A Late Child: The Fiction of Angus Wilson




IN THE SPRING of 1991, I was a student in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. The course, the first of its kind in Britain, had been started in 1970 by the novelists Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson, both of whom had been impressed with the burgeoning discipline on visits to American universities. There was — and would remain — a lot of British skepticism about the workshop approach to writing, but UEA proved to be an excellent bridgehead for this new kind of graduate program.

Two decades later, the UEA course had become known for such significant alumni as Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro, and distinguished teachers such as Angela Carter and Rose Tremain. Bradbury was still very much at the helm, but the retired Wilson — now Sir Angus Wilson — was something of a ghost in the program, at least for us students. In the fall, at the dinner celebrating the course’s 20th anniversary, Malcolm had said, with typical British understatement, that Angus was “not at all well,” and mention was made of successful efforts the year before to organize a gala event in his honor. Someone at my table said that Angus had moved to France, where wider society paid him a lot more respect; there he was Monsieur Wilson, l’écrivain.

In fact, Angus and his partner, Tony Garrett, had by this time moved back to England. (This, and so much else, I learned from Margaret Drabble’s authoritative Angus Wilson: A Biography, published in 1995. It’s an illuminating account of the vagaries of the writing life, and Tony is its quiet hero.) Angus was now resident in an East Anglian nursing home. In France, both his health and his finances had failed; that gala had been a fundraising event, part of a campaign by friends and admirers to make sure that this literary knight did not end his days in the penury he had feared all his life. Long before the term was invented, Angus Wilson was a card-carrying member of the precariat.

That spring, I was part of a group of graduate students invited to a discussion recorded by a BBC film crew. A classmate had told me that they were in East Anglia to do a documentary on Angus, but there was an agenda. The interviewer had us chatting away for maybe a quarter of an hour about contemporary writers we thought were important — I imagine we mentioned various magic and dirty realists — and then pointed out that none of us had mentioned Angus Wilson. Were any of us Wilson readers? With perhaps one exception, heads shook. I remember an atmosphere of slight discomfort, quickly dissipated. By the time the documentary was broadcast in the fall of 1991, Angus had died at the age of 77.

These days, the only Angus Wilson book you are likely to find on the shelves of American bookstores is his 1956 novel, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (the title is a Lewis Carroll allusion, from the world of the White Knight, not white nationalism). NYRB Classics handsomely republished it back in 2005, with an introduction by Jane Smiley. In 2008, the Faber Finds series did the worthy service of putting all of his fiction — eight novels and three story collections — back in circulation. Readers in the US can still order these titles as ebooks or print-on-demand paperbacks, but they are very hit-and-miss in terms of typographical accuracy. None of the loving efforts to make his work prominent again, even in his centenary year of 2013, have ever quite brought about the Angus Wilson revival that he and we deserve.

This is quite the vanishing act, and it did not happen, to use the title of his penultimate novel, As If By Magic (1973). There was something to that BBC doc’s thesis that the author had become less relevant in his own time. Alienated and ill, he did not write a novel in the last decade of his life. Before that, he had spent many years tuning into, and being anxious to tune into, “the music of what happens” in British and global culture. (His confrère Bradbury had a similar kind of imaginative engagement; I remember being astonished when he told me one time, nonchalantly, that his novels were out-of-date as soon as they were published.) Wilson was a stalwart of the non-communist left, and the objective correlative of his disenchantment was Mrs. Thatcher. Comments in a 1983 letter on the “Thatcherite life” (quoted in Drabble) now read as prophetic rather than dated: “I fear that we shall turn […] into Benthamite high producing, technological workday people who […] simply watch and eat and never come alive.” Out of temper with the zeitgeist, Wilson went into exile from his own achievement, and he’s never really come back.

In American terms, it’s as if Saul Bellow, another novelist with a high profile in the 1950s and ’60s, had fallen into near obscurity. (They are in some ways very different writers, but they were contemporaries and, both great talkers, got along famously when they met one time in Rome.) The capstone of Wilson’s career as a writer of short fiction (the novel became his signature genre after this) was two stories published in The New Yorker in 1957. At a 1963 writers’ conference in the Soviet Union, he was one of a select number of Western delegates, including Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, picked to meet with Khrushchev. A mature student at UEA told me that she and her husband used to read Wilson’s novels as soon as they were published.

Moreover, Wilson was that midcentury rarity: an out gay writer (although guardedly so, for very good reasons, until the 1980s). His fictional oeuvre is notable for normalizing the inclusion of queer characters; they are in every one of his novels. (Interestingly, queer rather than gay was his preferred term.) Wilson reveled in the capaciousness of the novel form, and he used that liberal space to create a diverse array of people. I like Drabble’s distillation: “Angus extended the map of the human.”

