18 JANUARY 1975, Page 21


High sentiment

Peter Ackroyd

The Last Hours Before Dawn Reg Gadney

(Heinemann £2.90) Tug-Of-War Julian Fane (Hamish Hamilton £2.75)

The Gypsy's Curse Harry Crews (Secker and

Warburg £2.90)

It is always easier for a novelist to recreate the past than to create a present, and that old 'sense of place' is the easiest illusion of all. So it turns out to be 1943 in Mr Gadney's new novel, The Last Hours Before Dawn, and Victoria Wymering is saying goodbye to her husband on a

1943 railway platform; Mr Gadney has a way of Inserting local detail so that it occasionally smacks of the midnight museum — "the Postscript broadcasts of J. B. Priestley", Caley's Fortune Chocolates, Sir William Beveridge and

the Picture Post. It is a conventional image, of

course, and the loneliness of the long-distance war is one that has suffused a great many period dramas. But Gadney writes a more awkward and intriguing prose than most, and his characters rise above the international melodrama: a great deal of the violence in this book comes from home rather than abroad, and Gadney returns to those much neglected domestic struggles which just happened to be in war-time conditions: ". . . the bungling, the lies, the disloyalty, the fornication ... such things would tend, she imagined, to get forgotten." But not such things, I imagine, as romance — as long as there are novelists with memories. There is a great deal of it in this book, and Mrs Wymering no sooner loses her husband to the Germans than she is pursued by boys, soldiers and old men. Violence, however, is never far off. Those English 'types', the retired Captains, housemaids, young children, etc, who are generally found simpering in novels of wartime England are introduced by Mr Gadney only to be maimed or slaughtered during a particularly thorough air-raid in the third chapter. Nothing should ever go right, it seems, and the second section of the novel is concerned with an SOE operation in occupied France (Gadney can always keep up the tempo and interest of an adventure) which predictably and bloodily fails. Even the private life of Victoria Wymering comes in for some very heavy cross-fire: not only is her husband killed, but her admirer ends up in Buchenwald, she finds some maimed corpses bloated by the sea, and yet another admirer kills himself with a land-mine. There is something a little mechanical about this final fracas, and an air of contrivance hangs over all the violence which runs a heady course through the book. Blood-letting for its own sake is, of course, only a higher form of sentimentality since it effectively excludes the whole range of ordinary feelings (it is no accident that the love-scenes in this book are corny to a filmic degree). Romance can

go only a little way and no further, and Last Hours Before the Dawn is a book of parts and not a whole; there are a great

many themes and moods but they never quite cohere, and Mr Gadney's undoubted imagina tive power never quite finds resolution in the images which it throws to the surface of the novel. It is an odd and haunted book, but a disappointing one.

Sentimentality of a different kind spreads its small but friendly wings over Julian Fane's Tug-Of-War; it is a story of emotion recollection in tranquility, always a favourite literary device but one which ordinarily generates a great deal more tranquility than emotion. Arthur Bartlett, a successful publisher, is spending a month in the country — to relive an old love affair and so to write his first and last novel (a disadvantage which he does not share with Julian Fane. I always think it underhand of a novelist to create a character who both tells the story and yet at the same time can plead inexperience. It is a trick which covers a .multitude of the real novelist's sins). Arthur Bartlett goes back to the Welsh village (the setting is a charming one: what novelists call 'sleepy' and with just a touch of wistfulness — both of them good consumer products) where he first met and worshipped "Laura", and most of the narrative is taken up with his reminiscences of their astonishingly Platonic 'relationship' and its eventual denouement. When we discover that Laura is not only beautiful 'but well-bred, and that she suffers from a surfeit of secret passions, we know that at least we are not going to be bored by sex, violence and modern life.

Mr Fane has a quiet and naturalistic style, which encourages the welcome entrance of quiet and naturalistic people. His prose is perfectly modulated and well constructed, in this sense it is rather like programme music, but I wish that Mr Fane could stop himself succumbing to his more blatantly novelettish moments: "Her smile had a poignant quality, suggesting that her laughter wasn't far from tears" and so on. There is a constant straining toward sentimentality and artificiality through the novel, which is a pity since Mr Fane can be a thoughtful and accomplished writer. He contrives some moments of great power, and he has been able to create a not-only-beautifulbut-well-bred Laura without turning her into a whimsy; he also manages an ending which sets at a distance all that has previously been said, and turns what might be a literary little tale of first love into a coherent and satisfying work of imagination. I see from the dust jacket of The Gypsy's Curse that Mr Crews specialises in nasty or ghoulish themes. He has no doubt been licking his chops over the messy life and times of his new hero, Marvin Molar, a deformed athlete, but his novel will give cripples a bad name. The happily alliterated name of Mr Molar sends our minds racing back to the good old days of J. P. Donleavy, and no doubt Mr Crews is trying to recapture those bitter-sweet urban blues of yesteryear, but his book leaves only a sour taste behind it.

Marvin has no bones in his legs, and is reduced to tying them up behind his back. His parents became tired of this very quickly, and had deposited him on the steps of the Fireman's Gymnasium. This gives Mr Crews the chance to re-enter the little man's world of training sessions and rub-downs, that all-American sweatiness which deprived American novelists have been drooling over for years. Marvin is brought up by Al and Pete, who have turned him into an acrobat, juggler and freak. At this point the novel turns into parody of Beauty and the Beast in which Hester, an American sex-god

dess of the soi-disant school, turns out to be much more brutish than poor Marvin, who has

had the temerity to become her lover. Hester moves into the gymnasium and, as is the way with fairy tales of urban life, proceeds to lay out the already punch-drunk family circle. The narrative is glimpsed fitfully through Marvin's slang, and it is told in that clipped and ironical manner which passes for American demotic but which is in fact a jaded literary .conceit that American writers have now all but flogged to

death. The Gypsy's Curse is a vulgar little book, which smacks of sensationalism rather than of sympathy, of voyeurism more than imagination.