At the Gay Hussar

John Sutherland

  • One and Last Love by John Braine
    Eyre Methuen, 175 pp, £6.50, June 1981, ISBN 0 413 47990 0
  • Sweetsir by Helen Yglesias
    Hodder, 332 pp, £6.95, August 1981, ISBN 0 340 27042 X
  • On the Yankee Station by William Boyd
    Hamish Hamilton, 184 pp, £7.95, July 1981, ISBN 0 241 10426 2
  • Byzantium endures by Michael Moorcock
    Secker, 404 pp, £6.95, June 1981, ISBN 0 436 28458 8
  • Heavy Sand by Anatoli Rybakov, translated by Harold Shuckman
    Allen Lane, 380 pp, £7.95, June 1981, ISBN 0 7139 1343 6

At some point it must have crossed Braine’s mind to call his latest novel ‘Love at the Top’. The hero is Tim Harnforth, a 56-year-old best-selling novelist and man of letters. Originally from the West Riding, he is now one of the gens du monde, ‘a high-flyer, a metropolitan man’, literary-lioning it in London. Young admirers come up to him in pubs and say: ‘Mr Harnforth? Mr Tim Harnforth?’

One and Last Love is Mr Tim Harnforth’s novel as well as Mr John Braine’s. An authorial confidence informs us that it was originally conceived with more melodramatic action to it. The hero was to find himself stricken with a terminal disease and be forced to a climax of love and death. But instead, the novelist was drawn to something more romantic, a simple lyrical celebration of a late-life love affair which has no end and which turns out to be a very long encounter. Every Thursday afternoon for five years, Tim and Vivien have met in a flat near Soho so the novel begins, and so it ends. This serial idyll is recorded with Hemingwayesque straightforwardness (there is a long epigraph from the master) and in a first-person narrative which frequently borders on the egotistic absurd, ‘I’m a damned good writer,’ Harnforth tells us, and we are to understand that we are reading a damned good piece of writing.

In fact, the reader is more likely to be struck by the hero’s good life. He boozes in Jermyn Street and Fleet Street (he is, after all, a writer as well as a gent du monde). He lunches at Bertorelli’s, where the waitress, ‘who knew Augustus John’, remembers to give him a good table. Another, more extended lunch at the Gay Hussar will probably be thrown back at Braine for as long as his books are reviewed. ‘Victor the proprietor’ – ‘he’s part of the London scene,’ out-of-towners are informed – also puts Tim and Vivien at the best table. But there is, apparently, more competition for the honour than up the road at Bertorelli’s. Michael Foot passes by and nods, albeit ‘briefly’. Marcia Williams sweeps in: expect no nods from her. She comes under the novelist’s scalpel: ‘She’s an attractive woman, her face has a good bone structure, but there’s something curiously unreal about her.’ Unawed, the couple make sophisticated table-talk about their fellow guests:

‘That’s George Melly. And there’s Lord Longford!’

   ‘Not together? That would make the mind boggle.’

   ‘No, at separate tables.’

It adds ‘sparkle’ to life, the narrator complacently observes, and ‘it can only happen in the metropolis.’ It would seem, too, that the hot-pot is better than it is up north: Victor the proprietor provides ‘Hungarian goulash, a cold-weather dish, a peasant dish, but with the best meat and with the right amount of spices and paprika, and the dumplings are full of taste, smooth and rich, and yet not with the faintest trace of doughiness.’ If there’s any justice, that passage should ensure a good table for Mr Braine himself the next time he goes to Greek Street.

It’s not hard to poke fun at this novel and one would like at times to think that Harnforth himself is being poked fun at by Braine: when, for instance, he opens the narrative with an approving inventory of his smooth skin and wonderfully preserved body. But this seems to be a love story without either irony or cynicism. It finishes on a note of full-blooded sentimentality which dares the reader to sneer at it: ‘Age doesn’t matter ... we are here and we are happy and fulfilled in each other.’ Some hundred years ago, Trollope wrote a novella called An Old Man’s Love. A genuinely tender piece, it concludes, sadly, that old men can have no love – not, that is to say, in the sense of Harnforth’s Thursday-afternoon sessions. Trollope’s Victorian defeatism is thoroughly contradicted by Braine’s super-virile oldster, who clearly intends to die in the saddle.

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