Diversity and Depth in Fiction: Selected Critical Writings of Angus Wilson 
edited by Kerry McSweeny.
Secker, 303 pp., £15, August 1983, 0 436 57610 4
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‘All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ The second part, at least, of Tolstoy’s celebrated dictum is borne out by Angus Wilson’s fiction, which deals largely in families, and this with a rich diversity through a long series of books. Sir Angus shuffles the cards brilliantly, but Unhappy Families remains the name of the pack.

There is a good deal in the present volume about the art of Ivy Compton-Burnett, that dogged mistress of domestic infelicity. In the opening essay we are told that she ‘has used the Biedermeier novel, the domestic family tale, and inverted it, she has taken the family ... and revealed every kind of hideous implication that it could contain. She has taken Cranford, so to speak, and wedded it to the house of Atreus.’ Another essay justifies the element of melodrama – incests and murders and the like – in her novels. ‘She has ... stated that she believes them to be real ingredients of a great deal of family life – sometimes as skeletons revealed, sometimes as skeletons for ever hidden. This view, I entirely accept. It has been my experience that most middle-class families have some “secret” of this kind in their midst.’

Ivy Compton-Burnett had published ten novels before the 33-year-old Angus Wilson sat down one Sunday and wrote ‘Raspberry Jam’ – to which he then added seven other short stories at successive weekends. In these, collected as The Wrong Set, and in two succeeding collections, some affinity with the Compton-Burnett world may be detected. Blood relations are pestiferous tyrants as in ‘Mother’s Sense of Fun’, or perform in an insidiously disruptive role as in ‘Sister Superior’. It is when Angus Wilson turns novelist, however, that families begin regularly to face disagreeable surprises. Father, so eminent and so lofty in his aims for literature, proves awkwardly to have changed his sexual orientation; grandmother, although she has managed a hotel, turns out to have started off in domestic service; a girl who has taken to tripling produces a baby with two fathers (an over-endowment excelled only by Mr Salman Rushdie’s recently created Omar Khayyam Shakil, whom fate has provided with three mothers). But although Sir Angus’s skeletons are occasionally bizarre they are seldom strictly Aeschylean or melodramatic after Ivy Compton-Burnett’s fashion. Only in the latest of the novels, Setting the world on fire, does the Mosson family discover, in some huddled final pages, that it nurtures in its bosom three atrocious criminals intent upon exploiting the theatricals at Tothill House in the interest of blowing up, not as we might briefly suppose the mere Houses of Parliament, but the Ministry of Defence itself.

This is uncharacteristic. Most of the unhappiness in the novels is of commonplace origin Sibling jealousy, marital incompatibility and infidelity, drink, debts, gambling, snobbery: these breed constant rows and occasional disasters. People sulk, shout, hurl abuse as they storm out of the house. ‘You ruddy cow. I wish to God I’d never seen you,’ husband bawls at wife. ‘What a ghastly little piece of nothing you’ve turned into,’ wife says to husband. ‘The old bastard is an absolute fake from start to finish,’ daughter says of father. ‘I’ve always thought you were a rotter,’ sister tells brother. ‘I wish that you and my mother were both dead,’ says son to father. ‘It’s all a thick fog. I hate them. They hate me,’ father says of his children collectively. ‘If you wanted to make another household miserable,’ one character flings at another in As if by Magic, ‘you’ve succeeded nicely.’ We may be inclined to murmur this to Sir Angus.

But the families remain families, however many the wounds given, the nasty points scored. Compunction and affection creep in, if only in a brief glance or a muttered word. The bond may be a fetter, but an obstinate sanctity inheres in it nevertheless. It is a particular in which we are brought closer to nature than we commonly are by Ivy Compton-Burnett.

In this volume as in the earlier The Wild Garden and several minor places (notably a collection of essays by divers hands called My Oxford) Sir Angus has much to say about himself in a personal vein, since he believes that knowledge of ‘some of the ways in which experience can be transmuted into fiction’ must be valuable in literary criticism. The biographical approach has its hazards and embarrassments, but the common reader is always likely to go along with it. Even in that ‘Association of Professors of English’ to which Sir Angus in a lecture offered a good deal of Wilson family history there were probably a few who judged that they were gaining something relevant to their studies by attending this unfashionable exercise.

