Piers Paul Read, the British novelist, went to live in France in 1979 with his wife and children. He was having trouble writing and thought it would perk him up. Naturally, he didn't get a thing done. "As soon as people knew we had a house in Nice," he says in his soft rushing schoolboy accent, "I worked as a hotelier. All the brothers and sisters and cousins and friends came out."

This is the kind of hard-edged little irony Read likes best, and he tells it dry and direct, just as he does in his books -- the poor, desperate author, his brain a clogged wasteland in the damp chill of his native Yorkshire, lighting out for sunny southern France only to have his spirit drowned in mindless seas of cheery fun.

But some good came of that year, too. Poking around in France, Read got an idea for a book, and now, with a first printing of 45,000 copies, Random House has brought out "The Free Frenchman" -- a thick, meticulously researched, highly readable novel about the Resistance, and lack of it, after France's surrender to Germany on June 22, 1940.

With testimony in the trial of Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo's "Butcher of Lyons," recapitulating ugly events of the occupation, Read's novel is freshly relevant. Much of what happened in the "nation of collaborators" was later smoothed over by Gen. Charles de Gaulle as he sought to unify the country after the war, but Read relentlessly reexamines those grim years.

The warring factions in the Resistance; the terrible betrayals of friends and comrades; the easy acceptance of, and even enthusiasm for, the Pe'tain government by so many, even as it branded de Gaulle and his Free French in London "traitors" and passed anti-Jewish laws more stringent than those of the Nazis; the Catholic Church's dismal record; Roosevelt's refusal to recognize de Gaulle; the Frenchmen who enlisted in the Nazi war machine -- it's all there.

While the author has a reputation as a "literary" Catholic novelist, he's a storyteller of the old school -- the narrative rips along as he progressively peels away the layers of time to reveal history's snake pit of political, sexual and familial passions.

In the novel, there's a bishop called Charles Ravanel. One day during the occupation, he is out walking with his great-niece when they see a man on a bicycle carrying a battered suitcase and, sitting on top of it, a boy 4 or 5 years old. As the riders pass, the man looks "down at the priest's cassock, then quickly away; but the child, who had the dark eyes, sallow skin and black hair of his father, stared at them as he rode past with tired, pitiful eyes."

Titine looked around to watch them as they reached the top of the hill and then coasted down toward the river and the Route Nationale.

"Who were they, I wonder?" she asked her great-uncle.

"Poor Jews," said the bishop.

"Were they really Jews?" she asked. "How do you know?"

"You can tell," said the bishop.

"What were they doing here, I wonder?"

The bishop said nothing.

"Looking for food, perhaps," said the child in a matter-of-fact voice.

Later, when he is saying mass, Ravanel calls to mind the Christ child, but "now, suddenly, as he conjured up this traditional image in his mind, the face which stared at him from the crib was not that of a smiling, blue-eyed baby but of the dark-eyed, frightened little Jew on the road from Pe'vier, clinging to his father's suitcase behind the bicycle."

The bishop uttered a cry and staggered back from the altar with Christ's words from the gospel of Saint Luke ringing in his ears: "If you do it to the least one of these, you do it to me." He stood paralyzed with horror at his own passivity. For a moment the deacons, subdeacons and other acolytes thought that he had suffered a stroke. They rushed forward to catch him, but the old man had not fallen.

Some of the lit-crits have called his writing "melodramatic."

Read retorts quietly, "I think quite a large number of my readers are carried along, and like it."

At 46, Read is a slim, courtly man. With his graying dark hair drifting down over his ears, his conservative suit and regimental tie, he conveys the perfect impression of what an American might imagine a British intellectual to look like.

With this deliciously mad touch: blue ankle socks. Quite a bright blue, too. Above black oxfords.

"It's a wretched life, a writer's life," he says, shooting a hangdog look at his visitor in an apparent effort to start off on a sympathetic note. "My father always tried to put me off it." In America for the publication of his new novel, Read was interviewed on a recent weekend in Georgetown, where he and his wife Emily were staying with friends.

Read's fiction hasn't caught on widely here, but he is known for "Alive" (1974), his riveting nonfiction account of how the survivors of an Andes plane crash ate their dead comrades while awaiting rescue. The book sold 250,000 copies in hardcover and 4 million more in paper, earning the author enough to continue writing novels.

