There are writers so prolific that one wants to shout, ‘Oh, do give it a rest!’ There are others so costive that one wants to shout, ‘Oh, do get a move on!’ It is into the second of these categories that Francis Wyndham falls. This 403-page volume contains all the fiction, three books in total, that he has produced in more than half a century. It is sad that there has not been far more.
The first book is a collection, Out of the War, published in 1974, but originally written during the second world war, when the still teenage author had been invalided out of the army with TB. It is amazing that he should have produced stories so accomplished at so early an age. ‘They seemed to have been written by someone else’, he remarked on their exhumation. One sees what he meant. In their recording of the bored, unsatisfied lives of a succession of girls in a dreary provincial town, they are totally unlike their two successors.
One of these girls, working in a café, finds that someone has forgetfully left behind a copy of A Tale of Two Cities. She discovers a name and address written inside the book and, mistakenly assuming these to belong to a customer with ‘a distinguished foreign air about him’ whom she recently served, she posts it back. An increasingly intimate correspondence then ensues, until the two arrange a meeting, at which, to her horror, she finds that the real owner is so unappealing that she rejects him out of hand. In another story a girl takes up with a handsome actor at the local rep, only to realise that he is exploiting her as a cover for his gay life.
The world, largely well-heeled, sophisticated and posh, of the other two books is totally different. All too soon one reaches the conclusion that what one is reading is fictionalised autobiography. The problem with this genre is that real events, with their haphazard conjunctions and loose ends, rather than literary artistry, tend to shape the narrative. It is as if the author were presenting one with one marvellous photograph after another from a huge pile. A figure seen in minute detail at the centre of one of these photographs is relegated to the shadowy periphery of the next, in which another figure now hogs the foreground. Some figures, having been delineated with extreme care and skill, then disappear, never to return.
In the novel, The Other Garden, the main story, holding together subsidiary stories that are often little more than piquant anecdotes, is impressive in its handling of the relationship between the self-possessed narrator and the intellectually and emotionally clumsy older woman whom he befriends out of a combination of authorial curiosity and pity. This is Wyndham at his considerable best.
The creation of this world in which non-combatants get on with their lives as though the war raging around them were no more than the sometimes distracting or irritating sound of a news bulletin emanating, barely audible, from a wireless in a next-door room, is utterly convincing. So too is dialogue so unfaltering in its sense of period that I eventually began to wonder if these two books might not, like the first, have existed, at least in draft, long before they were published.
When the narrator is in a sanatorium a diseuse arrives to perform for the patients a monologue entitled ‘Just Nattering’. As Wyndham yet again wanders off on some sidetrack, his just nattering may well exasperate some readers. But since whatever he writes is always so elegant, entertaining and instructive, I myself have no complaint whatever.