THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS to the general rule that a great biography can only be written about a great man or woman. Rupert Hart-Davis' life of Hugh Walpole is certainly among the most charming, compulsively readable books of our time; so too is A.J.A. Symons' The Quest for Corvo. And I think James Lees-Milne's life of Harold Nicolson will eventually take its place with these minor masterpieces, for it is composed with a feel for drama, pacing, and evocative, precise detail that makes every page a pleasure. I can hardly wait for volume two.

Harold Nicolson is probably remembered, if at all, as the husband of Vita Sackville-West; though both were primarily homosexual, their marriage survived numerous strains, conflicts, and illicit flings. As a writer, Nicolson was chiefly a litt,erateur, best known for his popular biographies (often of French literary figures) and his diaries, repositories of intimate, revealing glimpses of the artistic and political greats of England. The published diaries, however, cover only the years 1930-1964, beginning at age 44 when Nicolson left the diplomatic service to become first a journalist, later a politician, and finally a fulltime man of letters. So this biography, focusing in volume one on the earlier, unchronicled portion of Nicolson's life, provides much new information and diverting detail about this unusual man.

Lees-Milne organizes his book along three interwoven strands: Harold's key relationship with Vita, especially his patience during her affairs with Violet Trefusis, Geoffrey Scott, and Virginia Woolf; his professional career as a diplomat--in the Foreign Office, during the World War I, at the resulting peace negotations, and as an attach,e in the Near East; and his work as a man of letters, author of biographies of Byron, Swinburne, Tennyson and Verlaine, and of the charming, semi-fictional portraits of Some People. (Nabokov once said that "all his life he had been fighting against the influence of Some People, like a drug.") It is a measure of Lees- Milne's success that he makes foreign affairs as exciting as love affairs.

Though hardworking, meticulous in demeanor, and a master of crisp, clear exposition, to my mind Nicolson nonetheless lacks a certain tang to his personality. Malleable, serviceable, unaccountably chipper, he is too perfect, a man who "enjoys everything." Still it is hard to withhold sympathy from this (occasionally insipid) paragon when he is desperately trying to work out a European peace while his wife carooms around Italy with her female lover. In letters Vita gushes about passion, temporizes her return to their home at Long Barn, even indulges in a bit of transvestism; he kindly implores her to be reasonable, reminds her of their two young sons, calls her a saint.

The great passion of Harold's life, more than diplomacy or literature, really was Vita, although the lynx- eyed critic Raymond Mortimer--the man who gave V.S. Pritchett his start as a reviewer and the sometime mentor of Cyril Connolly--at one point nearly usurped her place. Lees-Milne offers a beguiling sketch of Mortimer, as well as anecdotes of Harold's encounters with better known artistic eccentrics such as Ronald Firbank, Lady Sackville, Edmund Gosse, Clive Bell, Sinclair Lewis, Virginia Woolf, Cocteau, Proust, and H.G. Wells.

Besides the accounts of European diplomatic maneuvers and the tangled Bloomsburyan life of Vita and Harold, Lees-Milne excels in finely written descriptions of travel in the Middle East, when cars regularly broke down in mid-desert and one would be greeted by dapper Englishmen in unexpected oases. On caravan in the Bakhtiari mountains Harold and Vita found themselves "furnished with a letter from the Governor of Deh Kurd, which translated ran; "If you do not show every courtesy and grant every facility to the above-mentioned noble persons, it will be extremely bad for you."

Anyone who relishes the English intellectual-political- sexual life of the teens and twenties will find this biography a treat. Who, after all, could resist a man who disarmingly observes: "I fear it is only lust which keeps one's mind buoyant?"