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The Lost Language of Leavitt : WHILE ENGLAND SLEEPS By David Leavitt (Viking: $22; 304 pp.)

October 03, 1993|D.T. Max | D.T. Max is book editor of the New York Observer

At a Communist party meeting to raise volunteers for the Republican side in the war against Franco, Botsford meets Edward Phelan, a strapping, young lower-class Metro ticket-taker. They fall in love: "I noticed an attractive boy of 19 or so standing alone at a slight distance from the chatting crowd. . . . His hair was dark blond, shaggy and haphazardly cut, and he had a bracingly clean face and green eyes. . . . Our eyes met. . . ." Quickly they tumble into bed; Edward moves into Brian's house as a roommate, then finds himself cast out, the victim of a combination of class prejudice and Botsford's misguided belief he is about to marry the girl his aunt has selected for him. Disconsolate, Edward ships off to fight in Spain, and Brian realizes what a fool he's been. He engineers an assignment from a Communist party paper that requires a visit to Spain, and begins the chase to reunite with his one true love, a journey that takes him from battle front to prison to shattered town.

"While England Sleeps" owes a lot to the accounts of the lives of the famous 1930s Oxford gay literary circle of W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood (whose stories of Weimar Berlin were filmed as "Cabaret"). Spender, at least, feels it owes too much. The 84-year-old author has raised strenuous pre-publication objections to Leavitt's novel in the British press and the Washington Post, claiming it steals from his out-of-print 1951 memoir, "World Within World." Much of Botsford's life is clearly based on Spender's. Leavitt has poached wholesale Spender's story of how he tried to retrieve his friend--and presumably lover--Jimmy from a Spanish prison. How strange for Spender to see his sex life at that time invented by a man born 30 years later!

Fictional borrowing must pass a smell test distinct from the more legal standard that applies to nonfiction. Simply put, a novel must stand on its own, presenting an internal artistic logic separate from its sources. This "While England Sleeps" does not always do. Take, for instance, a conversation Spender recounts having with Isherwood in which the latter warns Spender, who is rapidly becoming famous, that he will no longer tolerate his company in Berlin, which he regards as his turf: "He disliked seeing me transformed from his Berlin disciple into a London literary figure," Spender writes. When the anecdote appears dramatized in "While England Sleeps," the warning to Botsford from his well-known poet friend Nigel makes less sense. Botsford is unpublished and unknown; he is no challenge to Nigel.

A careful reading of "World Within World" shows Spender's charge of plagiarism to be over the top--all the novel's words seem Leavitt's own--but a charge of laziness would be far harder to disprove, and the knowledge of it mars an otherwise graceful, romantic novel.

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