That bold cartography ended too soon. It also took quite a long time to get started. Wilson was 36 when his first book, The Wrong Set, was published in 1949. His fiction, like its author, was a “late child” (as he put it in his 1963 book, The Wild Garden, or Speaking of Writing). Born in an English seaside town in 1913, Angus was much the youngest of six brothers; all of his siblings were 19th-century babies. As their double-barreled name suggests, the Johnstone-Wilsons came from the upper echelons of British society, but they were downwardly mobile — or, as folks would say in an Angus Wilson story, “down-hillers.”

Piloting them unsteadily in that direction was a feckless father of Dickensian or Joycean dimensions, Willie Johnstone-Wilson. An erstwhile “stage door Johnnie” (as Wilson alludes to him in his 1980 novel, Setting the World on Fire), he became, as Stephen Dedalus says, “a praiser of his own past.” Willie was to make many a cameo appearance among the shabby-genteel improvisers who populate the Wilsonian floating world; as “Billy Pop” Matthews in No Laughing Matter (1967), that “comic epic in prose,” he has a starring role. His brethren are everywhere in these fictions, fleeing debts or “on the social make.” Few of Wilson’s people take Polonius’s advice to be neither a borrower nor a lender.

The long formative phase of Wilson’s life was a curious hybrid of need and privilege. An ardent reader of Dickens, he also knew the jagged reality of “pecuniary embarrassments.” But he also received a top-class education, first at Westminster School (where an aging Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s Bosie once upon a time, saw him play Miss Prism in a student production of The Importance of Being Earnest), then at Oxford, where he immersed himself in the novelistic tradition, devouring Dostoyevsky and Proust. He worked at the British Museum — no sinecure, that — and did wartime service by joining the intense hive mind at the Bletchley Park decoding center.

There, immediate and long-simmering pressures led Wilson, not too far from midway upon the journey of his life, into a dark psychic forest. But it was not until 1946, according to his own account, that he took up a therapeutic suggestion that he should write fiction — shape his own narrative, in short. In The Wild Garden, he both establishes and subverts his artistic origin story: “It was only two years later, when the war was well over and my illness seemed at an end, that I sat down, as they say in faith-healing testimonies, and ‘just wrote a story one Sunday.’”

That story was “Raspberry Jam,” whose innocuous-sounding title and horror-image ending announced the arrival of the Wilsonian aesthetic: an astringent realism dogged by the Gothic. It now reads like a precursor to the disturbing early stories of Ian McEwan, UEA’s first creative writing student. Indeed, McEwan did an astute close reading of “Raspberry Jam” and the title story of Wilson’s second collection, Such Darling Dodos (1950), at a centenary event for the author held by the Royal Society of Literature (where Drabble also appeared). In his talk, McEwan points out the canny time-shift structure of that inaugural story. It was no fluke; in fact, it was the product of considerable redrafting. Like Hemingway’s bankrupt, Wilson had become a writer “gradually, then suddenly.” Consciously or not — and I think it was more conscious than he cared to admit — he had served a long literary apprenticeship, which allowed him to swoop onto the postwar British cultural scene and disturb the rather self-satisfied moral atmosphere.

One of his vital early champions was Sonia Orwell, who worked at Cyril Connolly’s vanguard magazine Horizon. Like her late husband George, who famously identified his family’s status as “lower-upper-middle class,” Wilson had a nuanced knowledge of the depth and breadth of British society. As a form, the short story could not contain his panoramic fictional ambitions. A comedy of political manners like “Such Darling Dodos” is not just a long story; it reads more like a bottled novel. Artistically, Wilson was ready to move on. Traces of this transition show up in No Laughing Matter as we follow the literary development of Margaret Matthews: “She had begun something fuller, something that, instead of putting a sharp line under life’s episodes, would capture the fusion of all the moments, happy, unhappy.”

Hemlock and After (1952), Wilson’s first novel, was something fuller, though not the complete fictional feast — he felt this himself — that he would present in later books (he still had the “day job” at the British Museum while writing it). It is remarkable, however, for two fictional creations: the central character, Bernard Sands, a prominent novelist with a mentally fragile wife and a discreet gay existence (homosexuality would not be decriminalized in Britain until 1967), and his foil, the insidious Mrs. Curry, an embodiment of what we might call “the sentimentality of evil” — she perfumes herself with effusions of concern, but her core business is the sexual exploitation of minors. Indeed, from the Home Counties of Hemlock to the Far East of As If By Magic, Wilson’s world is menaced by predators of one kind or another. And having received a bitter political education in the 1930s, Wilson for his entire writing life remained vigilant against fascism, in any guise. In No Laughing Matter, for example, Marcus Matthews, after hearing some horrific opinions in “polite” company, feels “ashamed to have believed, in his innocence, that such views were only held by black shirted bruisers and corner boys.” In recent years, Angus Wilson has once again become our contemporary.

