Francis (Henry) King Biography
Francis King comments:
Pseudonym: Frank Cauldwell. Nationality: British. Born: Adelboden, Switzerland, 1923. Education: Shrewsbury School; Balliol College, Oxford, B.A. in English, 1949, M.A. 1951. Career: Poetry reviewer, the Listener, London, 1945-50; worked for the British Council, 1949-63: lecturer in Florence, 1949-50, Salonika, 1950-52, and Athens 1953-57; assistant representative, Helsinki, 1957-58; regional director, Kyoto, 1959-63. Literary reviewer, 1964-78, and theatre reviewer, 1978-89, Sunday Telegraph, London. Since 1978 fiction reviewer, Spectator, London. Member of the Executive Committee, 1969-73, vice-president, 1977, and president, 1978-85, English PEN; International President, PEN, 1986-89; chair, Society of Authors, 1975-77; member of the Royal Literary Fund Committee, 1977-89; member of the Executive Committee, National Book League, 1980-81. Awards: Maugham award, 1952; Katherine Mansfield-Menton prize, 1965; Arts Council bursary, 1966; Yorkshire Post award, 1983. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1952; resigned, then re-elected, 1967. O.B.E. (Officer, Order of the British Empire), 1979; C.B.E. (Commander, Order of the British Empire), 1985. Agent: A.M. Heath, 79 St. Martin's Lane, London WC2N 4AA.
To the Dark Tower. London, Home and Van Thal, 1946.
Never Again. London, Home and Van Thal, 1948.
An Air That Kills. London, Home and Van Thal, 1948.
The Dividing Stream. London, Longman, and New York, Morrow, 1951.
The Dark Glasses. London, Longman, 1954; New York, Pantheon, 1956.
The Firewalkers: A Memoir (as Frank Cauldwell). London, Murray, 1956.
The Widow. London, Longman, 1957.
The Man on the Rock. London, Longman, and New York, Pantheon, 1958.
The Custom House. London, Longman, 1961; New York, Doubleday, 1962.
The Last of the Pleasure Gardens. London, Longman, 1965.
The Waves Behind the Boat. London, Longman, 1967.
A Domestic Animal. London, Longman, 1970.
A Game of Patience. London, Hutchinson, 1974.
The Needle. London, Hutchinson, 1975; New York, Mason Charter, 1976.
Danny Hill: Memoirs of a Prominent Gentleman. London, Hutchinson, 1977.
The Action. London, Hutchinson, 1978.
Act of Darkness. London, Hutchinson, and Boston, Little Brown, 1983.
Voices in an Empty Room. London, Hutchinson, and Boston, LittleBrown, 1984.
The Woman Who Was God. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988.
Punishments. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1989; New York, Viking, 1990.
Visiting Cards. London, Constable, 1990.
The Ant Colony. London, Constable, 1991.
The One and Only. London, Constable, 1994.
Ash on an Old Man's Sleeve. London, Constable, 1996.
So Hurt and Humiliated and Other Stories. London, Longman, 1959.
The Japanese Umbrella and Other Stories. London, Longman, 1964.
The Brighton Belle and Other Stories. London, Longman, 1968.
Penguin Modern Stories 12, with others. London, Penguin, 1972.
Flights (2 novellas). London, Hutchinson, 1973.
Hard Feelings and Other Stories. London, Hutchinson, 1976.
Indirect Method and Other Stories. London, Hutchinson, 1980.
One Is a Wanderer: Selected Stories. London, Hutchinson, 1985;Boston, Little Brown, 1986.
Frozen Music (novella). London, Hutchinson, 1987; New York, Harper, 1988.
Secret Lives (novella). London, Constable, 1991.
A Hand at the Shutter. London, Constable, 1996.
Far East (produced Coventry, 1980).
The Prisoner, 1967; Corner of a Foreign Field, 1969; A Short Walk in Williams Park, from a story by C.H.B. Kitchin, 1972; Death of My Aunt, from the novel by C.H.B. Kitchin, 1973; Desperate Cases, 1975.
Rod of Incantation. London, Longman, 1952.
Japan, photographs by Martin Hürlimann. London, Thames andHudson, and New York, Viking Press, 1970.
