DIRK BOGARDE's second novel concerns itself with self-deception and pretense. An elderly couple on the French Riviera lives in the past; the husband is a military historian whose mind is occupied almost entirely by the matters he writes about, and the wife conducts an elaborate social life that really belongs to an earlier time, when the voices in her garden were of much more glamorous people than they have been recently. Early in the novel, in a moment of truth which we fully understand only later, she makes a clumsy suicide attempt, and is rescued by an idling beachcomber named Marcus Pollock.

Raised by bitter failed actors whose whole lives were p Worretense, Marcus is, like many another young person, looking for truth, and at first he is unimpressed with "the silence of discretion, incomprehension, good manners" that he finds at this villa on the Riviera. He is not aware that the scruffy hippy girl who accompanies him is actually a German countess, nor is he aware that good manners can be a form of courtesy, even of love. It is through the gentle interaction of these two couples--one at the beginning of their adult lives, the other at the end--that the novel develops its themes.

Bogarde has taken the glamorous background of a commercial novel and written artistically about it; he is particularly adept at describing natural settings and at capturing the vapid chitchat of aristocrats and movie people. Much of the first half of his book is taken up with the past lives of his characters, and though these flashbacks are interesting, they seem the work of a garrulous storyteller who cannot get on with things. The novel's action really begins about halfway through, with the arrival of a yacht- load of movie people who force the characters at the villa to confront themselves. Voices in the Garden is essentially romantic in its conception, with an ending that is perhaps too neat and that verges precariously on sentimentality, but it is saved by its clear-eyed writing and memorable characters, particularly its women. In an age when much fiction concerns itself with raw truth, Bogarde recalls an earlier time when people understood the uses of pretense.