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Francis Wyndham

Francis Wyndham first book of short stories, Out of the War, was published in 1975. He is at present working on a second collection. On 18 November, Virago are publishing three of Ada Leverson’s novels – Love’s Shadow, Tenterhooks and Love at Second Sight – in one volume, entitled The Little Ottleys.

Diary: At the Theatre

Francis Wyndham, 10 November 1988

At a friend’s house, I saw a video of Liebelei, Max Ophuls’s beautiful film of Arthur Schnitzler’s play which was shown on television some months ago. Made in 1932, this masterpiece is a rarity: although the Third Reich censors removed Ophuls’s name from the credits and he left Germany on the day after the Reichstag fire, it was banned by the Allied Commission when the war was over because its success had happened to coincide with the Nazi regime. It begins behind the scenes at the Vienna Opera House. The first act of The Abduction from the Seraglio has just ended: the stage manager anxiously looks out through a peephole in the curtain to survey the crowded stalls and balconies. We share his view – the spectators are now being spied on. Then, the chandelier in the auditorium flares alight to herald the arrival of the Emperor; the audience rise, turn their backs on the stage and gaze up at the Royal Box. Very subtly – almost subliminally – Ophuls has adumbrated a mystery central to drama: who is being watched, and by whom?’

I was thinking about the unusual shape of your career as an author – having written a collection of stories during the war when you were in your late teens and not published them for thirty years, then later publishing two books, one of which is almost entirely about the period of the war. The war seems to be a magnetic subject in what you’ve written. I wondered what sort of war you’d had.’

Story: ‘Eating Alone’

Francis Wyndham, 17 May 1984

Sometimes, when I am alone in the evenings and feel like giving myself a treat, I go to a little restaurant round the corner called the Star of Bombay. An old newspaper cutting is displayed in its window containing a guarded recommendation by Fay Maschler, but in spite of this the place is nearly always empty. Occasionally a transient figure may appear, swiftly and rather furtively, to carry off a take-away ordered earlier by telephone. Two young Indian waiters in dinner jackets hover apprehensively at the back of the room, while behind and above them, seated on a raised platform, a somewhat older Indian lady regally presides. To an impressionable customer, she can suggest both the motherly authority of Indira Gandhi and the unbridled licence of erotic Hindu art.

Story: ‘The Ground Hostess’

Francis Wyndham, 1 April 1983

The telephone rang. It had to be Hurricane Harriet.

My grandmother Ada Leverson imagined that the height of bliss would be to sit in a theatre listening to her own dialogue spoken by ‘real live actors’, and much of her life was spent in trying to finish a play. It was always the same play, but as time drew level with her inspiration and threatened to leave it behind, the characters and dialogue had every so often to be brought up to date by radical alteration before the final curtain was reached. Three separate versions survive: they may be seen to correspond with adequate fidelity to the three main ‘acts’ in the drama of her life. The name of her play was The Triflers.

Story: ‘The Half Brother’

Francis Wyndham, 16 July 1981

Jack ‘did a Jack’ and missed our father’s funeral. He had taken his new girl to the Gargoyle Club the night before and had woken with such a monumental hangover that the train had left Paddington before he was out of bed. Explaining this to my mother on the telephone later in the day, he had boasted not only about the hangover but also about the new girl, who was just seventeen and had a marvellous figure – almost like a boy’s. The joke was that he had been given twenty-four hours compassionate leave because of the funeral. ‘Father would have been amused,’ he said.

I sometimes argue with my friend Heathcote Williams about his use of pornography as a means of attacking his political enemies. It seems to me an irrelevant weapon in any context, and in the hands of a man with Heathcote’s anarchistic, optimistic, nearly utopian convictions it becomes puzzlingly inconsistent. His polemical essays have been appearing, often unsigned, in the underground press over the past decade, and a selection, entitled Severe Joy, is listed for publication next year by John Calder. They abound in fantastic, and often very funny, descriptions of the people he disapproves of (such as Mrs Thatcher, Enoch Powell, Ian Paisley, the Royal Family and Jesus Christ) engaged in eccentric forms of sexual intercourse. One might almost assume from a few of these scatological diatribes that he thought there was something intrinsically disgusting and automatically degrading about physical love – and yet the opposite is the case. After all, he was a leading light at the Wet Dream Film Festival organised by Suck magazine in Amsterdam nine years ago, and I have heard him express the belief that human sperm contains psychedelic properties. To quote from the 278-year-old hero of his play The Immortalist: ‘One of the purposes of love-making (not that you can make love – love is) is to achieve immortality … When it fails, you get conception.’ This seems to imply, in its paradoxical fashion, that Heathcote sees the act of copulation as potentially mystical, perhaps even sacred. So why the emphasis on obscenity as a form of abuse? Isn’t there some element of contradiction here? But my argument gets nowhere. Heathcote scowls prettily, tosses what can only be called his ‘unruly curls’, accuses me of being an irredeemable media turd and a closet Monarchist.

Letter

Sonia Orwell

24 October 1991

In his finely judged review of Michael Shelden’s Orwell (LRB, 24 October), Frank Kermode writes that Orwell’s widow Sonia ‘is represented, perhaps not altogether fairly, as tiresomely selfish and irresponsible’. Shelden’s treatment of Sonia, although it may give a superficial impression of being even-handed, is in several ways very unfair indeed. Shelden insinuates that...

Silly Buggers

James Fox, 7 March 1991

I first met Francis Wyndham in 1968, when I went to the Sunday Times Magazine looking for a job. A thunderstorm in the Gray’s Inn Road had soaked my cheap lightweight blue suit, bought in...

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Kay Demarest’s War

Penelope Fitzgerald, 17 September 1987

In The Other Garden Francis Wyndham manages a classic form, the first-person novella, with great delicacy and originality. His first person, as in his collection of short stories Mrs Henderson,...

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Complaining about reviews

John Bayley, 23 May 1985

Few things are easier to recognise or harder to define than the way humour works in art. It is only incidentally to do with making us laugh. Being funny is a methodical process and a localising...

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All I can do

Carole Angier, 21 June 1984

Jean Rhys always said, and certainly believed, that she didn’t want to be a writer. She only wrote, she said, because she was unhappy, and when she was happy, as she was in her twenty years...

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