In a literary career noted for its variety Francis King, who has died aged 88, served the British Council in four countries, published more than 30 novels, many semi-autobiographical, across more than six decades, and in a lengthy association with the Sunday Telegraph was a regular fiction reviewer and for 10 years its drama critic.
If, commercially, he failed to reach the top rung of the fiction ladder he blamed himself. "I have never wished to be identified with only one type of fiction," he wrote in 1976. "Perhaps this has harmed me in popular esteem; the public tends to like its novelists to write the same novel over and over again." One further explanation for his lack of commercial popularity was what King himself recognised as his "profound, if resigned, pessimism about the world". Others identified melancholy in his work.
By then, he had suffered a long- running legal action over his 1970 novel A Domestic Animal, about unreciprocated homosexual love, which, although it never reached court, was to land him with substantial costs. King was living in Brighton where a neighbour, the former Labour MP Tom Skeffington-Lodge, read a pre-publication copy of the novel and took exception to a politician that King included. King called her Dame Winifred Harcourt, but Skeffington-Lodge considered that King had created a thinly disguised portrait of him. King included a scene lifted directly from Skeffington-Lodge's life and thought that by changing the character into a woman he was legally safe.
The streak of naivety that marked King's career surfaced when he wrote an apology to Skeffington-Lodge, who had sought an opinion from Lord Hailsham, then a practising barrister. With this admission, King was advised to settle the case out of court and the novel was withdrawn days before it was due to be published. However, that was not the end of the story. King substantially revised A Domestic Animal – like much of his work "suffused with homosexuality", as one commentator remarked, and which he himself thought came "nearest to saying what I wanted to say", but which "cost me most". The novel, once published, was rarely out of print over the next 40 years. Last year, it was longlisted for the "lost Booker" prize.
King used the experience in two subsequent books, The Action, a novel, published in 1978, which tells of a neurotic woman who brings a lawsuit against a writer she is convinced has libelled her, and his autobiography Yesterday Came Suddenly (1993). By then, it was possible to write openly about his own homosexual relationships, whereas in 1956, in pre-Wolfenden days, he had been required by his employers, the British Council, to publish The Firewalkers, which although fiction he described as a memoir, under the nom de plume Frank Cauldwell.
King was born in a hotel at Adelboden in Switzerland, where his father, who had a career first in the Indian Police and later in its Intelligence Bureau, was being treated for tuberculosis. He died when his son was 13. King spent his early years with his family in India, but aged eight was dispatched to England to a boarding school where he proved academically accomplished and gained classical scholarships to Shrewsbury school and Balliol College, Oxford.
By the third year of the second world war he had become a pacifist and pleaded conscientious objection. In his memoirs, he confessed that at the time he had a horror of taking life. After one year at Oxford he was sent to work on a smallholding in Essex, but in his spare time wrote poetry (the poet John Lehmann had earlier included some of his work in Z, an inter-varsity magazine that had a brief life), and his first novel, which he had sketched out while an undergraduate.
This, To the Dark Tower, like his other early fiction, reflected the loneliness in his own life. It was published in 1946 by the new firm of Home and Van Thal, Home being the mother of prime minister Alec and the playwright William Douglas-Home. King called Bertie Van Thal, the other half of the firm, "the presiding spirit". Home and Van Thal published two further novels of King's before going bankrupt.
With the war over, King returned to Oxford, where he read English. He was quickly making important friendships that would endure, among them with Angus Wilson, not yet a novelist, but working at the British Museum, CP Snow and JR Ackerley, literary editor of the Spectator, who hired King as a reviewer of fiction when he was still at Oxford. Later, he would be praised for the way he edited Ackerley's diaries, My Father and Myself (1968). King also enjoyed a friendship with EM Forster late in Forster's life, writing EM Forster and His World in 1978. Female writers, too, were important to him, not least Ivy Compton-Burnett and Olivia Manning, whose literary executor King would become.
The writing life was hardly sufficient to keep King afloat financially. Seeking a career, in 1949 he applied to join the British Council, which sent him first to Florence. He was later to serve in Salonika, Athens and Helsinki before moving to Japan in 1959, as regional representative in Kyoto. During these years he entertained scores of British writers, but he increasingly found it a treadmill, which impeded his own writing, although The Dividing Stream (1951), drawing on his experience of postwar Italy, won him the Somerset Maugham award.
