23 DECEMBER 1972, Page 18

Quips from the computer age

Douglas Dunn

Nobody's Business Penelope Gilliatt (Secker and Warburg £1.95) New Queens for Old Gabriel Fielding (Hutchinson £2.00) The Story of a Non-Marrying Man Doris Lessing (Cape £1.95) Penelope Gilliatt is a member of one of the most enviable cliques of 20th-century writing — an ornament of the New Yorker,. for which paper she writes film reviews half the year, and short stories the other half. She avoids the excessive Manhattan courtesy which these circumstances probably imply to many people. Damaging insights into contemporary society manage to live alongside intelligent fun in her stories. She disturbs more often than she amuses; there is always complication, or turbulence, lying just beneath the surface. However, the edge has been blunted on her fine new collection' — four of the nine stories have already appeared in Penguin Modern Stories, and the entire collection has been printed in the New Yorker.

Nobodyos Business is more assured than her previous collection, What's It Like Out? The titles of her books themselves give some idea of her pert, vivacious approach to writing, a cheeky kind of interest that favours eccentrics, a traditional, urbane middle-class leisure in which anything can happen. One of the characters in Frank ' is a robot, controlled by a British scientist in America whose four-year-old daughter Aston is much like the worldly-trendy children of her screenplay Sunday Bloody Sunday (" Your mother sends her love." "Where is it? ").

An Antique Love Story' (again about British people in America) has the advantage over ' Frank ' on the same theme of the mechanization of loneliness in America. Gilliatt's way of seeing things would have been taken as, science fiction twenty years ago; in these two stories and in her manacing little play ' Property,' she appears as a tragi-comedian of the Computer Age. In 'An Antique Love Story' there is a child, Izolska, whose education in the New Math is programmed through a computer, the lesson delivered by telephone.

Other stories are just as menacing; there is a powerful sense of listlessness, of disrespect of machines for people and of people for other people. 'Staying in Bed' shows what happens when one part of a musical partnership refuses to cooperate; 'Foreigners' is about a "great atheist economist" of mixed parentage, whose family is seen to be as alien to him as he is to them in the context of the story's ethic — the tension between 'doing what you want' and ' making money.' Gilliatt can also evoke unsentimental pathos, as in 'The Last to Go ' where an idealist of the Old Left is seen losing his grip, or in 'The Position of the Planets' about a broken, penurious and pathetic impresario. An unscrupulous, impertinent interview of two aging celebrities is the subject of ' Nobody's Business.' A similar occasion was used in an older story (' What's It Like Out? '), but in a book so wonderfully unified by contemporary themes, a biting dramatisation of how so many people feel they have a right to know the private lives of the famous is forgivable, even if Gilliatt seems to' be repeating herself. Her style is sharp and fast, full of quips and memorable turns of phrase.

Gabriel Fielding's stories are more like the residue of novels falsely started than the products of a genuine career as a short story writer. He has written almost as many novels in the twenty years from which his collection is gathered as stories. Several obsessions recur constantly. In A Daughter of the Germans' a swimming race is, as a test of masculine superiority, a central event; a swimming race is mentioned in the title novella, also as just such a test; ' Bravery,' a story of childhood, is about getting the better of contemporaries, and a ducking is one of its episodes; and in one of the satirically fluent ' Kentish Triptych ' stories there is another near-drowning. One feels inclined to recommend this book "for all gardeners everywhere ": a rose is never a rose but Karl Druski or Madame Pierre Oger.

When Mr Fielding builds up a character in order to destroy him with malicious glee he can be incomparably amusing. Society in its upper reaches which most of his characters move in or aspire toward, is a perfect foil for the sparkle and elegance of his writing, gently prodding its way through subtle mannerisms and intuitive expectations of caste. In The Dear Demesne' and 'Kentish Triptych' he shows that he has an acute ear for the nonsense of contemporary plebeian vernacular. 'New Queens for Old' is a squalid mélange of millionaire's boredom, homosexuality, lust in Egyptian tombs, ears sliced off, bullets in the head, and is so finely written that elegance transports the story into the shallows of decadence. There is a sinister joy in Fielding's stories that's hard, to pin down. Most of them lack the sympathy that would make them convincing. The exception is 'A Daughter of the Germans ' in which the hero is, appropriately enough, called Gabriel.

Doris Lessing is like Fielding in being better known as a novelist. She is alsb a gardener. There are three stories about parks and gardens. More earnest and serious than either Gilliatt or Fielding, her range is also wider, less limited to high society, or the middle classes whose sensitivity to newness in human relationships makes them easy sport for satire or pathos. Like Gillatt, she has an obvious affection for the possibilities of short stories. She writes with an ambition that is appropriate to the current health of the form. In 'An Old Woman and Her Cat' a seventy-year-old widow is evicted from her home, wanders the streets, sleeps out in derelict slums, and dies of cold and malnutrition. The easy casualness of her narrative makes this a chilling experience to read. She also writes about actresses, love, married couples, and politics at home and in Africa. 'Report on the Threatened City' is written by benevolent visitors

from another planet whose mission is to warn a Californian city of impending natural disaster.

Best of all, however, is the title story, ingeniously plotting the career of a legendary South African bigamist, and 'Out of the Fountain,' a timeless, beautifully composed parable about a pearl, the luck of those involved with it: a classic theme written with a marvellous, relaxed storyteller's skill.

Lessing's way of writing is to find the properly scrupulous point of view, an honesty. She avoids the ironies and superficial social prancing of Fielding. She has published three other collections of stories; her reputation as one of the finest of living writers should rest on this achievement as much as such highly praised novels as The Golden Notebook.