Educated at Shrewsbury School and Balliol College, Oxford, Francis King (1923-2011) began life from a position of privilege, but a spell of agricultural labour as a conscientious objector during the Second World War did differentiate him from young men destined for an easy passage into the Establishment. So did his homosexuality. That said, by developing a career with the British Council, working for them in Italy, Greece, Finland and Japan, he retained access to the upper reaches of British society throughout his life. Although the Establishment has never been too keen on artists, even the fact that he was a novelist did not prevent this. King would eventually become chairman of the Society of Authors, president of International PEN, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature; and he was awarded the OBE in 1979, the CBE in 1985.
The Man on the Rock (1957) was the seventh of his novels to be published, one of them under a pseudonym. (By then he had also published a collection of poems.) The emotional core of the novel is provided by its central relationship between the American Irvine Stroh and the book’s Greek narrator, Spiro Polymerides. Irvine is a repressed homosexual, and Spiro is a bisexual who is not completely unwilling to take things to the next, physical step. In that sense, theirs is a homosexual relationship, albeit an unconsummated one. It is precisely the fact that they have not slept together that gives their bond both its tension and its weakness. In an early passage, Spiro says: ‘It’s odd that he and I never slept together; everyone in Athens was certain that we were lovers, and since he knew that, obviously the fear of what people would say could not have deterred him.’ Spiro is not averse to the idea of a sexual relationship with the older man; and, indeed, he has had a certain amount of relevant experience: ‘If he had wanted me to sleep with him, I suppose I should have consented: after all, when I was down and out in Salonica, I slept with men far less attractive, to whom I was under far less of an obligation.’ The sense of obligation is the point: he feels Irvine ought to be getting more than his does for his side of the bargain, and this makes him uncomfortable: ‘Yes, I could have slept with Irvine if he had wanted it; I think I should have preferred to do so, for then I should not have felt myself under so much of an obligation to him.’
As is often the case in King’s novels, love is shown as involving a good deal of voluntary self-abasement. This is especially so when an older person of either sex is in love with a younger. King also generally regards love as being a condition conducive to the manipulation of one partner by the other. Money is often involved. The relationships he depicts often end up in a state where each partner feels imprisoned by the other. (Spiro: ‘I feel as if—as if I were suffocating. One seems to be living in a prison all the time.’ Helen: ‘Oh, no. I’m the one that’s in a prison, I’m the prisoner.’) For just a moment’s freedom, a quick breath of air, lies have to be told, recriminations endured. Moments of piecemeal reconciliation are mistaken for the restoration of intimacy. Copious tears are shed, as if required by way of proof. But proof of what? Not love itself so much as what W.B. Yeats once called, disapprovingly, ‘passionate intensity’. Throughout the book, while he narrates it, Spiro is living off his wife who, although heavily pregnant, has to go out to work to keep them both. Yet it is he who feels the more trapped by this arrangement, wasting his days in their shabby home.
The book’s historical context is that of the Cold War and the decolonisation movement. Greece is being closely watched by the Americans in the aftermath of its civil war. And mention is made, from time to time, of the developing crisis of armed struggle against British rule in Cyprus. (Independence would be achieved at last in 1960.) While trying to annoy Irvine, Spiro affects to be concerned that ‘people are being shot and hounded and whipped’, but such concerns about public events are apparently only skin deep.
I have two reservations about The Man on the Rock: its narrative voice and the content of its second chapter. Having worked for the British Council in Salonika and Athens, King had garnered a decent education in Greek history and culture. But he shows no appreciable effort to make the narrator, Spiro, sound convincingly like an uneducated Greek for whom English is a second language. Neither the diction nor the syntax offers any concession to the creation of this character, who merely sounds like an Englishman of the author’s own background. This is very lazy writing. I do not mean to suggest that the whole book should have been written in broken English, but neither should his English be so full of the idioms of the English Establishment; or not without some explanation for Spiro’s facility with his borrowed tongue.