He admitted in his memoirs that in retrospect he should have considered staying in Japan, earning a substantial salary teaching English or working in a Japanese university. In Japan, he had a long relationship with a young male student, originally hired as a live-in driver for his Cadillac. As he recollected years afterwards, this was the first time he had enjoyed a constant companion, which convinced him that such a relationship was essential for his happiness. Others followed. This affected his fiction; where once isolation had been pre-eminent, now, as he himself admitted, envy and jealousy, "the least attractive of human traits, had taken over".
The friendships he made with visiting writers during his time with the British Council proved an advantage when he returned to Britain in 1966. He was soon to become an established figure in literary circles, serving as president and vice-president of the English branch of the writers' association PEN, president of International PEN and chairman of the Society of Authors.
Japan figured extensively in his subsequent writing and he considered The Custom House (1961), with its understanding of the complexities of Japanese society, his most successful novel. His fiction was often set outside Britain, which, as he observed, meant that he was able to avoid preoccupation with class, unlike so many writers of his generation. "A genuinely cosmopolitan writer," the critic Sylvia Clayton called him: the city of Florence features in The Dividing Stream, and Greece and Corfu in The Dark Glasses (1954).
His fiction also often drew on his own experiences – wartime London in The Widow (1957), wartime country life in A Game of Patience (1974), growing up in India in Never Again (1947) – which provided, as he recalled, the "imaginative stimulation". His humour was often waspish and he enjoyed puns. Reviewing a novel by Storm Jameson, he dismissed it as "Storm in a Poole Pottery teacup".
As a writer he was loyal, enjoying lengthy professional relationships with two editors, John Guest at Longman for 20 years from the early 1950s and later Harold Harris at Hutchinson. Although he thought of himself first as a novelist, his short stories were highly considered, even when the form was out of fashion. He wrote many that made up a volume, The Brighton Belle (1968), on an Arts Council grant. The Japanese Umbrella (1964) won him the Katherine Mansfield short story prize.
He was never shy of taking on "hack work". He helped the popular journalist Godfrey Winn with the second volume of his memoirs (the first had bruising reviews). He also "knocked into shape" the autobiography of a billionaire (anonymity was part of their agreement), being paid with a Daimler, even though at the time he had not learned to drive. For some years after returning from Japan he worked as a literary adviser to two publishing houses, Weidenfeld & Nicolson and Macdonald.
In 1978, he succeeded Frank Marcus as drama critic of the Sunday Telegraph. In 1988 he was operated on for a malignancy in his bowel. Surviving and seeing each additional year as a bonus he continued to write novels. One of them, The Nick of Time (2003), reached the Booker longlist and the most recent was Cold Snap (2010). King was appointed OBE in 1979, advanced to CBE in 1985, and was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He is survived by his civil partner, Karim Deham, and two sisters, Pamela and Elizabeth, as well as two nieces.
Jonathan Fryer writes: Having been forced to sell his Brighton home to settle the damages of the Skeffington-Lodge affair, Francis rented a small house in Kensington, west London, which he later extended and filled with beautiful pictures and antiques garnered during his peripatetic early career. Once freed from the nightly grind of theatre reviewing in London, however, he became an indefatigable host, putting on a series of lunches and dinners, catered for from the local Marks & Spencer. His circle of friends and acquaintances was enormous and even a complete stranger who had found his telephone number in Who's Who would more likely than not be invited around at least for tea.
Francis loved to travel, developing a passion for Egypt. Always immaculately turned out in suit and tie, he had the exquisite manners and precise diction of a former age. Though a strong supporter of the Conservative party, he held some radical views, not least relating to his sexuality. He was a prolific correspondent and took great delight in private missives in adopting fake personas of both genders, notably the putative Italian aristocrat, Francesca di Rimini Pimini. Francis claimed that the letters page of one edition of the Spectator was entirely filled with spoof letters he had sent from backwoods' colonels and spinsters.
He was an extraordinarily kind and generous man, his generosity latterly obliging him to sell of some of his best paintings, including a magnificent Duncan Grant. His tolerance of some of his acquaintances' dishonesty and unpleasantness puzzled many of his friends; despite being such a good man himself, he was fascinated by meanness and evil – as is reflected in some of the characters in his books.
• Francis Henry King, writer, born 4 March 1923; died 3 July 2011