Great contentment at Finds Towers this week as the Guardian ran a splendid appreciation of Angus Wilson upon his centenary, by D.J. Taylor. The piece made generous mention of most of the Wilson titles we offer in Finds (e.g. Such Darling Dodos, Hemlock and After, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot, as well as Margaret Drabble’s biography Angus Wilson.)
But it seems that riches abound for us, for we are pleased to offer here another in our occasional series of guest blogs by Finds readers: in this case, a marvellous essay in praise of Wilson by Andrew Cheeseman, a bookseller who also blogs here.
(Remember, we’re always delighted to showcase thoughts on/evaluations of the books we revive by regular readers who like to follow our doings on social media – so if there’s a Finds title you’d be especially eager to write about, by all means drop us a line to email@example.com.)
But now, over to Andrew on Wilson:
Angus Wilson was one of those authors who I had kept hearing about, but never actually found in bookshops. I had been intrigued by Malcolm Bradbury’s enthusiastic coverage of him in THE MODERN BRITISH NOVEL, but didn’t have any success finding his novels until I started trawling charity shops, and their spinners of old Penguin paperbacks. I found HEMLOCK AND AFTER and SUCH DARLING DODOS in a charity shop in Winchester, on holiday. I devoured them both over that holiday. The early stories and novels’ acerbic gallery of chancers, hypocrites, neurotics, and the deluded but well-meaning middle-classes fascinated me.
In fact, as soon as you read Wilson, you start to notice more of these characters in real life, and also feel oddly sympathetic for them. Wilson, cunningly, while making you laugh, has also made you feel a degree of sympathy and understanding for them. You begin to see peculiar pathologies behind others’ behaviour. (Or maybe that’s just me.) Either way, I got a bit hooked, and developed a minor addiction to hunting down Wilson (and other semi-lost authors) in charity shops wherever I went.
I love Wilson because he is the only author I know who develops and becomes more sophisticated without losing the qualities he originally had. The early stories’ satirical exposure of pretensions, class distinctions, and tiny acts of cruelty becomes something socially broader, and more nuanced in the Fifties novels. You get decent, but morally compromised figures such as Bernard Sands and Gerald Middleton, and their vexed relationships with families who are often no longer people they like, but still people they love. In fact British society in Wilson’s Fifties novels seems as conflicted as the Sixties is often perceived to be; generational gaps, class and ideological divides take centre stage in them. He is not dissimilar to early Aldous Huxley, in puzzling and prodding pleasurably but sceptically at the ideals and manners of his time. Wilson was also much influenced by Dickens, and his Dickensian grotesques become, somehow, more extreme, but no less plausible. Mrs Curry, the procuress in HEMLOCK AND AFTER, is a deeply sinister woman, who conceals her activities in a veneer of chintzy sentimentality, and almost proto-‘free love’ ideas.
Come the novels of the 1960s you get the impression that Wilson is gradually integrating his love of Modernism with his passion for the big Victorian-style ‘social’ novel. THE OLD MEN AT THE ZOO starts realistically, and morphs rapidly into a faintly grisly dystopian metaphor for the decline of empire. LATE CALL is less bold, but, to my mind, more subtly successful. Sylvia Calvert is probably Wilson’s most sympathetic, and well rounded, character: a woman forced to move herself and her husband in with their rather priggish, recently widowed son in the idealistic New Town of Carshall. Sylvia is cut adrift in an age and a place to which she can’t quite adjust despite her attempts to try. Her husband, another Wilson character whose pride results in lies on a grand scale, creates problems for her too. But while her son’s ideals wither in the face of conflict with his friends, neighbours and his children, Sylvia’s pragmatic decency holds the family together.
NO LAUGHING MATTER, though, remains my favourite of Wilson’s novels. An ambitious fusion of modernist stylistic strategies and neat pastiches of other authors, with the satirical social novel Wilson had perfected earlier, it follows the Matthews family through fifty years of personal and public history, as they go their very different paths, following different ideologies and careers, and watching the world change hugely from the secure pre-war Edwardian era they grew up in. It is difficult to summarise the novel beyond that, because it does so much. Its stylistic shifts alone deserve a book-length study. If you had to summarise it, you could perhaps say it is Virginia Woolf meets Charles Dickens. It certainly manages the social range of the latter, and gets close to the psychological depth of the former.
His next novel, AS IF BY MAGIC, returned to the more explicit comedy of the earlier works. It’s an extremely funny romp that follows a baffled but brilliant scientist and his hippy god-daughter as they globetrot separately, mixing East and West, science and belief, sex and celibacy, high on grotesques and misunderstanding. For some reason, it reminds me a little of Evelyn Waugh’s broader comedies such as BLACK MISCHIEF or SCOOP, though I think it is more nuanced than either of those. Its main protagonist Hamo (the scientist) is a lovely creation: extremely clever in his field, but decidedly unworldly, he strains against his homosexual longings, and becomes increasingly concerned at the political effects of his scientific work. The novel deals with ‘heavy’ issues in a light-handed and sceptical way that never feels facile or shallow. In fact, that might be a good précis of what Wilson does – he writes serious fiction that wears its seriousness lightly. The later novels are bursting with ambition and ideas, and also an enthusiasm for the breadth of what the novel can do. It is only on re-reading that you realise that the multiple plot lines, time and geographical shifts, have been planned and juxtaposed perfectly.
It has always seemed bizarre to me that an author of Wilson’s stature fell out of print at all. I mean, it is lovely to have a ‘secret’ author, one that is shared by a small but passionate following, like some kind of literary Masonic handshake; but, frankly, Angus Wilson deserves better. His books are too varied, too clever, too inventive, too fully engaged with the peculiarities of human lives, and too plain enjoyable, to languish in semi-obscurity (with the odd academic writing a thesis about him every decade). He should be, as he once was, ranked alongside the major authors of the post-war period. I think my favourite quote about Angus Wilson is from Edmund White’s review of AS IF BY MAGIC: ‘If too much humanity bulging out of the frame of a narrative constitutes an artistic problem, then it is an enviable problem indeed.’ An excess of humanity is something you find in all of Wilson’s novels, and it is the best reason I can think of to read him.