6 MAY 1978, Page 28

Unholy grail

Francis King

Lancelot Peter Vansittart (Peter Owen £5.95) Don 0 Jose Lopez Portillo (James Clarke £4.20)

Any novelist who concludes the last sentence of his book with a semi-colon (the sentence itself consists of a single, enigmatic word 'Grub') and who refers throughout to one of his most important personages merely as 'He', obviously has confidence both in himself and in his readers. In the case of Peter Vansittart, the confidence in himself is fully justified. Though he does not usually appear in histories of the modern English novel, though he has won no literary prizes and though his name is probably unfamiliar to the majority of the general unreading public, he is ' a writer whose singularity is matched by his strength.

Whether his confidence in his readers is equally justified, the difficulties posed by his latest novel, Lancelot, leaves me in doubt. As its title suggests, this is yet another retelling of the Arthurian story, with Lancelot himself as narrator. A Roman Briton, a member of that dwindling ascendency that lived on in its villas, supported by slaves, while the once flourishing towns decayed before the inroads of invaders, he quotes from Horace (whom he calls Q.H. Flaccus), refers more than once to Regulus (whom he always misspells Regelus) and is familiar with Latin and Greek mythology. In his sixth-century Liber Querulus, Gildas, looking back over the same period, wrote that 'The subject of my plaint is the general destruction of all things good and the general growth of all things evil throughout the land.' Mr Vansittart's Lancelot deals with the same theme.

This Lancelot is not the son of King Ban of Brittany — even though, fearful of an increasingly threatening future, it is to Brittany (Armorica) that his family, in common with many other Roman-British ones, make . their escape, without him. He is not stolen in infancy by the Lady of the Lake and it is not his adultery with Guinevere (here Gwenhever) that leads to the death of Arthur. Mr Vansittart's purpose is to strip sway, as though they were layer upon layer of wall-paper, all the fairy-tales pasted over the facts by a whole succession of romancers — the Breton conteurs, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chretien de Troyes, Layamon, Malory — to reveal the cold brickwork of truth beneath. Arthur is 'This short, dollheaded boor .. . grossly unimaginative.' As 'Dux bellorum' (the description is that of the Welsh Nennius in his Historia Brittonum), he is a cunning and daring general, but one totally devoid of the chivalry of the Arthur of legend. Daily life for this leader, his consort and his followers is as remote from Malory's Camelot as the daily life of ldi Amin and his entourage from the Court of the Roi Soleil. Platters are dirty; cups are cracked; frequently Artorius/ Arthur indulges in ceremonies of pagan magic and it is during one of them Gwenhever herself has been shaved bald for it — that Lancelot sets eyes on 'a trec. shaped crystal grail'.

This period — immediately preceded bY that described by Kipling in Puck o f Pook's Hill — was, of course, one of a disorder similar to that in many parts of present-daY Africa after the ebbing of another imperial tide. Throughout Mr Vansittart's book one is aware of parallels between life in fifth century Britain and in twentieth centurY nations such as Uganda and Zaire.

Mr Vansittart compound's this difficulty with, first, the introduction of his mYsterious 'He' — a figure who belongs both to the past and to the future, who has magical powers and whom I take to be Merlin — and, second, with a style that, despite its exuberance and freshness, is so allusive and elliPtical that one is often obliged to read a sentence or even a paragraph for a second time to confirm exactly what he is trying t° convey. He has brought great skill and resourcefulness to his evocation of this misty patch of history; but, though one never doubts that he himself knows where he is going, to follow him is not always easy.

Many years ago, the Spectator (or it maY have been its rival) set for its weeklY competition 'The least enticing invitation'. There were the inevitable summonses to a Borgia orgy CLucrezia has promised t°, bring a less heavy hand to the seasoning0, to a weekend at Elsinore (We are planning a little theatrical performance to entertain our guests') and to a stop-off at Mycaellae ('Electra seems to be recovering from the moods that followed her father's passial over'). If a similar competition were to b' held for the least enticing blurb — a blurb is' after all, a form of invitation — that for Jose Lopez Portillo's Don Q would win hands down. 'A mordant exercise in rhetorical obfuscation. .. A novel wholly without action . . . Don Q finds it difficult not s,° much to keep to the point as to reach it In the first place . . . The result is a dialectic loaded with diversions and pauses. • Unfortunately, I find it impossible ta improve on this description. The boolc abounds in exceptionally tedious passages' with Don Q going on and on about what he calls his 'lefty', but there are also, it must he admitted, occasional shafts of sunlight through the gaseous clouds, when sonic sharp aphorism or some amusing paradox, irradiates a page. It is greatly to the credit of the Mexican electorate that the author should be President of that country. The British would never forgive a politician.° work so uncompromisingly 'intellectual Ir) intention.

To get, in one week, two such zesty allegories, outstandingly written, is a rare

treat for novel readers who may feel their

Palates dulled by the constant custard pies

?f the sex war. (I must make exception for I-Iilary Bailey's Mrs Mulvaney, reviewed here last week: a must.) The bounding energy of Michael Moorcock's romance sweeps along a many-layered intricacy of thought and structure. Albion is ruled by ,91oriana, who has replaced the wicked '.'111 Hem's reign with a rule based on Justice, truth and peace: the queen herself, a Well-meaning, emblematic giantess, is advised by Montfallcon, who chooses to l'eep from her the fact that her apparently IlY1lic reign is underpinned by cunning and violence, just as was her father's. Sexual ,'fulfilment is her only sadness. MontralIcon creature, evil Quire, finally Conquers her, and she him; after strife: reconciliation and a golden age. This is the ' bareSt summary of a plot rich in incident kaki meaning: the right governance of the "(24 politic as well as personal; the balance of reason and romance; the struggle of good and evil, within and without; the state as a sYlnbol of the soul and vice versa. All the Petoes of romance are here resurrected. ,eeoling with extraordinary life and comPlexity, it is a remarkable book. , Brigid Brophy writes with such style, elegance and wit that it is quite possible to read her novel without pausing to fathom rhe fable. It should first be said that this is eften a very, very finny book, and also an ;-)rttemely clever one. Whether it is the ethal exactitude of a pithy narrative phrase, a description of the setting-up of a comtUdtee to consider the provision of chairs in rtb he uncomfortably unsedentary palace, or e consideration of the payment and nonProductivity of writers, (to spike the guns of °PPonents of Public Lending Right), it all Siarkles. The story is simple enough: the , r,eaths and successions in the family of King `-„usmo III, his gentle, pigeon-loving queen, 're rout Archduke sons and jolly, bounding 'tellduchess Heather. This is royalty in rfedaced circumstances: no one can ever tilled a servant to get a bit to eat after hours; a e telephones are out of order, the cars "elt't work; the courtiers obstruct. A new regime is called for. None of the children *clams to take on the burden of kingship. e„11,e by one, everyone meets an unhappy

leaving only Heather, in whom `there is

atte just cause for hope.' It is a fable of 'eta' and personal change and family resrosibility. But, though the meaning is 113uPortant, like all the best allegorists, Miss wr'PhY has created a wholly 'real' parallel . orld which it is a pleasure to enjoy just for

Itself. Mary Hope