected the passage in which (with his fine attention to physical detail) he described the body of a small child with its throat cut being hauled out of a servant’s privy. He had a distinctly mischievous streak and delighted in challenging conventional pieties, writing unapologetically (and often unflatteringly) about homosexual relationships from the outset of his career, and even turning his hand to erotica in the 18th-century pastiche Danny Hill: Memoirs of a Prominent Gentleman (1977).
He had no religious faith and admitted that his fiction often displayed a bleak vision of the world, but added ‘it is a darkness illuminated (I hope) by acts of decency, generosity and valour’. These were qualities Francis possessed in abundance. In spite of the huge workload he took upon himself, he never had much money, and he rarely complained about his often prolonged bouts of ill health. He encouraged innumerable younger writers, propped up (both morally and financially) many older ones, and — often under severe provocation, but with a beady writer’s eye to human failings — remained loyal to people otherwise and less charitably written off as lost causes.
He seemed to know everyone, and his death severs a personal link to a whole generation of often neglected writers, including L.P. Hartley (whose 1968 novel Poor Clare he had been obliged to rewrite from assorted drunkenly composed drafts), Olivia Manning, Ivy Compton-Burnett, William Plomer, Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Liddell and C.H.B. Kitchin, all of whom he wrote about in his highly entertaining and indiscreet 1993 autobiography Yesterday Came Suddenly.
The last essay by Francis King is in AfterWord: Conjuring the Literary Dead (University of Iowa Press, £17.50). Each contributor was asked to choose a deceased literary figure and imagine a conversation with them. King chose Oscar Wilde and began:
If Lewis Carroll’s Alice were alive to comment on my life of now 87 years, she might well summarise it: ‘Curiouser and curiouser!’ By that she would not mean that it had become odder and odder — though certainly there has been much oddness in it — but rather that my curiosity, rather than decreasing decade by decade as one would expect, has instead become more importunate. I am convinced that it is because of this curiosity that I have been able to survive cancer, heart disease and a stroke against all odds. I will not let myself die because I am so determined to know what will happen next.
As a novelist, it is my fate usually to be asked by literary editors to review novels. But if, instead of a novel, I am sent a biography, I seize on it with all the avidity of my cat for a fledgling bird. With luck my curiosity about some eminent figure of the past will, at least in part, be satisfied. There are three writers about whom I am more curious than any others: Shakespeare (inevitably); the Japanese Lady Murasaki, whom I regard as not merely the first but also one of the greatest of all novelists; and Oscar Wilde.
Between the first two of these and the third, there is of course a significant difference. For Shakespeare, few contemporary records exist, for Lady Murasaki, virtually none; but for Wilde there is a superfluity of documentation — biographies, newspaper cuttings, government reports, memoirs, letters written to him and by him. Yet, oddly, for me at least, Wilde remains a mystery…
During Wilde’s high summer, I should have liked to have called on him at the house, No. 16 Tite Street, in which he was living with his tragically put-upon wife Constance and the two young sons whom, as many eyewitnesses reported, he indulged and adored. I used occasionally to visit this house in the 1960s and 1970s, and my chief impression was of gloom, both physical and psychological …. Were I now to be granted my wish to enter that same house during the period when the Wildes were in occupation, it would look entirely different. My bright, youthful eyes and not my bleary, ancient
ones would be darting hither and thither, since it would be as a young man, intelligent, cultivated, and — yes, let me be immodest!— handsome that I would have chosen to visit the great author, since I knew that in that role I’d be better able to win his confidence and so to extract from him some answers to my prying. Were I to enter as the wrinkled and almost bald man that I am now, I should certainly be far less successful at realising my aim.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 16, 2011Tags: Francis king