Another A.N. Wilson

Michael Irwin

  • Who was Oswald Fish? by A.N. Wilson
    Secker, 314 pp, £6.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 436 57606 6

The Sweets of Pimlico, published in 1977, was an assured and attractive first novel. It moved well. The light, fluent, shapely narrative encompassed with equal facility episodes of mannered comedy and passages of simple feeling. Here, plainly, was a writer who combined imagination and literary intelligence: but his prospects were difficult to assess because he was working in a mode which, while fashionable enough to be taken for granted, is both demanding and problematic.

His heroine, Evelyn Tradescant, not long down from Newnham, finds herself drawn into the orbit of an elderly German, Baron Dietrich Gormann, known to his friends as ‘Theo’. This mysterious figure, once, some suspect, a Nazi sympathiser, but recently an Aldermaston marcher, proves to have unexpected connections with her earlier life. He knows her handsome brother Jeremy, currently up at Magdalen. His best friend, John ‘Pimlico’ Price, a manufacturer of sweets, is an acquaintance of her former lover, Geoffrey. Theo seems to go out of his way to throw Evelyn and Price together. It emerges that Jeremy is bisexual, and has been Price’s lover. Evelyn herself, in freakish mood, goes to bed with Jeremy. Price proposes to her, but she temporises. Her relationship with Gormann is daughterly rather than sexual, though it involves a thread of sexual feeling. He promises to revise his will so that his considerable fortune will be divided equally between herself and Price instead of going wholly to Price as had been intended. But before the change can be made Theo is maimed by a bomb while studying an allegorical painting in the National Gallery. Not long afterwards he dies, with the will still unaltered. Evelyn is left to make terms with Price if she so wishes.

In summary, as at full length, The Sweets of Pimlico recalls the work of Iris Murdoch. But if certain points of detail and emphasis seem to reflect her influence in particular, the genre concerned has attracted other distinguished practitioners and goes back a long way. Forster, especially in the earlier novels, and Hardy, notably in The Well-Beloved and A Pair of Blue Eyes, worked in this mode. Its virtue is to free the author from two of the great constraints of realism. A novel true to the diurnal realities of ordinary life will by definition tend to be lacking in excitement, in entertainment value. Its materials are resistant to structure, to intellectual control, to the imposition of meaning. What Hardy or Forster or Murdoch does is to resort to extravagances of plotting or episode far beyond the scope of realism, while subjecting the narrative thus heightened to a strict patterning that implies a theoretical significance in the story told. Ideally, the reader gets a racier, more compelling story, yet one that is manifestly dedicated to the communication of certain ideas.

Shakespearian comedy offers a powerful precedent for this mode of writing. The implicit justification for the extravagances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or of an Iris Murdoch novel is that they are a magnified version of the unobserved peculiarities of everyday living. But the compromise with realistic fiction poses considerable problems of equilibrium. If the extravagances go too far, the ‘ideas’ will seem little more than an apology for sensationalism. If pattern predominates, the characters may decline into automata. The author is likely to have his work cut out to sustain a level of psychological and emotional realism adequate to his proposed action. Even if he strikes the right balance in each separate episode, the total effect may prove false to his intentions. The fictional and the conceptual aspects of his work may seem as separate as the two functions of a floral clock.

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