Magazine article The Spectator

A Big Talent Spotted

Magazine article The Spectator

A Big Talent Spotted

Article excerpt

L. A. MIRAGE by Anne Lambton Timewell, £14.99, pp. 220, ISBN 9781857252200 . £11.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

In the late 1960s I was reviewing books in the Sunday Times alongside the great Cyril Connolly, and got to know him a bit. He said that the moment which compensated for the acres of tripe he had had to plough through in his career as a critic was when one of Evelyn Waugh's early novels landed on his desk. He recognised genius.

In over 40 years of reviewing I have been waiting for that 'A star is born' moment, and I think it has now come. I could be making as big a howler as Gertrude Stein when she claimed that Sir Francis Rose was an artist in the same league as Picasso; but Anne Lambton's short stories -- her first book -- strike me as of superfine quality: the emotional insight of Katherine Mansfield, the satirical edge of Angus Wilson.

A little biographical detail is needed.

Anne Lambton's father was the very rich Lord Lambton, who renounced his peerage but had to resign as a junior defence minister after being photographed in bed with two prostitutes. Anne nearly married Andy Warhol (not everyone's idea of husband material), but failed to agree a suitable prenup with the artist whose 'bodyguard' she had become.

This background is relevant. Many of the stories are about people whose fortune is their misfortune -- poor little rich girls and shop-soiled debs' delights. They are not quite riches-to-rags tales but head that way. Lambton's extraordinary life equips her to write about high society, café society, artists, art galleries, musicians and filming. It is a background that sets her apart; but what is lost in universality is gained in the open sesame to privileged enclaves and way-out coteries. Giuseppe di Lampedusa (another writer with whom she bears comparison) gives us similar access.

Lambton's title story and others are set in Los Angeles. I lived there for five years, working on the Los Angeles Times, and recognise many of the settings she describes, including the city's oldest restaurant (1913), Musso and Frank's, with its 'crotchety old waiter'. Just like one of Lambton's heroines I developed 'a perverse fondness' for that man's grumpy backchat -- though he met his match in my friend, the late film producer Jerry Bick, who ordered oysters, adding with a snarl, 'And I don't want them all slarpy [sloppy].' Had we but world enough and time I would like to quote passage after passage to demonstrate Lambton's mastery of language, her power when she chooses to unleash it, and her perfectly confected, perfectly aimed humour. She also has a superb ear for dialogue -- I am tempted to say memory of dialogue, because the exchanges ring so true that it is difficult to believe they have been invented rather than overheard.

The stories are not mere exercises in verbal pattern-making. They have expertly honed plots. Some end with punchlines; others abruptly cut out like speedboat engines. Lambton understands people in all their complexity and also observes how businesses work. (She had ample opportunity at Warhol's 'Factory'). When the father of Toby Moore, a Colorado boy, notes global warming and turns his sawmill into an orchid farm, 'from that moment on the entire Moore operation changed from dramatically noisy to remarkably quiet working days'. Toby is the hero of the title story, driving his 1956 Ford pick-up to the City of Angels. …

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