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Author Displays Alluring Versatility, Unrealized Potential

PENFRIENDS FROM PORLOCK: ESSAYS AND REVIEWS 1977-1986 by A.N. Wilson, New York: Norton. 278 pp. $19.95


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by A.N. Wilson, New York: Viking. 250 pp. $17.95

THE prolific, multifaceted, yet distinctively idiosyncratic British writer A.N. Wilson is the author of four biographies (of Scott, Milton, Belloc, and Tolstoy) and, with the appearance of ``Incline Our Hearts,'' 11 novels, not to mention a quasi-metaphysical meditation on faith, ``How Can We Know?'' His idea of a vacation from such formidable literary labors is to write articles, like those now collected in ``Penfriends from Porlock.'' (Porlock was the provenance of the unexpected visitor whom Coleridge claimed interrupted his reverie as he was composing ``Kubla Khan,'' with the result that the poem remained a fragment.)

As might be expected of a collection of pieces written for various publications and occasions, ``Penfriends from Porlock'' is an uneven book. In it we see Wilson at his best - reflecting on the mores and manners of the Victorians - and at his weakest - in hastily-conceived pronouncements on topics he does not know much about, like the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson. By turns insightful and irritating, provocative and opinionated, these short pieces all display a certain amount of panache that makes them hard to resist dipping into.

Reading Wilson's fiction, as I do avidly, one becomes uncomfortably aware of a gap between his deepest, most fully accomplished works, like ``Wise Virgin,'' and more ephemeral ones, like ``Scandal.'' Is Wilson (who is not yet 40) writing at a pace too fast for his own good? Is he being distracted from his more important work by too many requests from journalistic friends? Whatever the cause or causes, Wilson's latest novel, ``Incline Our Hearts,'' exemplifies a promising idea that is not quite transformed into an artistic reality.

``Incline Our Hearts'' is presented as the first novel of a projected fictional sequence that will follow the life story of its narrator-hero, Julian Ramsay. The right elements are all in place: There are constant allusions to the great tradition of autobiography, as practiced in the works of Dickens, Orwell, Maugham, Renan, Joyce, and most of all, Proust. There are Joycean-Proustian ``epiphanies'' about love, art, and religion; there are Orwellian-Dickensian indictments of the British public school system, plus a Maugham-like paean to the freer, more fulfilling way of life glimpsed on a vacation in France. Julian's attitude toward himself finds a precedent in the self-critical self-revelations made famous by Rousseau.

THIS literary allusiveness is not in itself a flaw. The problem is that Wilson's treatment of the same material is so much thinner. Julian compares the public school system to the Soviet gulag, wryly noting that the Russians at least have the decency to be ashamed of the gulag, while the British consider their schools the envy of the world. But the experiences Julian recounts are far less harrowing than those related by Orwell or Dickens. Ditto for his idyll in France and his idle spell in the National Service.

Yet there are many rich veins that may still be developed: about literary celebrity, biography, gossip, love, and what it is that makes us so fascinated with the details of our own - and other people's - private lives.

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Julian has a kind of sinister opposite number called Raphael Hunter, who not only manages to exploit the love and trust of several key figures in Julian's life, but who also makes his name by writing precisely the kind of biographies that exploit and distort the dead. A more benign type of literary relationship is illustrated in the contrapuntal story of Julian's own changing attitude toward the subject of Hunter's biography, an old-fashioned writer named Petworth Lampitt. It's a brilliant and touching demonstration of the excitements, disappointments, and enduring satisfactions of literary infatuation.

Wilson is usually an exquisitely good writer. But in this novel he has problems with style and diction. He falls into the habit of using schoolboy slang, not only when appropriate, but also when it becomes precious and distracting.

Such shenanigans - amid allusions to Proust - may well leave the reader in some doubt as to whether Wilson intends this work as frail emulation or lame parody of the great master. One can only hope, in volumes to come, that Wilson will succeed in adjusting the delicate balance between playfulness and silliness, true feeling and sentimentality, to achieve the precise note of romantic irony that is clearly his aim.

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