We learn, then, that the future novelist was brought up amid ‘unhappy, pseudo-sophisticated, déclassé adults’, in a ‘disordered Philistine middle-class world’. The genteel poverty of his parents increased throughout his impressionable years; they drifted from hotel to hotel, pursued by debts and once even finding themselves in a boarding-house with all the inmates eating at one table. They had five sons, Angus being younger than the next youngest by 13 years. His mother, if hard and snobbish, was ‘plucky’, coping bravely with fecklessness and infidelity. His father was an idler, sponger and gambler, and also a compulsive liar in a fantastic and amusing way. This last endowment was catching. ‘The air of compensation for lost glories by means of fantasy was pervasive, and I believe I early imbibed a fiction-making atmosphere ... Imitation and mimicry ... had always been the stock-in-trade of my lively histrionic family. To family and school I owe my fairly high standard of impressionistic mimicry. I have found it my principal natural asset as a writer.’

The school was Westminster, and Westminster was followed by Oxford at what scarcely appears to have been a penurious level. But the hotel childhood is never to cease fructifying Sir Angus’s imagination. He sees it as responsible for the ‘pervasive raffishness’ of his earlier stories and novels, and above all as generating throughout his writing career characters in a close genetic relationship to his father. The first story in Such Darling Dodos, ‘Rex Imperator’, is one ‘in which my father appears’, he records, ‘but not my mother’. The last, ‘What do hippos eat?’, presents him again: the decayed gentleman with designs on his landlady’s money, behaving ludicrously at the zoo. He is at his largest as the father of the six-child family in No Laughing Matter, but has already shrunk to a grotesque (and for the nonce a plebeian grotesque) as the intolerable Arthur Calvert in Late Call. There are traces of him all over the place. Even Bill Eliot, that successful barrister and adoring husband in The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot, has a touch of him in his gambling and the financial irresponsibility that leaves his widow almost destitute. Sir Angus tells us that he felt closer to his father than to any other member of his family, and that the affection may even have constituted a barrier to his growing up. But at least his father’s romancing, however bounderish in flavour, could be enormously good fun, and was in fact tantamount to a legacy. ‘From my father comes the whole ambiguous story-telling talent I have developed.’

Not that Sir Angus is resigned to mere story-telling, whether ‘ambiguous’ or not, as marking the twitch of his tether. Nothing is more impressive in these essays than the constancy of his concern for prose fiction as a moral instrument and a vehicle of ‘that sense of felt life which is the glory of the traditional English novel’. But the standards of the great English novelists are not quite enough. Even when writing those diverting and malicious short stories his eye had been on ‘the broad fields of the Continental novel’. To have the freedom of these fields while preserving the great richness of our own social, ethical tradition ought to be the ultimate aim of the serious English novelist today. Good and evil are the touchstones. It is in the Continental novel that the supremely important sense of these as transcendent is most fully achieved. ‘To maintain this quality of felt life, this packed, dense world of manners, while somehow finding a place for transcendent values, must be the pursuit of English novelists.’ It is William Golding who comes top here: he has ‘wed his sense of a transcendent evil and good to the fully felt social novel that the English have constructed in their great tradition’. Few people will dissent, I imagine, from this rating of Mr Golding.

It must be said that Sir Angus rather keeps on about evil. On the first page of this book he says that he is an agnostic writer with apprehensions of evil over and above his ideas of right and wrong, and that he is ‘concerned to try to find ways of introducing evil’ into his novels. Later, he reviews some of these attempts. Mrs Curry in Hemlock and After is a strong candidate: a depraved and spiteful woman who helps to ruin an important garden party by sabotaging the refreshments, and procures a small girl for Hubert Rose, who is also very bad. In Anglo-Saxon Attitudes there is (although dead) Gilbert Stokesay, who hides a pagan and priapic object in a seventh-century Christian missionary’s tomb. I cannot myself see this as more than a malicious joke; and the Gaudy Night kind of pother about the integrity of scholarship comes a shade unconvincingly from Sir Angus, who appears to hold the academic classes in poor regard as exhibiting – he declares near the end of the book – a ‘combination of contempt for others and glorification of themselves’. If they are really like that, we may feel, Gilbert Stokesay rightly did them one in the eye. Sir Angus himself may on consideration have seen the tinkering with the Melpham Burial as inadequately impressive in the evil way, since in one among a wilderness of flashbacks he provides the deceased Gilbert with some singularly nasty table-talk – including the describing of his father (in true Unhappy Family style) as ‘a lecherous old fool’.

