Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Tempting Fate by Michael Levey
It's become fashionable, I believe, to call the kind of thing I'm about to type a "late review". In this case it is only 31 years late. Michael Levey's Tempting Fate was written in 1982 and published by Hamish Hamilton. How I wish I was writing this out of a desire to whole-heartedly recommend the book. Instead I am moved to put fingers to keyboard out of a sense of frustration. Michael Levey was clearly a cultured and intelligent man, an art critic and writer on art and, very significantly, Director of the National Gallery in London for thirteen years, including the period when this book was published. But it seems that being married to a great novelist (Brigit Brophy) bears the same relation to success in writing an novel yourself as does the Directorship of a great art institution to the ability to create your own artwork for the jacket!
The book is the story of sixteen-year-old Nicholas, who narrates for us, who is involved with an older man, his French teacher from school, and another man who like to take photos of him in various states of undress. Nicholas's mother is absent, a fading-beauty film actress who is working on a film in Portugal as the book opens leaving Nicholas to board with his aunt and female cousin (with whom he attempts to be in love) and that is where we begin. The source of my frustration with this book is that Levey does actually have some game! His building of Nicholas's character as complex and difficult and stridently adolescent is masterfully handled in these opening chapters keeping the reader on the knife edge between disapproval and sympathy. Experts tell us that the adolescent brain is wired differently and this introduction to Nicholas's eccentric and difficult life is capable of reminding even the most jaded adult reader what it felt like to have a brain wired like that. If Levey had stuck to enumerating the difficulties and triumphs of a young gay man in the 1980s in the simmering and glittering heat of a London summer in the 1980s, he might have written a damn fine novel.
But there is then a swerve and we find ourselves visiting, with Nicholas, a bachelor godfather, a country curate with an eye for the young women of the parish and a passion for gambling on the horses. The swerve is so sudden that, for much of the next few chapters I assumed that it was only a brief visit to the country and failed to realise that the urban set up at the beginning of the book was in fact the minority part of the story. We are now in Miss Marple country and we move from modern psychological novel to Agatha Christie in full-on Vicarage mode, complete with a whodunnit. This swerves again into what I suppose might be thought of as a psychological thriller in which we see the beginnings of another relationship for Nicholas and glimpse (but only glimpse) once more the author's real facility for observing the minutiae of two people together, and then the twist that is finally revealed (although hinted for page after page) in the very last sentence, is sadly amateur in both substance and execution.
It's not an unenjoyable read. If you ever fancy having a go at writing a novel yourself this could be read as a study in how not to structure a story and how not to play to your strengths. Can I, after all that, still recommend this book to you? Almost... maybe...