22 SEPTEMBER 1961, Page 30

Master Craftsmen

The Custom House. By Francis King. (Longmans, 18s.) Perspectives. By Bernadine Bishop. (Hutchinson, 15s.) Every Advantage. By John Verney. (Collins, 16s.) The Way to the Lantern. By Audrey Erskine Lindop. (Collins, 18s.) This Bed Thy Centre. By Pamela Hansford Johnson. (Macmillan, 16s.) Tut: novels under review this week all have one thing in common: in each case the author dis- plays what is these days an unexpected and most welcome attention to craft. For once the use of social indignation to camouflage poverty of style, or of sexual outrage to blind us to patchy plot- ting, is nowhere apparent. Instead we have care- ful grammar, correct usage, a canny sense of counterpoint and sturdy yet flexible construction.

Francis King's The Custom House, while possessing all these virtues, suffers only from introducing its nodal event (a brutal murder with a dozen possible explanations) rather too late. Mr. King's story, told partly in the first person by a tired academic and partly by the omniscient novelist, concerns expatriates in Japan and their relations with the Japanese. Both Knox, the part- time narrator, and Welling, an Australian mis- sionary, are in love with Japanese girls: Knox's girl, the niece of a (nicely drawn) tycoon, is one of the new intellectual women of Japan; Welling's, in sound missionary tradition, is a whore; and in both cases there are suggestions of Sapphism. So love rides a rough road, and goes on riding it somewhat too long for my taste, until Welling's whore is murdered in cir- cumstances which implicate Welling.

Once this has happened Mr. King's novel really springs to life and the dualism of his method is brilliantly justified. For Knox tells us only what is apparent to his shrewd and scep- tical but severely limited vision; while in alter- nate chapters Mr. King opens up the wider reality of the affair, both factual and spiritual. The result is a story of suspense during which the reader, godlike, can relish several delicious ironies which must be for ever hidden from poor Knox and render entirely futile all the per- sistent efforts both of his intelligence and of his pathetic good will.

Bernadine Bishop's first novel, Perspectives, is a malicious and deftly organised study of self- deception. It is centred round a small, earnest magazine, 'Perspectives,' which purports to deal sympathetically with the problem of under- developed countries. It turns out, however, that the proprietor is financing it only to bolster up his ego in the face of literary failure and to give him an excuse for neglecting his own 'work'; that the editor, his mistress, is mainly concerned to hold together the disintegrating image of her lover; and that the assistant editor, a guilt-ridden Roman Catholic of liberal per- suasion, finds the magazine variously useful as a springboard for his ambitions, a salve for his unworthiness and a procurer for his lust—he wants Vivian, the editor's daughter. Since none

of them admits any of this, to himself least of all, it is left to Vivian to draw up the indictment' This she does with clarity and ferocity, seer ingly unaware that she herself is engaged on $ bigger project of self-deceit than anyone: jealous of a Cambridge friend's engagement, she is tle' ceiving herself into love. This exquisitely spiteful book makes no Bt• tempt to moralise. The Newnham girls are vapid' the failed writer is predatory, assorted MO,' teurs are bogus and a Labour politician'I° crooked as well as queer; but they all decei,vc themselves into getting just what they want (nt what they have deceived themselves into wa°1, ing), whereas the only two characters of ar probity disappear unapplauded into a loveless and penniless void. John Verney'S one-eyed hero, Paul Pot (01 the name have a familiar ring?), is the victim e' congenital muddle. This muddle, at first harnl,i less and even beneficent, later concentrates itsel into a small area of disastrous misconception; Every Advantage takes us from Paul's muddle, infancy, through his muddled time at one °` those Connolly/Orwell prep schools and then confronts him with the misconception afor,e,, said: he thinks he is a bastard of a particularn special kind. His burden is not eased by an il°; faithful wife, hangovers or the responsibility le a rickety publishing house. Mr. Verney, hal conjured up Paul's illusion with panache ant wit, is then equally entertaining in disposing e,A it—but finds he cannot do so without the alri of several expeditious coincidences. Althoad this is Mr. Verney's first novel, he is too goo „ and experienced a writer to allow himself 5' many 'bisques' of this kind. In any event, ho' ever, his prep school will win high marks fr°'' connoisseurs.


For the record: Audrey Erskine Lindop h -d come up with quite a funny piece of perie„ picaresque (French Revolution) in The way ti; the Lantern; it depends in the main on one 0, beat joke (Menander's in origin, but never min') which I will not spoil for you—beyond sal that it is not a good enough joke to sustain 4', pages. Pamela Hansford Johnson's first noVe" This Bed Thy Centre, which she finished at the age of twenty-two, is now republished. It is the love story, with a wealth of sexual annotation, of a suburban girl (upper-lower-middle) in the 1930s. Miss Johnson states firmly in her preface, that it was not written from 'direct experience, and thinks that 'form did much to compensate, for her lack of this. As, on the whole, it di° How nice to be good and clever.

SIMON itnyv