Christopher Isherwood. London, Longman, 1976.
E.M. Forster and His World. London, Thames and Hudson, and New York, Scribner, 1978.
Florence, photographs by Nicolas Sapieha. New York, Newsweek, 1982.
Florence: A Literary Companion. London, Murray, 1991.
Yesterday Came Suddenly. London, Constable, 1993.
Editor, Introducing Greece. London, Methuen, 1956; revised edition, 1968.
Editor, Collected Short Stories, by Osbert Sitwell. London, Duckworth, 1974.
Editor, with Ronald Harwood, New Stories 3. London, Hutchinson, 1978.
Editor, Prokofiev by Prokofiev: A Composer's Memoir, translated by Guy Daniels. London, Macdonald and Jane's, 1979.
Editor, My Sister and Myself: The Diaries of J.R. Ackerley. London, Hutchinson, 1982.
Editor, Writings from Japan, by Lafcadio Hearn. London, Penguin, 1984.
Editor, Twenty Stories: A South East Arts Collection. London, Secker and Warburg, 1985.
Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin.
Essay by King, in Leaving School, London, Phoenix House, 1957; "Waves and Echoes: The Novels of Francis King" by John Mellors, in London Magazine, December 1975-January 1976; "Francis King's Obscured Passions" by Barbara Hardy, in European Gay Review, vols. 6-7, 1991; "Francis King" by Val Warner, in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Detroit, Gale Research; Privileged Moments: Encounters with Writers by Jeffrey Meyers. Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.
(1972) Except for the period of my schooling and the war, mine has, until the last decade, always been an itinerant life. As a child, I was brought up alternately in India and Switzerland (the country of my birth); subsequently I worked for the British Council in Italy, Greece, Egypt, Finland and Japan. This desire always to set off for another destination is reflected in my novels. Of course, certain themes in them are constant; but I have never wished to be identified with only one type of fiction. Perhaps this has harmed me in popular esteem; the public tends to like its novelists to write the same novel over and over again.
Foreign places have always provided me with imaginative stimulation and the majority of my books have foreign settings. Most English novelists, like the society from which they derive, seem to me to be too much preoccupied with differences of class, which obscure for them differences more profound between human beings. In choosing so often to write about "abroad," I have, perhaps subconsciously, attempted to avoid this class-obsession.
I believe strongly in national character, and a recurrent theme of my books is the way in which people struggle to break out of the patterns of national behavior in which they have been imprisoned since birth.
Critics sometimes say that they find my work "depressing" and my readers sometimes ask why I never write about "nice" people or "normal" people—not surprisingly perhaps, since mine is an attitude of profound, if resigned, pessimism about the world. I do not expect people to behave consistently well, and my observation is that few of them do. But I should like to think that the tolerance and compassion that I genuinely feel are also reflected in my writing.
I have always been preoccupied with style and form. I feel that I am most successful in achieving both if the reader is unconscious of any straining for them.
In my early books, written at a period of loneliness in my own life, isolation is a recurrent theme; in my later books I see now that envy and jealousy—to my mind the least attractive of human traits—have taken over.
My biggest and most successful novels were The Custom House and Act of Darkness. The novel that comes nearest to saying what I wanted to say—and that cost me most—was A Domestic Animal.
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Francis King's first novel, To the Dark Tower, is his most experimental. In some of the stories in The Japanese Umbrella he adopts Isherwood's trick of using a narrator to whom he gives his own name, and The Firewalkers, subtitled "a memoir," was first published under the pseudonym of Frank Cauldwell, who is also the narrator, and who first appeared as a novelist in To the Dark Tower. King's stress on the plurality of truth, as formulated in the early story "A True Story" (So Hurt and Humiliated), led him to write from both first-and third-person angles in The Custom House and The Last of the Pleasure Gardens. The Action, actually about a novel, seems redolent with echoes from King's previous work. The bawdy Danny Hill, with much linguistic humor, purports to be an eighteenth-century text by John Cleland and is written by King in that idiom, modernized. The very structure of Voices in an Empty Room, linking three separate stories of attempts at communication with the dead, mirrors death's arbitrary cut-off and residual loose ends.