In the face of advancing evils, Bernard Sands and other Wilsonian heroes and heroines fly the flag of “tattered humanism.” Though all they may secure is — to invoke a title by Wilson’s friend Iris Murdoch — “a fairly honorable defeat,” they do put up a decent fight. Present-day conflict is not the only temporal front on which these personal wars are fought. Just as medieval historian Gerald Middleton in Anglo-Saxon Attitudes faces a loss of certainty about the past, so the privileged Meg, titular character of The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot (1958), faces loss of certainty about the future. There’s a dreadful realm of Wilson’s imagination that Meg calls “the In Between,” a zone where, stripped of their social armor, his protagonists have to face the something or the nothing, or the admixture of both, that they “really” are.

These crises of consciousness are reminiscent of Henry James, and indeed Mrs. Eliot is the first of his two Portraits of a Lady (Late Call, from 1964, being the other). In fact, with an impressive lightness of touch, Wilson points toward the whole history of the modern novel in the course of Meg’s story. And she is aware of herself as a character. What Meg says of a friend is true of her too: “Her life’s as good as any book.” She goes from the jet set to the prospect of “being a down-the-drain lady.” Meg is slipping into the world that Wilson knew all too well as a child, with “Kensington hotels as emblems of the plucky reduced gentility she feared.” Thanks to her gay brother David, who is navigating his own turbulent middle age, Meg escapes her dire straits, only to be faced with new ambiguities, new skirmishes in “the In Between.”

The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot was a strong finish to the decade that Angus Wilson is most associated with, the 1950s, but I think he reached his peak as a novelist in the 1960s. His range during that decade, when he was heading toward late middle age himself, was extraordinary. The Old Men at the Zoo (1961), with its Kodachrome-vivid prose, is a dystopian fiction set in the early 1970s. The lady portrayed in Late Call is Sylvia Calvert, a retired hotel manageress, and the provincial setting is the would-be utopia of a postwar “New Town.” No Laughing Matter, his longest novel, amounts to — in the words of critic Lorna Sage, his brilliant younger colleague at UEA — “a new version of the chronicle novel.” Wilson was allergic to repeating himself.

Speaking on BBC Radio in 2013, Drabble praised The Old Men at the Zoo for its “intricately connected personalities.” The book’s first-person narrator, Simon Carter, a relatively young man working at London Zoo, has to contend with an intricate internal conflict involving his talent as an administrator and his passion for the natural world. The political realm of the novel, both on the institutional and international levels, is certainly one from which you’d want to escape. And here’s another example of Wilson’s uncanny return as our contemporary: the book reads now as a pessimistic prediction of the 2020s as well as the 1970s. Jingoism abounds. Crowds are getting riled up. The UK is at odds with the Continent: “The European Alliance complained of the increase of smuggling that had followed their embargo on British goods.” It’s beginning to look a lot like Brexit.

Late Call is, by comparison, a very muted fiction, more George Eliot than George Orwell. It is, both literally and figuratively, from the Midlands of Wilson’s imagination. The novel is also an exquisite example of his emotional intelligence, of his sustained empathy. Just as his best short stories suggest novels, Late Call, certainly one of his best novels, features the kind of obscure people who traditionally show up in short stories. (I think retired hotel manageresses qualify as belonging to Frank O’Connor’s “submerged populations groups.”) Sylvia does not approve of any of the Calverts “making an exhibition of themselves.” She herself “hate[s] being the centre of any public show.” There is an agonizing scene in which Sylvia serves food at a party supposedly held in her honor. No wonder Dennis Potter, Britain’s most acclaimed television writer, adapted the book into a successful limited series in the mid-1970s.

The novel I believe is key to a full-fledged Angus Wilson revival, however, is No Laughing Matter. Here he transforms the half-dozen Wilson siblings into the Brothers and Sisters Matthews, tracking them through decades of Western culture, from Buffalo Bill to the “Beatles and Beatniks.” Unfortunately, there is a barrier to entry into this rich fictional world: the initial, over-long domestic drama, accompanied by parodic revivals, at 52 Gilbrook Street, London, the House of Matthews. I can sympathize with what Wilson was trying to do here: he has to establish, with both psychological heft and comedic energy, the ways in which the Matthews siblings are formed, un-formed, de-formed, but I suspect that 150 pages of this has proved too much for many readers; they haven’t got over that mountain range, and hence the wonderful fictional landscape that rolls on for another 300-plus pages remains undiscovered. Would that an editor had insisted on tunneling through those mountains with a 50-page cut. That latter part of the novel contains some of Wilson’s best writing, with scenes that turn on a sixpence, scenes that work as semi-autonomous stories (an Angus Wilson Reader, anyone?), scenes that transport us from the mid-’20’s to the late 1960s. No Laughing Matter is a Masterpiece Theatre production waiting to happen.