Next after evil it is the present viability of the ‘traditional’ novel that Sir Angus is most frequently worried about. Always an insatiable reader of the major English novelists, he loyally insists that they are the proper nutriment of their successors today, but that nevertheless younger writers do well ‘to bite the hand that feeds them’. This appears to be a way of saying that the novel, while retaining its sheet-anchor in tradition, regularly requires to be brought up to date. Here, he feels, he has played his part. He has reasserted ‘firmly constructed narrative and strong plot’, thereby regaining ‘a lost solidity and vigour’. But experiment – and he has experimented – is also essential if the thing is not to go smooth and dead. An essay called ‘The Dilemma of the Contemporary Novelist’ has much to say about this:

What worries me most about the traditional form is simply that it has gone soggy and treacly on us. We have revived it in England since the War with some success with some very interesting novels, but the trouble is that you can go on ... This facility to write the traditional novel is only equalled by the facility with which the reader can gobble it up, and that creates a kind of love relationship, a kind of unthinking happy embrace which I feel to be totally inimical and death to the novel ... and this is why I think in the long run we do have to reject the idea of the traditional novel being all that we can have. I do not mean to say that we cannot play lots of tricks with the traditional novel. We are doing so, and I hope I have done so myself. There are all sorts of games one can play with it to wake people up.

This somewhat cosmetic approach to keeping young occurs elsewhere than in these essays. Thus in the admirable book on Kipling there suddenly comes: ‘We owe great debts to Henry James, to Percy Lubbock, to F.R. Leavis, but we have moved away to use, if we wish, fable and word play and farce and alienation, innumerable dexterities of presentation, a wider range of depths and shallows than they allowed for, a consciousness that our new ploys and ways of seeing are no more dogmas than those of earlier systems.’ Tricks, games, ploys: there is an uneasiness in these meiotic terms which is frequently reflected in the novels themselves. It is as if just because they are so essentially traditional they have to be very much up to the minute as well. Hence, for example, in Sir Angus’s fiction the irritating dropping-in of fashionable real names and current topics: Osbert and Sacheverell, James Agate, ‘Uncle’ Desmond MacCarthy, the Arthur Marshall girl, the Prince of Wales at Fort Belvedere, ‘I’ve worked with Whicker,’ ‘brown sauce straight from old Harold at Number Ten’. T.S. Eliot is said to be well-disposed to the Vardon Hall scheme in Hemlock and After.

Another pointer to a certain awkwardness of stance in relation to the tradition is to be found in the excess of literary chit-chat throughout the novels. It is not, I think, simply because Sir Angus’s distinguished career has included a dozen years spent as a university professor that his characters not only discuss their predicaments in terms of other novelists’ characters but even take leisure on the most improbable occasions to think about themselves in the same booksy contexts. We may, of course, suppose many of them to be well read, so a little of this is verisimilar enough, I am prepared to believe that Hubert Rose denounces Bernard Sands as a creeping-Jesus Karamazov, and that Sands replies by pointing out that in Myshkin and Lebedev Dostoevsky has portrayed two kinds of abasement. But that the tripling undergraduates in As if by Magic should labour their kinship with Birkin and Crich and whatever other of Lawrence’s characters they please is unpersuasive, and to represent them as going on to similar identifications with Frodo and Gollum, the wicked Sauron and the wise Gandalf is at least to deprive them of their nationality and transfer them to an American campus. Alexandra and her two friends are in some danger of seeming implausibly vicious, and it is surely a mistake thus to make them silly as well. This whole trick of transcendentalised name-dropping is perplexing.