The themes of separation and loss recurring throughout King's work may be traced to his second novel, Never Again, a moving evocation of childhood and adolescence in India and at an English prep school. In his third novel, An Air That Kills, there is a lyricism, often negated, in the spirit of Housman's poem whence the title comes. The Dividing Stream, a complex novel set in Florence, is imbued with a sense of decay and the melancholy that pervades much of King's world. These moods are articulated in the stark ending of The Dark Glasses, as Patrick recognizes "the terrible, morbid beauty of this world." Yet the Greek setting seems to make for an easier sensuous acceptance: in The Dark Glasses King evokes the natural beauty of Corfu, while The Firewalkers is a mainly happy reminiscence of a group of friends in Athens centered on the dilettante and metaphorical firewalker, Colonel Grecos. In The Man on the Rock King succeeds in impersonating as narrator the parasitic Spiro, a character utterly removed from the self-effacing King/Cauldwell persona. King is as skillful with the short story form as the novel, with some of the stories in his first collection, So Hurt and Humiliated, set in Greece. So is the second novella in Flights, "The Cure," which like the other, "The Infection," set in Hungary, has political overtones.
King's most ambitious book to date, The Custom House, also has political implications. In this long, complex novel he focuses on a cross-section of Japanese society, both from within and through western eyes. King's writing is always rich in ambivalence; he found congenial material in Japanese formalism, recording "the echoes which surround events, not merely after they have taken place but also before them." Yet the novel has his characteristic intense sensuousness hedged with negatives. Like the collection of short stories, The Japanese Umbrella, The Waves Behind the Boat is set in Japan, though its theme of incest and dishonesty concerns expatriates, including the woman narrator.
Christine Cornwell in The Widow is outstanding among King's female portraits. The novel's opening illustrates his skill in manipulating the reader's sympathy in a few pages as he highlights alternately her unlikeable and likeable traits. His evocation of wartime London in part 2 of The Widow is complemented by his account of civilian rural experience, chiefly through the eyes of a seventeen-year-old land-girl, in A Game of Patience. In The Last of the Pleasure Gardens King shows how a severely retarded child exacerbates beyond endurance the weaknesses in a marriage. Most of the short stories in The Brighton Belle are studies in decay, symbolized in the town itself. A Domestic Animal, about unreciprocated homosexual love, is a poignant and powerful study of sexual jealousy; the narrator's attitude to Pam recalls the narrator's attitude to Anne in An Air That Kills, although the novels are different in tone.
The darkness of The Needle, about a doctor's love for her weak brother, is expressed too in some of the stories in Hard Feelings. The stories in Indirect Method are either set abroad or involve foreigners in Britain. The Action, about the libel action threatened against Hazel's novel on the eve of publication, incidentally reveals much about King's understanding of the novel form; the ending, as Hazel begins a new story, is something of a writer's credo. Act of Darkness, set mainly in 1930's India, focuses on a child's murder apparently by someone in his family circle; it is a major novel of suspense with powerful psychological depths. Voices in an Empty Room shows para-normal communication as mainly fraudulent, though the only certainty is doubt.
The affirmative novella Frozen Music, set in contemporary India, shows an elderly Englishman "giving" his young Finnish wife to his son, her lover, in an extraordinary act of love. In The Woman Who Was God Ruth, unable to accept that her son's death in an African commune was accidental, travels there and confronts its charismatic leader, "Mother." Through King's skillful sleight-of-hand narrative, Ruth not "Mother" emerges as playing God—with a destructiveness stemming from inability to understand her son. The moving Punishments opens in 1981 with Michael dreaming about his trip to Germany in 1948 in a party of students including the woman he married. The novel then describes that visit among Germans forced to see themselves as punished and guilty, the setting for Michael's seduction by a male German student: "And no future experience of my whole life was ever to be so thrilling." Visiting Cards is a brilliant comic novel set at a World Association of Authors conference, presided over by the undistinguished Amos Kingsley, mistakenly elected as Kingsley Amis. The serious underlying issue is whether public agitation is necessarily in the interests of imprisoned writers if it further alienates their governments.
Though always a skillful storyteller, King's outstanding quality through all his work is his understanding of a wide range of characters' emotions. He is a master of implication, and writes with unnerving precision, strength, and sensitivity.
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