A skilled but unoriginal satire on romantic delusions

Scandal, or Priscilla's Kindness, by A. N. Wilson. New York: The Viking Press. 233 pp. $15.95. ``Scandal'' is British author A. N. Wilson's seventh novel, his third to be published in the United States. He has also written biographies of Sir Walter Scott, Milton, and, most recently, Hilaire Belloc. For a man not yet 35, this is an extraordinary record, all the more so in view of how very beautifully Wilson writes.

``Wise Virgin,'' Wilson's sixth novel, was not only far and away his most impressive work of fiction to date, but also one of the funniest and most moving books I had read in recent years. ``Scandal,'' alas, is a less original book. Reading it, one somehow feels that its author had gotten near the bone in ``Wise Virgin,'' only to back away in his next novel by taking refuge in a story whose elements came prepackaged, hot (or no longer so hot) off the press.

Although clearly not a roman `a clef, ``Scandal'' naturally recalls such real-life scandals as the Profumo affair and the Jeremy Thorpe case. The old adage holds: Truth is stranger -- and more inventive -- than fiction. To anyone who has, for instance, followed the tangled tale of Messrs. Thorpe, Scott, et al, either as it unfolded in daily installments of the Times (London) or as it was later recounted in Auberon Waugh's polemical book ``The Last Word,'' ``Scandal'' may seem rather thin fare.

The story revolves around Derek Blore, an ambitious but doltish politician whose involvement with an exceedingly dimwitted prostitute leads to his being blackmailed by an enemy power. Blore's wife, Priscilla, is poised, beautiful, every inch a lady, but has a penchant for brief affairs with unsavory types, including a disreputable journalist. On hand to observe the complications are a happily married couple, Rachel and Hughie, who have recently made the Blores' acquaintance.

Hughie, however, pines for high romance. He sees in the shallow Priscilla the embodiment of his wish for a deeper, more spiritual, courtly kind of love. It is, I think, as an anatomist of love and its self-immunizing illusions that Wilson, an exceptionally skilled satirist, transcends the limits of satire. The minor subplot of Hughie's romantic delusion echoes the themes of Wilson's earlier novels but is not fully developed. Wilson instead seems content to produce a novelistic equivalent of the kind of comedy so popular on the London stage: an amusing entertainment concocted from stock characters and familiar situations. Perhaps the only genuine moment of feeling in ``Scandal'' is the tautly written chapter in which Blore's son, forced by his self-absorbed parents to return to boarding school and its inevitable humiliations, is shown to be the scandal's real victim.

Critics, like anxious educators, tend to evaluate writers in terms of their ``progress,'' as though artistic growth could be measured. But I am not sure it is reasonable to demand that an author's seventh novel be better than his sixth. Judged by Wilson's own high standard of writing, ``Scandal'' is something of a potboiler. But compared with the general run of novels, it is still an accomplished performance.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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