Dirk Bogarde calls his muse a dud, but in my opinion she's simply bushed. Who wouldn't be, after years of such intensive, versatile inspiration, ranging from his youthful poetry and art, through 60 motion pictures of steadily building excellence, to (since 1977) two books of topnotch film-star autobiography and two strikingly adept novels? If she falters at all, in this thoughtful third volume of his memoirs, it's only for a few pages, until he manages to "grab her, wrestle with her, beat her about like a drunk." Curiously enough, this muse abuse seems to work, for she has picked herself up and pointed him on to another signal triumph.
That's not to say that "An Orderly Man" will appeal to readers who devoured "Snakes and Ladders" for its anecdotes (even then, poignant rather than sensational) about such stars as Judy Garland, Noel Coward and Kay Kendall. Here Bogarde moves on to a new homeland, but returns to the same country of the spirit he roamed in his first book, "A Postillion Struck By Lightning." Major features of the landscape are the domestic details of his life (now in his new, 500-year-old house in France) and his relationship with his sister Elizabeth and his parents. He still has yarns to tell about such film-world greats as Luchino Visconti and Sir John Gielgud, but the movies slip in billing as he finds himself increasingly fulfilled by the difficulties and delights of running his household, and the development of his literary career.
After a bewildering history of real-estate shuffling, Bogarde finds his last resort on the Riveria, where the problems of renovating and managing his 12-acre estate seem formidable. This plunges us immediately into a continental version of "Mr. Blandings Rebuilds His Dream House." But just as the reader becomes surfeited with the depressing vagaries of ancient plumbing, rats in the roof, and 400 dying olive trees, his parents arrive to leave the first "layer" of memories upon his remodeled home, to "start the slow, subtle application of a patina of life on it."
In the absence of wife or children (marriages are "made in a double bed, and when that wears off there's not much left except habit, or duty") his deepest familial ties are reserved for Elizabeth, with whom he has continued the childhood relationship celebrated in "Postillion," and his parents, elderly now and presented with fond sensitivity. His beautiful, mercurial mother forever marked by her frustrated career as an actress, and his father, dry, reserved, and orderly as Bogarde himself--they steal the scene whenever they're on stage.
Two other figures dominate the pages as well, the American Mrs. X, who helped to patch up the "draughty holes" of the intellectual fabric of his life through their 5-year correspondence, and Norah Smallwood, a rather misty presence on the board of directors of his English publisher.
Although Bogarde is obviously caught up in his successful new career, he by no means ignores his work in films. This period covers some of his most important ones, including "The Night Porter," "Providence," "A Bridge Too Far," and "Despair." His analytical habits produce interesting conclusions about movie acting ("performing before a camera is what you don't do. You work to it. And beyond it"); the movie business ("The Seventh Art is now but a small part of Big Business"); and the relative lack of success of his later films in America (the United States "is an immigrant land" and has simplified out "the wit, the nuance, the irony, and, perhaps above all, the style of the English language" so that "a film like 'Providence,' based on these very essentials of speech," is sure to "founder as it did").
Certainly, what with tombola stalls, Harpic down the lav, and "Dr. Stiffkey sitting in his barrel on Blackpool Pier," Bogarde doesn't always talk American. Also, he rather cherishes certain perverse curmudgeonries, like disliking autumn and hating Christmas. Furthermore, I suspect he may protest his orderliness too much: there's an impression here of more turbulent depths that he does not plumb, nor, I hasten to add, need he do so to satisfy a reader's crude curiosity. (No randy jokes here, he warns, or "who I slept with, that kind of thing," and what a relief it is not to watch dirty laundry flapping in the breeze.) Less forgivable is his tendency to shove people into the action without introducing them, a result, no doubt, of his orderly expectation that everyone will have already read the two preceding volumes.
Nevertheless, Bogarde neatly settles any argument over whether he is an actor who can write or a writer who can act. Thanks perhaps to that poor bruised muse, Bogarde has turned out to be an artist who jolly well does both.