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This review is taken from PN Review 96, Volume 20 Number 4, March - April 1994.


When he was going blind somebody suggested to Sartre that he should use a dictating machine. The old man was shocked: you can't get three layers of meaning, he is said to have snapped, out of a machine. At a moment when many a fiction appears to bear at least the machine-marks of dictation, A Double Life is a highly written novel.

The hero is a French diplomat, Guy de Roumegouse, and the layered style cloaks the man like a cape of many linings. His recollections of his experiences in the Resistence, of his career, his wives and his women (prostitutes mainly) are embedded in narrative yet relentlessly analytical. Though full of incident, emotionally it is a dead life, written up with a chilled elegance, like a despatch from the tomb. The result is rich with the sap of suppressed feeling.

It happens that, having worked with French diplomats in Paris and other capitals, I can vouch for Guy de Roumegouse's existence as a type - for his intellectual humanity so to speak. Guy knows his job, in both senses. He compares his functions to those of Pia, his Roman prostitute friend: 'The wooing of colleagues and foreign dignitaries might be devoid of any emotional element, but it required the same frigid attentiveness which is the mark of the competent whore. Like a diplomat, Pia knew how to ritualise routine, so raising it to the level of a courtesy, or even a favour.' Fortunately Pia's ...

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