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November 12, 1995|CHARLES SOLOMON

WHILE ENGLAND SLEEPS by David Leavitt (Houghton Mifflin: $11.95; 284 pp.). Leavitt's novel provoked a plagiarism suit from poet Stephen Spender, who claimed that the story was based too closely on his life--a charge Leavitt dismisses in a rather ingenuous new introduction. Set in London on the eve of World War II, "While England Sleeps" is narrated by Brian Botsford, an upper-middle-class writer manque who falls in love with Edward Phelan, an idealistic working-class lad. Botsford's emotional dishonesty precipitates a tragedy that forces him to examine the consequences of his actions. It's unlikely anyone would have paid much attention to this novel without Spender's lawsuit, as it hardly ranks among Leavitt's better work. The characters are both improbable and unlikable: Botsford shifts between obnoxious and loathsome, while Phelan seems too good to be true.

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