The book concludes with a long ‘Interview’, conducted in 1972 by Mr Frederick P.W. McDowell on behalf of the Iowa Review, in which the novelist is drawn into a more or less systematic discussion of almost the entire body of his fiction at that time. It is a modest, cogent and resourceful performance on his part, in the course of which arises the question: where is his major achievement to be found? He has, it appears, offered conjectures in this area in the past, declaring ‘A Visit in Bad Taste’ to be his best short story, and inscribing a copy of The Old Men at the Zoo for the University of Iowa Library to the effect that it is his best book. Now he is fleetingly inclined to plump for No Laughing Matter, but his more constant impulse is to decline absolute judgment and go for an old-fashioned and eminently sensible balancing of faults and beauties within the individual works. Told that he has formerly declared Hemlock and After in some ways the winner, he replies that he esteems it because he was totally untutored when he wrote it, but that it is a failure as a novel. This is almost absurdly severe, but it is true the book doesn’t end too effectively. Sir Angus knows why. The true occasion of Bernard Sands’s fatal access of self-knowledge – of the sadistic component, that is, in his sexual nature – comes to him in the manner of his reaction to an incident in Leicester Square at night. What Sir Angus calls the ‘strong narrating side’ of the novel lies here, and the illstarred opening of the free residential quarters for young writers comes as an anti-climax. The party given to celebrate the inauguration of the scheme was to be Dostoevsky-like in its force – what is elsewhere called a ‘public gathering in which all chaos breaks loose and the forces of good, the forces of humanistic duty and so on are for the moment routed’. The Vardon Hall idea has remained too nebulous for this to come off, and the second climax is contrived with a good deal of crudity. Sands in his address falls into ‘unconscious Freudian double-entendres’. Apparently meaning to speak of hack-work produced out of financial need, he says: ‘One can pay too dearly for what one picks up in the Charing Cross Road, and not only in cash, but in more lasting ills.’ And almost at once he goes on: ‘If you are lucky enough to meet a young poet, love him very much, hold him very close to you.’ Upon which, ‘Ron’s guffaw’ not unnaturally has a disruptive effect. Although strong on the factual nitty-gritty of novels, Sir Angus hasn’t here adequately attended to it. The obscurantist and philistine hostility of a small country gentry to the Vardon Hall scheme is given some prominence, but we learn little that is concrete about the scheme itself. How are the favoured young writers to be chosen? Is Vardon Hall to accommodate both sexes, so that there will be admission for budding Jane Austens, George Eliots, Virginia Woolfs and Ivy Compton-Burnetts – all novelists so admired by Sir Angus? Or is it to be an all-male academe of the sort proposed in Love’s Labour’s Lost? There are casual references to the ‘men’ and to ‘those young chaps who are going to live up at the Hall’. But I feel that these questions have simply not been thought about.

On Anglo-Saxon Attitudes Sir Angus has already had a good deal to say in The Wild Garden. His sense of character, it seems, depends much on his sense of that character’s precise geographical background, and he believes that he might have developed Ingeborg Middleton from a successful grotesque into one of his best-imagined characters if he hadn’t been constrained to give her a background in Denmark rather than Bavaria. This is curious, and to some extent masks a point only lightly touched on in the interview. Characters tend to drift towards the grotesque as a novel unfolds, and moreover they take the action with them. The six children in No Laughing Matter, exercising upon their seniors the mimetic skills they inherit from their Wilson originals, evolve in the series of improvised plays with which Sir Angus provides them a world of bizarre caricature which later seems to break loose and spread over the novel as a whole. Already in The Old Men at the Zoo there has been this kind of progression, the characters passing from eccentricity to deeper eccentricity, the action becoming steadily dottier until eventually we have a woman misconducting herself with an Alsatian dog. In As if by Magic – not yet published when Sir Angus gave his interview – the extravagance is full-grown from early on (for example, in the incident on the aeroplane at the start of Hamo Langmuir’s travels), so that later it just doesn’t know where to go. Nevertheless, all the novels have a single aim. They pursue, Sir Angus justly claims, a theme of liberation by self-realisation; are about ‘people imprisoned and how they break out of prison’; assert a ‘moral proposition’ disseminated ‘in a mass of living experience’. Only there is rather a crush of experiences, and they achieve lavish elaboration through the novelist’s tireless imagination not always to distinguishably relevant moral effect.

On the final page of The Wild Garden Sir Angus says of the novel as a kind that ‘we can never hope for the perfection, even with a Tolstoy, that other arts can achieve with a Piero della Francesca or a Bach’. Thinking, say, of the awesome Resurrection at San Sepolcro, one may be tempted to agree, although perhaps with a feeling that one has read a perfect novel or two in one’s time. Certainly Angus Wilson has not achieved a perfect novel. But neither has the greatest of the English novelists, Charles Dickens. Hemlock and After was written, it seems, in four weeks, just as ‘Raspberry Jam’ had been written in tremulous excitement in a single day. Throughout his work a rich and rapid creativity – ‘the pure horsepower of the narrator’, as he calls it – carries all before it. ‘The narrating voice asks, “and what next?” so insistently that no exhaustion, worry, lust or happiness can withstand it.’ The compulsion on Sir Angus to keep writing is equally a compulsion laid upon us to keep reading. As not with Tolstoy, James, Proust, his highest aims in fiction may have remained substantially unachieved. But as much as Stevenson for the natives of Samoa, he is for us Tusitala, the Writer of Tales. His talent here may speak unbonneted before that of any contemporary English novelist.

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