1 FEBRUARY 1963, Page 24

Portable Lives

Never Had It So Good. By D. A. Nicholas Jones. (Cape, 25s.) It's Different Abroad. By Henry Calvin. (Hut- chinson, 15s.)

ONE of the primary functions of the novel form has always been that of defining the writer's response to the culture and society he inhabits. In the modern period, characterised by the crumbling of traditional values and loyalties, and the restless movement of the 'civilisation of lug- gage,' writers and their heroes tend to reach this kind of self-definition by exchanging one milieu for another. Hence the 'international novel,' of which the latest exponent is Mr. Mitchell, who packs his bored, aimless hero off to America with The Ambassadors in his pocket. Perhaps The Aspern Papers would have been more ap- propriate, for Harold Barlow's mission is to recover a collection of paintings for a wealthy Englishman whose profligate forebear had sold them to various people in America. Most of the paintings are recovered without too much trouble, though with a good deal of invigorating travel through the wide open American spaces, which make England smell of rotting vegetation in Harold's memory. He is almost a new man by the time he reaches Los Angeles, where the most treasured painting of all, an Elizabethan miniature, is in the jealous possession of an eccentric and vigorous old lady, Mrs. Wash- burn. Settling down to the siege, Harold com- pletes his American education. He renews his acquaintance with Eddie, an eloquent amoralist, and through him explores the shadowy, anarchic underworld of the West Coast; and he develops a passion for Mrs. Washburn's grand-daughter, Diane. The old lady, however, has Diane in a psychological grip as tight as her hold on the miniature, and Harold needs all his new re- sourcefulness to keep the relationship growing.

Mr.' Mitchell is one of the most readable serious novelists writing in England today. His narrative carries the weight of its purpose lightly, and he displays everywhere an acute eye and ear for contemporary styles of speech and behaviour. But as a whole the novel fails to substantiate its claim for the improvement of the hero's character : his new-found purposeful- ness seems ruthlessly egotistic and smugly com- placent. The opening chapter showed Harold coping inefficiently with a small fire in his London digs. At the end of the novel he is evacuating Mrs. Washburn and Diane from their fire-threatened house, and in a moment of panic and urgency he acts with decision, obtaining the miniature, inadvertently causing the death of the old lady, and alienating Diane, who is mentally unbalanced by the experience. Afterwards he thinks: 'The time would come when he would grieve deeply. But not now. Now there was room only for the contemplation of what he had done, and how he had done it. His, limbs still felt weak, but his mind told him he was strong.' One can't help feeling more affection for the diffident but harmless Harold of the early London chapters.

While Mr. Mitchell expresses his verdict on modern England by taking his hero away from it, Mr. Jones hurls himself straight at it, and the air reverberates with the grinding crash of the collision and the cries of the injured. Set mainly in an east coast town, Never Had It So Good cuts a thick slice off the layer-cake of con- temporary society, displaying the various ac- tivities of beats and bourgeois, journalists and journeymen, homos and heteros. The narrative is urged on from time to time by permutating a number of young couples, but the real con- cern of the book is to provide an animated com- mentary on a society where authority has lost purpose and integrity and frustrated idealism turns sour and anti-social. It has much to recom- mend it as a kind of breviary of modern dissent (text for Empire Day: 'And there was a witch stirring a cauldron with red devils all around. They said she was the British Vampire on which the sun never sets, surrounded by her para- troopers'), but as a novel it is smothered by an excess of talk and mere behaviour which pre- vents one from engaging with the destinies of the chief characters. One of these is shown doing his National Service, and here Mr. Jones most successfully realises the brutalising conformity which he detests. He could produce something really impressive if he could exert more formal control over his rich reservoir of experience and observation.

Do You Believe in Angels? is a Swedish novel which describes how a young man, 'the product of a fairly large library, and a grain of intelligence plus freedom from prejudice,' ex- plodes the mystique of capitalism. Joining a monolithic bank as a messenger, he contrives to make a rapid fortune and to win his dream- girl, whom he converts to his own eccentric idealism. They depart in a haze of wealth and philanthropy. According to the hero, 'Trans- formations and conversions were quite usual its literature,' but 'Nowadays one had to handle such subjects with an overdose of comic humour.' Too often Mr. Aberg ignores this advice. Though there is some excellent situation comedy satirising bank bureaucracy, it is heavily over- laid with a celebration of the Swedish myth of the summer paradise which one cannot accept as solemnly as it is offered.

Thrillers, when untouched by the metaphysi- cal overtones of a Conrad or a Greene, have always seemed to me a scandalous waste of -

time, and I think Mr, Calvin would have been better occupied with the straight novels he apparently writes under his real name. I warmed to his resourceful Scottish schoolmarm heroine, and the deft treatment of her relations with the Jim's /nn-type family of her sister. The rest of the story, with its smugglers, violent assaults, pursuits and escapes, seemed to me just silly, though the telling is fast and sophisticated enough. Addicts will, I imagine, lap it up.