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Frank Tuohy

Obituary: Frank Tuohy (London Times)

WHEN FRANK Tuohy was born, it was soon discovered that he had a then inoperable heart condition, a hole in the heart, and his father, a doctor of Irish origin, came to the tragic conclusion that it was extremely unlikely that he would survive into his twenties. It was only after the introduction of open-heart surgery, when Tuohy was already in his forties, that a successful operation was performed. Now, instead of living with the fear that each day might be his last, Tuohy suddenly realised that he could look forward to a normal life span.

That for so many years he lived so closely with the idea of imminent death must have accounted, in some part at least, for the stoical fatalism that he brought in equal measure to his writings and his life. Both were not without their fun - he had a ready wit, an acute sense of the ridiculous, and an ability to enjoy himself and give enjoyment to others if they were the right sort of people and he in the right mood - but in both books and life he gave the impression of always being morbidly aware of human mortality.

It was the fragility of his health that resulted in his failure, despite success in Moral Sciences and English at King's College, Cambridge, to be accepted into the permanent service of the British Council. Instead, the Council appointed him to a number of academic posts abroad.

The second of these, after a brief period in Finland, was a six-year tenure of the Chair of English Literature at Sao Paulo University, Brazil, which provided him with the inspiration for two novels set in a South America of corruption, erratic passions, and political disorder.

The first of these novels, The Animal Game (1957) centres on a numbers game in which the numbers have the names of animals. All the characters, Tuohy suggests, have entered a lottery merely by living. The same theme of life being dominated by capricious chance was to reappear, explicitly or implicitly, in much else that he wrote. After this brilliant debut he produced a successor, The Warm Nights of January (1960), no less remarkable in its ability, in a mere 200 pages, to distil the essence, potent and sometimes even lethal, of life in an environment so different from the cultivated, prosperous, upper middle-class one in which he had been brought up.

A posting to Krakow University resulted in The Ice Saints (1964). The year is 1960, and a young English girl arrives in a university town of People's Poland, on a visit to her elder sister, who is married to a Polish professor, also a party member. Inevitably, it is only a matter of time before national conventions and beliefs come into collision with each other, and before the unsophisticated English girl falls in love with a highly sophisticated and, it finally emerges, duplicitous Pole.

The only failure of this novel is Tuohy's shirking of any attempt to describe the sexual seduction of the girl by the man. It is about to take place, and then it has taken place; there is nothing in between. As a writer, Tuohy resembled Somerset Maugham in being ill at ease with sex, usually viewing it as something at best ludicrous and at worst nasty. In all other respects this is a masterly novel, at once ferociously funny and compassionately sad in its depiction of the subterfuges and small betrayals by which people struggle to survive in a Communist state.

After these three books, which, in the words of C.P. Snow, established Tuohy "in the first flight of English novelists," he produced no more novels. There was, fortunately, the compensation of three marvellously varied and rich collections of short stories.

Critics often compared him to Chekhov in his deceptively matter-of- fact manner and the way in which the events that he described were so often a part of everyone's experience. But a comparison to Maupassant would be even more apt. Each story, mordant, concise and a small miracle of construction, represents, as he himself put it, "a painful bite down on the rotten tooth of fact".

In his latter years, Tuohy's output dwindled sadly. Even the honours which came his way - among them, the Katherine Mansfield Short Story Prize for his first book of stories The Admiral and the Nuns in 1960, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for The Ice Saints in 1965, and the final accolade of the E.M. Forster Award of the American Institute of Arts and Letters in 1972 - did not dissolve the recurrent writer's block from which he suffered.

For some 20 years, while filling unexacting but lucrative university posts in Japan, he was working on a fourth novel, left uncompleted on his death. When not engaged on it, he wrote an excellent biography of Yeats, a short book about Portugal, and some more fine short stories.

His lack of productivity may have accounted, in part at least, for his intermittent sombreness and misanthropy during his last years. Frank Tuohy set extremely high standards for others in his brilliant and far too rare work as a reviewer. He set even higher standards for himself, and destroyed anything that in his opinion, fell below them. That was admirable, but also a cause for regret.

Even at his second best he was better than most of his contemporaries at their best. John Francis Tuohy, novelist and short story writer: born Uckfield, East Sussex 2 May 1925; Professor of English Language and Literature, University of Sao Paulo 1950-56; FRSL 1965; died Shepton Mallet, Somerset 11 April 1999.