"I think the typical reader of 'Alive' was a 15-year-old boy and not the sort of person who can enjoy my novels," Read says with a small smile. The novel "Polonaise," his next book, "sold very disappointingly. The kind of person who liked 'Alive' didn't want to read about a quirky Polish novelist with sexual hang-ups."

Yet the topic intrigued him. He had met Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz, a comic existentialist cult figure, in Berlin while on a Ford Foundation grant in 1963, and "based the character of Stefan Kornowski, who's the hero of 'Polonaise,' largely on this man ... I was going back to that period of history which I find so fascinating and which I think is crucial to European history, the Second World War and what leads up to it. But it's also dealing with sexual morality -- {Kornowski} sort of dabbles in sadism and masochism, and the problem of being a writer comes into it. I think it's probably my favorite novel."

His nine novels range from historical sagas ("The Junkers," 1968) to tales of tortured personal and domestic morality ("Monk Dawson," 1969; "A Married Man," 1979). "The Professor's Daughter" (1971) is set in the political and cultural tumult of '60s America. In "The Upstart" (1973), a young man is driven to rage and criminality by the humiliating slights he suffers under the English class system.

Read speaks rapidly and with a charming diffidence about incarnating ideas in fiction. While there seems to be no flamboyance in the man -- all is understatement and self-deprecating humor -- there is in the intensity of his words a suggestion of the passion that fills his work. He develops his characters in a full, almost old-fashioned way, and pays a great deal of attention to plot. Things happen in his books.

"I like a bit of denouement," he says.

And so do his readers. A Russian woman told him that reading "A Married Man" in translation finally "made her understand Russian men."

Small satisfaction for the pain of the writing life, which consists mainly of never having -- or being able to hold onto -- much money.

"Alive" made money, of course, and afterward there was a flurry of offers to do other "sensational nonfiction." One publisher wanted him to do Patty Hearst's story; Samuel Goldwyn Jr. asked for a biography of his legendary father.

Read turned them down. "I'd always regarded 'Alive' as a means to subsidize the writing of more fiction," he says. "I felt my vocation was as a novelist, and perhaps that's arrogance, but that's what fundamentally interested me -- art, trying to express philosophical and moral ideas through fiction."

But with a growing family, he needed money and was forced to sacrifice art for it. His life became a roller coaster of frustrating nonfiction efforts followed by novels that reviewers hailed as brilliant but that didn't sell.

In 1978 Read gave in to a lucrative offer to do "The Train Robbers," a nonfiction book based on interviews with the men who robbed the night mail train from Glasgow to London of $7 million -- the "crime of the century."

"It bombed," he says. "It's not worth reading." However, he was allowed to keep the large advances he had pocketed. He had hoped in researching the book to gather material on the criminal mind for future novels, but "it turned out to be a disaster because they were liars. It's the first thing I should have realized."

In 1979 Read published one of his most powerful novels, "A Married Man," in which the protagonist emerges from a whirlwind of adultery, deception and murder to realize that, although his wife is dead, he won't remarry because "I feel no less married to her than I did before."

This is typical Read. His emphasis on the torments of sexuality, which is fanned by his strong Catholic views, runs through all his work.

Again there was a nonfiction offer, and again Read succumbed -- this time for "a huge sum of money" to do a book on sex, marriage and family life.

This turned out to be the worst nightmare of all.

"I spent two years on that and it was a disaster," he says. "It was a hotch-potch of a book {containing} what you might call my religious theories on marriage ... The tone was wrong. I mean, my wife, you should hear her on the book. It had the tone of a sort of bigoted preacher ranting and raving about the sins of the flesh."

Harper & Row, his American publisher at the time, declined to print the book; his English publisher was "gamely" going ahead, but Read, coming to his senses, withdrew it.

His religious theory on marriage, Read explains, is basically that women should remain home and raise the children. He has written critically of the Catholic Church for not being as hard line on this matter as he is.

Despite all this, his novels are by no means preachy or antifeminist. "The Free Frenchman" has important women characters and powerful scenes depicting their social and sexual exploitation. "I hope my novels show that I love women," he says, "and I hope to empathize with their predicament."

His young wife, who has blond hair and a ready smile, is not Catholic and says there are many of her husband's ideas that she doesn't share.

However, she says, "Our life isn't really affected by his views. He's an extremely good father, and plays every bit as much a part in bringing up our children as I do, on all fronts."

