Novel proffers rich, comic view of postwar life in Britain

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Paradise Postponed, by John Mortimer. New York: Viking. 374 pp. $17.95. John Mortimer, a successful London barrister himself, is the writer who delighted Masterpiece Theater viewers with his crumpled, rumpled ``Rumpole'' of the Old Bailey. They can thank him, too, for Evelyn Waugh's ``Brideshead Revisited'' -- he wrote the TV script.

With several novels, a successful play (``Voyage Around My Father''), and an autobiography (``Clinging to the Wreckage'') also to his credit, Mr. Mortimer has now come up with the enormous ``Paradise Postponed.'' And when I say ``enormous'' I am not referring to its 374 pages, but to the number of its characters (most of them thoroughly amoral), to its anecdotal episodes, to its sub-plots, and toits highly comic farce. Needless to say,it has a linking thread of main plot too, but it's so slender that it's almost invisible, particularly in the first half of the book.

Because of all this richness (the humor, constant flashbacks, and the way Britain's concerns of the day -- post-World War II -- are woven into its very fabric), critic Wendy Lesser has, with reason, welcomed the book in the New York Times Book Review as a modern-day equivalent of the Victorian-Edwardian novel.

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``Paradise Postponed'' is indeed full of echoes, satisfying echoes, of important novelists, though not all of that period.

Its cynicism and settings suggest the early Waugh novels. Mortimer's characters are not drawn on Waugh's far larger-than-life scale, but would fit in happily with most of the characters in ``Decline and Fall.'' Grace Fanner would be quite at ease taking tea with the Hon. Margot Beste-Chetwynde, though the pair would never be close -- they are both too heartless for that.

As for the snobbish Young Conservatives who chucked Mortimer's upstart, Leslie Titmuss, into the river, they must all be entitled to wear the same old school tie as the Waugh hearties who debagged Paul Pennyfeather and dunked him in the college fountain.

And surely Mortimer displays some of Oscar Wilde's flair for an epigram:

``The only excuse for dieting is poverty.''

``Charity . . . begins in other people's homes.''

``The only thing people tell are secrets.''

``The greatest responsibility of all is being loved.''

``Guilt is a most malignant disease.''

Money and power ``only stay with those who have a certain contempt for them.''

A Wilde-like fascination with paradoxes also shows up in ``Paradise Postponed.'' A doctor disparages his calling (considering the sick ``the most pampered and privileged class of people''); a mother dislikes her young daughter; a minister holds unusual views on Christianity (``[Christians] seem to find starving children rather useful. I mean there has to be someone to receive the collection'').

It's the Minister, the Rev. Simeon Simcox, who's responsible for the mystery that makes up the main plot -- such as it is. Why on earth did he, a dedicated left-winger who expects paradise on earth to roll in with a Labour government, leave all his money to an unpleasant right-wing politician, Leslie Titmuss, surely a direct descendant of that creep of creeps, Dickens's Uriah Heep. Only by slowly disentangling a web of subplots and complicated relationships involving almost every class of British society can that mystery be unraveled.

It would be a mistake to suppose that Mortimer has nothing but bitter comedy, mystery, and echoes of other men to offer us. His own voice can be heard soberly warning, through his characters' machinations, that most men's ideas of paradise are doomed to be indefinitely postponed or dissolved into ashes.

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