Good writing is economical," says Dirk Bogarde. "I try to keep it as simple, witty and civilized as possible." The words are a fitting description of Bogarde himself. At 60, he is every bit the dapper leading man whose unquestionable if elusive sophistication made him one of Britain's leading box office stars throughout the 1950s. More recently Bogarde has turned his stylish talents to a new, literary trade. Retreating from the movies to a restored 16th-century shepherd's house in southern France, Bogarde has published two well-received autobiographical volumes and a 1980 novel, A Gentle Occupation, which TIME hailed as "remarkably deft and moving." Now he is back this fall with a second novel, Voices in the Garden, whose reviews are equally glowing. ("A superior storyteller," praised Publishers Weekly.)

Bogarde dedicated the new novel to his good friends Charlotte Rampling, his co-star in The Night Porter, and her husband, French composer Jean-Michel Jarre. "They're young and alive," he explains, "and I hope the book is about youth and love and romance. If it isn't, I've come a cropper."

Unlikely, but even so, Dirk has a safety net. Ending his four-year break from acting, Bogarde returns in a forthcoming made-for-CBS bioflick playing his friend, author Roald Dahl, opposite Glenda Jackson as Patricia Neal. "I wanted to try the chemistry between the two of us," he says of Glenda. "Of all the performances I have given this is the best." Raves Jackson of her leading man: "It was love at first sight. He is surprisingly warm, not the distant intellectual."

Bogarde was christened Derek Jules Gaspard Ulric Niven Van den Bogaerde, a name worthy of his long Anglo-Dutch lineage which traces back to Anne of Cleves, the fourth bride (she only lasted six months) of Henry VIII. His father, Ulric, was art editor of the London Times. His mother, Margaret, was the actress daughter of Forrest Niven, a well-known turn-of-the-century actor and painter. An otherwise happy childhood was punctuated by an incident he graphically reports in his autobiography: At 13, he was molested by a man who had picked him up at a cinema and then bound his body mummy-like. The fright, he remembers, "taught me never to play truant again." Five years later Bogarde turned to acting, becoming a light romantic lead, and as late as 1963, he jokes, "I was bigger than the Beatles." Says Glenda Jackson, "It's incredible that he could go through all that cardboard stuff he had to do and survive." He has appeared in more than 60 pictures in 31 years, including 1964's The Servant, 1969's The Damned and 1971 's Death in Venice.

Bogarde's success gave him the financial freedom to emigrate from England in 1967. After two years in Rome, he moved to his present 12-acre property with 450 olive trees.

His author's ritual now starts with four hours of morning writing. "When I am on a book, there's nothing else," he says. "Writing must be kept simple. Like a good meal, it cannot be dripping with sauces." Bogarde already has three more books in the works: a children's tale, a third memoir and another novel. Another staple in his daily routine is shopping forays to the open market of nearby Grasse in a battered gray Renault station wagon with Anthony Forwood, 60ish, an ex-Royal Artillery captain and sometime actor whom Bogarde describes alternately as "manager" and "family." The ex-husband of actress Glynis Johns (their son, Gareth, 36, is Bogarde's godson), Forwood has known Dick for more than 40 years. Throughout, Bogarde has—publicly, at any rate—kept around his personal life a veil of secrecy ("Not anybody's business but mine" is his blunt cutoff to questions about it). His rationale: "Don't you think it's rather sensible? If you make yourself available to everyone, no one wants you. Rules of behavior are part of my hang-up. I have no creepy background to fear to face." As for women, he has never married and says, "I don't want to live with them or be subject to the rules and regulations of marriage."

Bogarde carries no worry lines about aging gracefully. "But I'd never do a bed scene with Bo Derek," he quips. "For her that would be verging on necrophilia." Writing is now his main love, anyway. "There's been the satisfaction of finding at my age a new career. Writing is sure as hell hard work, but so was acting." Shrugging, he adds: "I haven't done badly."