The Daily Telegraph - Review

Were the Sixties really like that?


Something about the decade is tricky to capture in a novel – no matter how slavish the period detail, says Lewis Jones The mood of the Sixties was hostile to the formality of prose

The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). But the fiction truest to the spirit of the time tends to the trashy.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterh­ouseFive (1969), another war satire, wasn’t trashy but cleverly pretended to be, with its outrageous combinatio­ns of theology and sci-fi pulp, and so did Gore Vidal’s gender-bending Myra Breckinrid­ge (1968), a superbly subversive parody of Hollywood schlock. Michael Moorcock’s The Final Programme (knocked out in 10 days in 1965, and published three years later) really was trashy, but brilliant anyway, a literary comic-strip involving drugs, time 1936, introduced Freya Wyley, a “terrifying­ly serious and selfcontai­ned” 12 year-old. Freya (2016) followed her from VE Day, after service in the Wrens, through her brief career at Oxford, which she abandoned to cover the Nuremberg trials, and onwards to Fleet Street in the Fifties and early Sixties. Fuelled by gin and benzedrine, swearing like a sailor and sexually adventurou­s – she enjoys women as well as men, and somewhat improbably, given her combative feminism, submits to a spanking by her decadent friend Nat Fane – Freya is an engaging character and, unlike quite a few others in Quinn’s novels, a thoroughly fictional one.

A number of them are readily identifiab­le with historical figures, which makes for a fun game. The artist Ossian Blackler, for example, who has abrupt manners and “a dark, feral gaze”, works naked but for his boots and, as someone remarks, “paints dogs more tenderly than he does women”, has much in common with Lucian Freud. The gay theatre critic Jimmy Erskine is evidently based on the great James Agate; and Nat Fane, with his vanity, wit and “very particular sexual predilecti­ons”, on Ken Tynan.

Eureka takes place in the summer of 1967. Fane, now 40, is living in Albany and driving a Rolls-Royce, the fruits of an initially stellar career; eight years before he won an Oscar for his romantic comedy The Hot Number, but his last effort bombed. His new project is an updated version of Henry James’s story The Figure in the Carpet.

Two friends revere an elderly novelist, Hugh Vereker. The narrator, a critic, meets Vereker, who dismisses his attempts to discover the secret of his work, “the string the pearls were strung on, the buried treasure, the figure in the carpet”. The other friend takes up the challenge, and their competitio­n is paralleled by their rivalry over a woman.

The film is to be directed by the German wunderkind Reiner Werther Kloss, who bears a passing resemblanc­e to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and will star Ronnie Stiles, a “hard-nut” cockney actor whose name is definitely not Michael Caine: “I learnt me entire part in Mafeking over a weekend,” he boasts through a mouthful of spaghetti. “In an officer-class accent an’ all.”

A fortnight into a two-month deadline, Fane has so far written only one word, the title: Eureka! At the end of the first chapter he decides to delete the exclamatio­n mark, and allows himself “a satisfied nod, as if he had just concluded a proper day’s work”. The novel follows Fane to the completion of his script, which takes him through the film’s casting and hectic production, and features hefty and intermitte­ntly amusing chunks of it.

Anthony Quinn worked for more than 20 years as a film critic, so he knows about critics, who often crop up among his characters. And

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