Also, Spiro looks at his own country as if he had recently arrived there from from Kensington, and at his own countrymen as if he had never been one of them. For instance, speaking of his own brother, he says: ‘Stelio threw himself down on to the bed which we had shared for as long as I could remember, and lay there, silent, in the thick woollen vest and underpants which Greek peasants wear even in summer’. And when the peasant boy Dino excitedly puts on a nylon shirt, Spiro says:
There was something at once ridiculous and touching in the contrast between the heavy, sun-burned, muscular, peasant body and the vulgar powder-blue cocoon which appeared to have been spun in sugar around it: something ridiculous and touching too in the Greek’s childish preening, as he gazed either down at himself or at his extended arm with a smile of idiotic beatitude on his features.
This problem arises almost every time Spiro uses the words ‘Greek’ or ‘Greece’.
My second main reservation about the book concerns its second chapter, which opens with a sequence of atrocities about which it is hard to care, even though it happens to the family and home community of the narrator. This deadness of effect is not merely because Spiro himself is numbed by the events but, structurally, because the reader has not yet heard enough about him to care much about what happens to him, let alone to family members to whom we are introduced even in the very moments of their deaths. This chapter would have served the book better if it had been moved further into it, perhaps as a flashback to explain and add nuance to Spiro’s character. By that point, at which the reader would be familiar with him, it would be easier to sympathise with what once happened to him and his family. As the book continues, there is little sign that Spiro’s wartime experience has a significant bearing on what he does after it. These are not insuperable obstacles to the reader’s enjoyment, however.
The narrative is rounded off with a moral crackdown. The Cold War era saw many clean-ups carried out by the Americans or, on their behalf, by their allies, on the pretext that the Soviets were systematically undermining the West with acts of moral subversion, intentionally leading to the blackmailing of insiders into handing over crucial information. Surveillance was carried out by both sides for the slightest sign of an opportunity of this kind. Homosexual men were thought to be especially liable to entrapment, and were therefore especially likely to be spied on by their own governments. Every now and then, arrests would be made—for sexual transgressions far more often than for espionage, which actually had its main roots elsewhere.
Speaking of his friend Jock’s mother Helen, with whom he starts an affair, Spiro says:
I was astonished that a woman who knew so much about everybody did not know that I stayed in Irvine’s flat. Or was she being disingenuous? Weeks later I asked her, and she replied: ‘Oh, I’d heard gossip about that, of course. But I never believed it. It never struck me that Irvine would do anything so foolish. Especially since these purges have started.’ It was typical that Helen should have heard about the purges long before Irvine or I or any of our American acquaintances.
By the end of the book, such a crackdown has indeed been carried out by the Americans:
there had followed a general ‘clean-up’: a marine was sent off to Naples for ‘psychological treatment’; an army major disappeared, almost overnight; two or three Greek clerks were suddenly without their jobs at the Embassy...
But moral panics tend to work on great cities only cosmetically. The Americans may have cleaned up their act to some extent, or at least to the extent of satisfying their masters back in Washington D.C., but Athens is still Athens. It still plays host to what Spiro calls ‘that strange life—predatory, furtive, feverish—which quickens in all parks at twilight’.
Francis King once acknowledged his ‘profound, if resigned, pessimism about the world’. It is this outlook that he applies, so unsparingly, to the relationships he portrays in The Man on the Rock. The single-mindedness of the approach is impressive. By absenting himself from the country of his own upbringing—the Britain in which novelists were expected always yo concern themselves principally with matters of class—and by writing about other people, from a range of cultures, in another land, he felt able to address one of his pet topics, the corruption of love, without compunction.
At the heart of the story he tells is the heartlessness of Spiro Polymerides. Once exploited himself, Spiro has become an exploiter in his turn, meanwhile forgetting that there might have been better ways of behaving. If he survived a tragedy as a child, the nature of that survival must be called into question. His lack of emotional intelligence turns out to be the scab over a wound, after all. King is not in the business of making excuses for his more unpleasant characters, but he does give us the material with which to diagnose their moral weakness. And King’s sceptical view of love’s possibilities has the incidental effect of highlighting the futility of political interference in personal morality. The authorities—any authorities—can purge anyone they choose, whether because of the gender of his sexual partners or the kind of dive he frequents; they can impose an approved course of psychiatric rebalancing; they can even (as so often happened in that period) apply electrodes. But in the Francis King universe no amount of conformist interventive treatment can reduce love to a benign condition. Moral or not, it hurts. That is why he takes it so seriously.