His next novel, the globe-trotting As If By Magic, was just as ambitious but not as good. Critical backlash at the time (the early 1970s) focused on the inaccuracy of Wilson’s depiction of younger characters, whom he sends on the Hippie Trail. In fact, I think that’s a much bigger problem in his last novel, Setting the World on Fire, which is built around two adolescent brothers, Piers and Tom, who seem to have been born middle-aged. In Magic, the best of the younger generation is the morally appealing Alexandra Grant, who proves herself tenacious in stitching together the rags of that old “tattered humanism” into a new suit for sustainable living.

Less appealing is the other major character in the broad narrative, plant scientist Hamo Langmuir, Alexandra’s godfather. Hamo is a kind of transcontinental Johnny Appleseed, whose new “Magic” hybrid variety of rice has transformed the lives of millions around the world, not always in the beneficent manner he intended. His quixotic global tour, in the company of a tech-savvy cockney Sancho Panza, is the occasion for some scathing satire on various forms of neocolonial exploitation. But Hamo is a difficult traveling companion, and not just for his sidekick, Erroll Watton — a brittle, emotionally powered-down character. Late in the story, however, he does start to allow himself to be human, all too human, and for the last 75 pages or so, Wilson’s writing is in its top, Gothic gear. Moreover, the novel is itself a clever hybrid, of home and away, comedy and tragedy, experiment and tradition, magic and realism.

Wilson deserves credit for braving the elements, until late in his career, beyond what he called “the smart icy winds round Hampstead pond” (the American equivalent would be the artisanal fictions of Brooklyn). Setting the World on Fire, however, was a retreat to London, and a smaller aesthetic scale. Early in his career, his American namesake Edmund Wilson had hailed him as the next Evelyn Waugh, and this final novel reads like a compacted Brideshead Revisited. Easily the book’s best feature is its evocation of Baroque architecture, in the form of an invented Vanbrugh showcase, the Great Hall of Tothill House. (Both screen adaptations of Waugh’s novel were filmed on location at a real Vanbrugh masterpiece, Castle Howard in Yorkshire.) But as if Wilson were shoring up his fiction against waning powers, Setting the World on Fire has more scaffolding than substance.

For me, it’s the one Wilson novel that fails to come alive. Piers thinks of a pair of other characters as “visitations more than presences,” but that’s also true of him and his brother. Over the years, Wilson had an increasing quarrel with E. M. Forster, a writer he’d once revered, concerning Forster’s failure, as he saw it, to publish his gay novel, Maurice, even late in his long lifetime (it was finally released in 1971, a year after the author’s death). Ironically, in his own last book, more than at any other time in his fiction, Wilson adopts Forster’s core structural strategy — find your dichotomy — with a vengeance. Thus, we get extravagant, innovative Piers juxtaposed with conservative, curatorial Tom to the point that it seems they are trapped inside what Iris Murdoch called a “crystalline novel”: “[A] small quasi-allegorical object portraying the human condition and not containing ‘characters’ in the nineteenth-century sense.” In Setting the World on Fire, Wilson is still looking up at the Shakespearean “brightest heaven of invention,” but, poignantly, he can no longer access his sparkling muse.

In his seven other novels, however, he did stylishly portray the human condition, with a palette prepared from the best that the 19th- and 20th-century novelistic traditions had to offer him. In the early 1980s, when Wilson appeared on the prestigious French literary TV show Apostrophes, his fellow guests were William Styron and Italo Calvino. I haven’t watched the video, but I do hope he was sitting in between them, creating an unlikely but sturdy bridge between the American Gothic and the European metafictional imaginations.

That trip to Paris was one of his countless journeys, domestic and foreign. The schedule of his engagements in Drabble’s account is exhausting. A knighthood was in fact a modest reward for Wilson’s services to literature. Among his good offices were the presidency of the Royal Society of Literature, the chairmanship of the Literature Panel of the Arts Council of Great Britain, and road warrior rank as an indefatigable lecturer abroad for the British Council.

His erstwhile student Ian McEwan wittily memorialized Wilson’s personal and artistic integrity with a tale told by a spy in his 2012 novel, Sweet Tooth. The fictional Angus does not take kindly to being asked to facilitate a dodgy Cold War scheme, such mischief being far removed from the righteous mind games of Bletchley Park: “One moment he was behind his desk, nice white linen suit, lavender bow tie, clever jokes, the next his face was puce and he had hold of my lapels and was pushing me out of his office.”

A telling vignette: Angus Wilson — style and spine.

¤

Robert Cremins is a novelist who teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston.

 

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