4 NOVEMBER 1972, Page 20

Keeping the faith

Auberon Waugh

Catholics Brian Moore (Cape £1.25) The Holiday Friend Pamela Hansford Johnson (Macmillan £2.25)

The great Christmas rush of novels is now well under way, which means that I have had to hold over a number of very promising works (one judges them at this stage by their dustcovers) until there is a spare moment. I am particularly ashamed to hold over what looks like a corker from Miss Janice Elliott, since she often manages to read as many as five novels for her elegantly written and thoughtful reviews in the Sunday Telegraph. For those who can't wait, I merely remark that it is entitled Private Life and is available from Hodder and Stoughton at £2.25.

Brian Moore has written a short novel in most unpretentious form which aspires, nevertheless, to sum up the quandary of the Roman Catholic church after a tiny minority of zealots has successfully contrived to reform it out of recognition. Although what has emerged is not recognisable in any important particular as the Catholic church of their childhood, Catholics are admonished in shrill, authoritarian tones to award it the same obedience and reverence as the earlier church received, and also to participate in whatever bizarre rituals may be invented for their discomfiture. Mr Moore covers himself against charges of hyperbolism or scandal by placing his story in the not-sodistant future, with references to a fourth Vatican Council and the disastrous Pauline papacy as things of the past. This strikes me as the only dishonest or unworthy device in a novel which is written with thought and feeling.

Father James Kinsella, an Irish-American progressive who sees the church's future role exclusively in terms of social revolution, is sent as Inquisitor to an island monastery off the coast of Ireland where mass is still being said in Latin according to the Tridentine Rite, confessions are still being heard and Catholicism is still flourishing in the form which existed for so long before a handful of zealots destroyed it a few years ago. Kinsella's task is to convince the old abbot of the error of his ways and extract a promise that progressive practices will be observed in future; alternatively, he is empowered to remove the abbot and appoint somebody more amenable.

The abbot, as so often happens to people who are required to ponder too much on their religion, has lost his faith in religious observance of any sort and appears profoundly sceptical of God's existence. I imagine that a significant proportion of priests have had similar reservations throughout the church's entire history. The confrontation between Kinsella and the abbot must be seen as a struggle between the new, dynamic scepticism and the old, passive variety. Since the only dynamic which exists in the old form is a desire to keep the institution of the church, with its attendant comforts, going at all costs, the result is inevitable: the abbot gives way on every point. The moral of the book is a mildly nihilistic one, that conservative zealots are every bit as unpleasant and as undesirable as progressive ones, but at least Mr Moore avoids the dismal conclusion that wisdom, justice and truth lie somewhere between, and he wins a bronze medal for the best religious novel of the year so far.

If Miss Pamela Hansford Johnson wins no medals on thiS occasion it is only because I found her main characters so unsympathetic and this, of course, is a totally subjective and unfair standard of judgement. There are those who will thrill to the description of a university lecturer approaching fifty and his, arguably, fecund wife, who "still retained a certain passion and were looking forward to the night." But I think my reaction may derive at any rate in part from Miss Johnson's own attitude to her characters. She handles deliberately unsympathetic characters — like the unspeakable Skipton — very well indeed, and in this book we have some appalling English holidaymakers abroad called Venning who are in this vein. Where she falls down, it seems to me, is in portraying characters who are not held up to ridicule and contempt but are portrayed ' in the round.' She must beware of the temptation to patronise, and until she can overcome this tendency she will never succeed in engaging our sympathies, let alone our passions, on her characters' behalf. Let us examine, as connoisseurs of sexual description in the English novel, this treatment of connubial bliss:

He kissed her, gently at first, then with intent. He pulled back the sheets so that he could see her rounded body, which was still young. The randiness, which had not left him since he had parted from Melissa, was now intensified. "Plans?" she said.

" Plans. You know I love you."

"I like to hear you say it, but I don't need reassurance."

He knew that, in some measure, she did.

"There's no one but you," he said, playing with her body. "Quick, I want you."

As he entered her he found, to his dismay, that the thought of Melissa was exciting him. The struggle to get rid of it made him fail, at first, and for a few minutes he lay quiet at her side. "I'm tired, I suppose." Then, with renewed energy, "but I still want you."

This time all was well, though he was aware that she had come to a climax before him. "Nice?" he said, "Wonderful."

Their bodies were damp. He smelled the peculiar scent of her flesh and was comforted. Putting out the light he said, "Shall you sleep?"

This is all very well as far as it goes, of course, but it is neither explicit enough to serve as a manual of sex 'instructions for young persons wishing to learn nor does it invite readers to share the moment. I think that Miss Johnson (she is married to Lord Snow, whose last, novel The Ma/contents showed distinct promise in the suspensethriller field) should either let her hair down a little more or keep it more completely in place.

The lecturer, called Gavin, and his wife, Hannah, are pursued to their Belgian holiday retreat by a strung-up virgin

student, called Melissa, who has a passionate crush on Gavin. He is almost preposterously uninterested in the possibilities of the situation (I don't think Miss Johnson has given much thought to male sexual response). Both Gavin and Hannah are very much taken up with their only child, a slightly unattractive, slightly retarded boy of eleven called Giles. In order to escape from their excessive supervision, Giles takes up* with a sixteenyear-old blond Flemish youth who eventually murders him, for no very good reason except that foreigners may be liable to do this sort of thing. In fact, one rather feels that it serves the parents right for imagining that the wretched child is going to die every time he has a tummy ache, but this is not quite the point that Miss Johnson is trying to make. The distress they both suffer as a result of this incident makes Melissa realise what a united couple they are (although she had sneaked a kiss of sorts from Gavin the night before) and that there is no room for her. Exit Melissa, end of tragedy. I don't think it quite stands up for the reasons I have given, and urge Miss Johnson to concentrate on more obviously unsympathetic characters, which she describes very well.