Francis King

Morality tales

Francis King celebrates Margaret Drabble’s distinguished career and vividly recalls their first meeting I first met a youthful Margaret Drabble when, already myself an established author, I was working at Weidenfeld and Nicolson as a literary adviser. The editorial director was an Australian woman called Barley Allison, sister of an MP, who constantly boasted of

A constant delight

With knobbly hands, shoulders bowed under the burden of arthritis, the little old woman tested the hasp of the front door and then turned to me, the last remaining guest from her tea party of that week. ‘Well, that’s someone who knows how to behave well,’ she said of the female guest who had just

Miracles of compression

In the course of a lifetime of fiction reviewing, I have come to the conclusion that, though my colleagues are prepared doggedly to persevere with the reading of a novel from its muddled opening to its inconsequential end, they will read no more than four or five stories in a collection. What always guides them

The odd couple

Some years ago now I bought from the artist Robert Buhler a pastel portrait of the composer Lennox Berkeley (reproduced above). Since I knew neither of the two men well (although in the case of each I admired the work without having an irresistible enthusiasm for it), even today people often ask me why I

The witch in the machine

If one asks Albanians who is their greatest living writer, the immediate answer is Ismail Kadare, winner of the inaugural Man Booker International Prize in 2005. But the tone of any discussion that follows is all too often grudging or even hostile. The books themselves are hugely popular, their author far less so. The reason

Why, oh why?

In my many years as a judge for the J. R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography, I have been constantly surprised by the high proportion of books that deal with the subject of adoption. It is usually a melancholy story of young people who, as their 18th birthdays approach, become obsessed with the need to meet

Not as sweet as he seemed

There are already three biographies of E. M. Forster: P. N. Furbank’s two- volume, authorised heavyweight; Nicola Beauman’s less compendious, more engaging middleweight; and my own bantamweight, little more than an extended essay. There are already three biographies of E. M. Forster: P. N. Furbank’s two- volume, authorised heavyweight; Nicola Beauman’s less compendious, more engaging

Short and sweet | 22 May 2010

This little book of limericks, some as hard and glittering as shards of mica but a few surprisingly pallid and limp, at once presents a puzzle: the real name of an author is no more likely to be Jeff Chaucer than the real name of the author of a play would be Billie Shakespeare. The

A great novelist

In a remarkable way the trajectory of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s reputation after her death in 1967 parallels that of George Meredith’s in 1909. In a remarkable way the trajectory of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s reputation after her death in 1967 parallels that of George Meredith’s in 1909. A recipient of the OM and held in awe by such

Home thoughts from abroad | 8 July 2009

The subtitle, ‘The Anglo-American Gardens of Florence’, of this engaging and elegantly produced book, is misleading. The reclusive and narcissistic chatelaine of the Villa Gamberai in the days of its glory, Princess Catherine Jeanne Keshko Ghika, was not an Anglo-American but a Romanian. Similarly, Lady Paget, indefatigable not merely as a custodian of her superb

Quite contrary

Eleven years after Jean Rhys’s death in 1979, Carole Angier published a monumental biography, a model of its kind, with 70 pages of notes and seven of bibliography. Lilian Pizzichini’s ‘portrait’ of Rhys is a book of a wholly different kind. The best way to describe it is that it bears the same relationship to

A delicate talent

When, 15 years ago, Nicola Beauman embarked on this life of ‘the other Elizabeth Taylor’, the novelist and not the film star, she had been deprived of documents that would certainly have been of tremendous use to her. These were the letters that, over a period of some three decades, Taylor wrote regularly and at

Opposites attracted

Privately printed books are now all too often castigated as ‘vanity publishing.’ But at a time when publishers pay vast advances for the ghosted memoirs of people ‘celebrated’ for kicking balls around or howling into microphones but refuse to take a minuscule financial risk on one as elegantly written and entertaining as this one, that

Culture-clash on the campus

Chicago, by Alaa al-Aswani Because I spend part of each winter in Egypt, friends from time to time ask me to recommend, not a guide, but a book that will give them the ‘feel’ of that country. Invariably my choice has been The Cairo Trilogy of Naguib Mahfouz, the only Arab writer to have won

More nattering please

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,

A Soho stalwart

Like Angus Wilson, Julian Maclaren-Ross immediately grabbed the attention of Forties reviewers and readers with a series of short stories at once ruthlessly observant and irresistibly entertaining. However, unlike Wilson, admirably self-disciplined in the organisation of a career that eventually carried him to the centre of the literary establishment, Maclaren-Ross, alcoholic and wasteful of his

Tangerine dreams

In 1926, Tessa Codrington’s maternal grandfather, Jack Sinclair, once British Resident in Zanzibar, decided to buy for his wife a house on the ‘New Mountain’ in Tangier. One of Muriel Sinclair’s many eccentricities was that she had no wish to see her grandchildren. In consequence it was not until the old woman’s death that Tessa

Deep, dark truths revealed

A few nights ago I was at a dinner party at which all those present knew each other far better than I knew them. For what seemed an interminable time their sole topic of conversation was the tempestuous relationship of a couple of whom I had never even heard. The story, in as far as

Thriving in adversity

This book takes up the story, told so memorably in his Clouds of Glory, of Bryan Magee’s early years in working-class Hoxton. In the first chapter, the now nine-year-old Magee, always precocious in his search for knowledge, is learning about the facts of life from one of his chums. Soon after, separated from his family

The subtle art of suggestion

Prematurely, John McGahern published his Collected Stories 14 years before his death early this year. To prepare this Selected Stories he obsessively polished and ruthlessly cut stories that, even as they then stood, for the most part seemed already perfect. He also added two stories, one of which, ‘The Country Funeral’, strikes me not merely