Read's grandfather was a tenant farmer in Yorkshire, and his father, Sir Herbert Read, rose from humble origins to become a respected art critic, poet and publisher. Sir Herbert was a friend of T.S. Eliot, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson and others. Yet when Piers Paul was 8, his father elected to return to the Yorkshire countryside to live and work in relative isolation.

The effect on his sensitive son was traumatic.

"We were essentially middle-class children, and we'd moved to this place where there was no middle class," Read says. "In those days, it was a very sort of stratified society. It was like a human zoo of landowning upper classes and the farming people, whom my father had no more contact with because he'd been educated out of that class. We felt very sort of isolated."

This experience -- being looked down upon by the landowners -- and the rage that it caused in a young man is described in the first half of "The Upstart." The devastating effects of class division and hatred are important in all of Read's novels.

In "The Upstart," he says, "I wanted to try and create a character who was evil ... and what makes him evil {is} that kind of awful, insidious snobbery of the English upper classes. And to go back to history, I think a lot of revolutions and colonial movements of liberation take place because of individuals being humiliated by the social structure."

In "The Professor's Daughter," the heroine's yippie lover, a youth of working class origin, is propelled toward revolutionary violence by precisely this kind of rage.

Read's mother, a Catholic, raised him in the Church. He has been compared to Graham Greene, although "I don't really like him as a writer. My Catholicism tends to be domestic, in a sense, whereas his is very much outside the context of the family." Robert S. Bachelder, writing in Christianity Today, says he thinks that Greene "cannot equal the psychological density of {Read's} characterization."

Bachelder goes on to say that Read's theology, "instead of flattening his characters, illumines them by revealing their struggles to be what they are, in Eliot's words, 'moments of moral and spiritual struggle depending upon spiritual sanctions.' "

Read is more effective than most historical novelists in sparing his readers any sense that the material has been dustily researched.

"You can show the way history or politics is affected by people's private lives, as well as by public events," he says. "We live so much in an age of speciality, when you get experts on economics and experts who do demographic studies of village life in the 18th century, or something like that. But really, when you come down to it, why people behave in certain ways isn't for abstract, sociological and economic reasons -- it's often a blend of their ambition or their frustrations in life."

Bertrand de Roujay, the protagonist of "The Free Frenchman," belongs to an aristocratic, Catholic landowning family. He decides, against the advice of just about everyone and at the risk of his life, to escape to London and join de Gaulle's band of Free French.

Evenhis mother opposes him, and he tells her, "The Lord helps those who help themselves, Maman. It is a question of will -- the will of the French to survive as a nation, the will of individual French men and women. And I have that will, not just from a sentimental attachment to the tricolor and the 'Marseillaise,' but from a considered certainty that the values embodied in France are of unique value to the human race."

Despite the noble speech, de Roujay is something of a bumbler, and deeply flawed. His motives are mixed, his love life a mess, his values not always so clear.

"He's sort of hopeless in many ways," says Read, "and he's a weak man in many ways, and I think that's what I'm trying to say about the human condition -- that heroes aren't supermen. They're just ordinary men who, in one way or another, perhaps through some little quality in themselves, rise to the occasion."

What caught Read's fancy in France in 1979 was his discovery that the Corsican mafia had aided the Resistance in Marseilles during the war.

"That fascinated me," he says. "As a Catholic, I hate the kind of way politics appropriates morality. You know, people say if you're this or that political party, this is good. I think good and evil have nothing to do with politics, really. You get good and evil on both sides in politics, and the idea of these gangsters being Resistance, being the good guys but they were bad guys, fascinated me, because I thought it had this great ambiguity to it."

Read, a recipient of the Somerset Maugham Award and -- along with Robert Graves, Evelyn Waugh, Alan Sillitoe, V.S. Naipaul and others -- of the prestigious Hawthornden Prize, hopes the roller-coaster ride is over. He has switched to Random House, which is seeking, as it is called in the publishing world, a "breakthrough" with "The Free Frenchman."

His current project is a novel about a Czech dissident writer who goes to London and falls in love with an Englishwoman. Of course, she is married.

America, where he lived during the late '60s, studying and writing fiction in New York and Massachusetts, continues to intrigue him. During his visit here, the novelist's eye never stopped casting about.

"You're a funny country," he says. "We were just driving up from Monticello, and there's a gas station, and there's a Howard Johnson's, and -- suddenly -- there's a thing saying 'Palmistry.' And, you know, who are the people driving along who suddenly stop and have their palms read?"