"Lancelot Windhover was famous once. It was so long ago he felt disappointed as well as consoled that his affair with Samantha Coperglaze would to become a subject for Dick Toole's gossip column. Dick Toole had told his researcher, Delilah Ball-Hunt, while they are engaged in yet another experiment in bondage, to hold the story until Lancelot's academic wife Charlotte had stopped being bravely tolerant and took up with someone else. Charlotte had just issued a stiff reading list to the umcompromising young radical writer David Bentley, who lived in a suitcase with a revolutionary actress but had felt his horizons expanding when he met Charlotte at Victor Ludlow's Hampstead house, a fantastic castle in which all of London gathered to watch an American film star breathing underwater in the swimming pool.
"Victor, who commissioned books instead of saying hello, was a fabulously wealthy, technically broke, hopelessly flamboyant South African Australian Jewish publisher who for ten years had remained true to the most original woman in Europe, Elena Fiabesco, whose husband had suicided from jealousy by driving his racing sports car backwards through a Sicilian peasant family having a picnic. They spoke to each other late at night on the telephone in Italian, when Elena wasn't entertaning the next President of the Uited States on the other line. If Elena's ordinary dinner parties were enough to make you wonder who had been left in charge of the world, she was now in the midst of conceiving an already legendary Opera Ball, although what she was truly plotting was an elaborate manoeuvre to divert Victor from the stuning new television star Sally Draycott. Sally, a face in the evening who made men dream of seeing her again at breakfast, spent all her salary on filling the tank of a sensational sports car, while linking herself romantically with Nicholas Crane. After the Opera Ball, Nicholas had been photographed for Dick Toole's column while petting heavily in the pergola with Samantha, which was but one of the reasons why Lancelot, undecided to the last, not only stuck his head in the gas oven but took all of Charlotte's sleeping pills as well. Yet he could not escape the fate of modern man. Somebody had to base a novel on him, with critical notes (which can be found at the end of this book) by the omniscient Peter Bartelski, of Sydney, Sussex and Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.
"Clive James's first novel is a pleasure. It is Nicholas who pertinently asks, when Lancelot gives Sally a copy of Les Liaisons dangereuses, 'Are we all in it? 'In a way,' is her reply. 'It's full of people coldly assessing the caprices of desire and speaking frankly to each other at all costs.' Whatever the costs, only Clive James could make it such good value."
"Hark!" cried Lancelot Windhover, waking up in his usual frenzy of hyperventilation, or whatever you call it when you can't remember how to breathe. 'Whelk! Faugh! Noah! Quark!' He gave himself artificial respiration. After a while it worked. When the panic was over the despair started. With heaving chest he mentally reviewed his troubles and could see no real reason for continuing to live. Elegantly he tottered to the window, his body, with the possible exception of a pair of small motor-cycle panniers at the waist, looking like the corporeal manifestation of a fit man half his age - which would have been, should you have made it, a pretty fair assessment of his true emotional development, since nobody so old can look so young without a certain deficiency in the gift for self-criticism. Or so, at any rate, Lancelot thought, giving himself points for the critical insight but taking them away again because of the revealed proneness to soul-searching, which he regarded as self-obsession. Not quite the same thing as self-criticism, but more than enough to reduce him to desperation all by itself, even without the aid of the joke panorama visible when he dragged aside the heavy curtains.
From the Jonathan Cape hardback edition, 1983.
The title of the novel is taken from the Yeats poem The Wild Swans at Coole:
I have looked upon these brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
James explains the rationale behind the book in his introduction as follows:
This book is my second attempt to avoid writing a novel. The first, called Unreliable Memoirs, I got away with by labelling as an autobiography, but the same trick will not work twice. So this book will have to be called a novel, even though it is patently not a novel in the accepted sense. For the novel in the acepted sense I have nothing but respect. Hundreds of them come out each year and the few that I manage to absord rarely fail to astonish me by the author's capacity to take a genuine interest in the world and put his own personality in the back seat. I have made all the usual cracks about there being to many novels. I believe I was the first to suggest that there should be an Arts Council grant for not writing a novel. The candidate would submit an outine of the novel he proposed not to write. If he proposed not to write a whole sequence of novels, the grant would be renewed annually.
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Last modified: January 24, 2002.