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.

It is in the nature of such works to be enigmatic. Since the effort to elucidate the enigma is closely akin to the process of uncovering deeper layers of meaning in a received masterpiece, the reader, especially the reader with an academic background, is likely to be instinctively deferential. If he is a reviewer, he will in any case have very little time in which to do the elucidating – and he will have all too much to elucidate. Writers in this mode, like nervous cooks, are given to seasoning their work with all the available flavour. A couple of epigraphs will be thrown in like cloves of garlic. Characters will be given symbolic names. There will be recurrent images and motifs, parallels with Greek mythology or the Old Testament, quotations from Shakespeare or Dante, echoes of Mozart, a commentary on some relevant symphony or sculpture – bits of significance all over the place. The reviewer, half or three-quarters baffled, can take refuge in the thought that it is not for him to give the whole show away. To explain exactly what the author was up to would be equivalent to identifying the murderer of Roger Ackroyd. Honour will be satisfied if he indicates in the most general terms the sort of thing the novelist might be attempting and makes a few knowing comments about particular devices or references that he thinks he has penetrated. Thus it comes about that a novel can be generally and enthusiastically praised long before it has been adequately understood. The writer gets the benefit of the doubt, which is perhaps as it should be: but the success of his delicate literary experiment remains in question.

From several points of view, then, it was interesting to see how Wilson’s career would develop. His talents seemed likely to pull him in different directions. He had a gift for satirical comedy, but could offer a sensitive account of painful feelings; his formal patterning controlled episodes that were freshly, oddly imagined; although he simplified characterisation and dialogue to achieve sharp definition for particular incidents, he clearly had an interest in complexities of motive.

He has proceeded to publish a novel a year – an exhilarating achievement which suggests a willingness to keep himself under pressure and to try things out. It also implies the resilience to work through a novel that turns into a comparative dud in order to learn from doing so. Unguarded Hours (1978) and Kindly Light (1979), effectively the first and second parts of a single narrative, seem to me pretty feeble. In part one, the hero, the inoffensive Norman Shotover, hurries on down a flight of religious and sexual misadventures in his attempt to become an Anglican clergyman; in part two, having become a Catholic priest, he embarks on a second flight. Certain sequences in both novels have elegance and wit, but the total effect is trite. Wilson is here exercising his narrower talents: his aim is satiric. But his main target, the vulgarisation of Christianity, is a barn-door that has been riddled repeatedly by the likes of Peter Simple. The influence of Evelyn Waugh – the Waugh of Decline and Fall – is so marked as to be oppressive. The characters are facetiously named – Father Sporran, the Dundee of Caik, Professor Hairbrush (a philosopher – get it?). Since satire invites a quickened response to nuances of taste and tone, one can’t but notice the author’s concern as to whether a given character has attended a ‘major’ or ‘minor’ public school or Oxbridge college. A lively interest in such distinctions would seem to imply a narrow system of values. But the fundamental criticism must be that Wilson (unlike Waugh) doesn’t seem to feel deeply about his subject: he offers the motions, the intonations, of satire, but not the substance. If an entire intake of ordinands is shrilly homosexual, if a famous Dean is a self-publicising opportunist, the revelation is made to seem good for a giggle. The occasional flash of ‘serious’ comment seems out of place: ‘This new Mass ... made a cult of ugliness and banality. Its appalling phrases emphasised nothing but the confusion of mind of the people who compiled it. Nothing and No One deserving the name of a God could conceivably be apprehended by it.’ These thoughts are foisted on Norman Shotover, who elsewhere displays an IQ a bare couple of points above Bertie Wooster’s. Even on the formal level these satires are disappointing: after some early ingenuities the plot stops, starts and wanders. Major characters drift out of sight; narrative threads are lost. The pattern is drawn askew, like a failed cat’s-cradle.

The Healing Art (1980) represented a bold return to full-scale subject-matter. Pamela Cowper and Dorothy Higgs visit the same doctor to learn the result of cancer tests. Dorothy, a working-class housewife, is given a clean bill of health, Pamela, an Oxford lecturer in Medieval literature, is told she has only a few months to live. The novel traces their doings over the ensuing summer and autumn. At the insistence of a clergyman friend Pamela makes a pilgrimage to Walsingham to pray for cure. Later she goes to America to visit her lover, John Brocklehurst, but finds she has missed him. She collapses. Exhaustive hospital investigation reveals no trace of cancer: it seems that a miracle has occurred. In John’s continued absence she has a passionate affair with a girl named Billy, who eventually confesses that she is bearing John’s child. They return to Oxford together. At Blenheim they chance to meet Dorothy Higgs, who is obviously a dying woman. Pamela rightly guesses that she has misconstrued her ‘miracle’: the doctor had confused the two sets of X-rays. She is violently disillusioned. But the events that follow leave open the possibility that there is a providence at work.

Wilson has set himself two formidable challenges: to tackle a painful subject and to create a working-class protagonist. The latter defeats him, though he begins well. He writes with tact and feeling about Dorothy’s physical sufferings, but can picture her home life only in terms of stereotypes. His working-class dialogue seems to be based on recollections of the novels of H.G. Wells and of random conversations with college porters and cleaning-ladies: it stops just this side of Lawks-a-mussy. An ungenerous reading of the book would be that various proletarian and transatlantic characters have to be ushered (compassionately) into the next world so that Wilson can get on with the serious business of redeeming his academics androgynous. The former challenge, however, he meets with marvellous aplomb, achieving at least an honourable draw. As always, the basic narrative medium, with its short paragraphs and easy rhythms, is inherently pleasant, but it effortlessly assimilates delicate accounts of pain, dread or bewilderment. For half its length this promises to be a novel of remarkable distinction, as Wilson moves purposefully between his twin stories. But then, as the Higgs side of the narrative falters, the patterning becomes too obtrusive. The characters we have sympathised with are subordinated to a whimsical scheme of symbolism, and die or marry accordingly. The human interest has been sacrificed to formal neatness. But Wilson comes close, in The Healing Art, to a reconciliation of his diverse abilities.

In his new novel, Who was Oswald Fish?, he comes closer still. This time he proclaims the artificiality of his mode in his opening sentence, where he announces that Fanny Williams, his heroine, ‘would have been much better off in an opera than a novel’. This is to be an operatic work – opera being another medium which deals in gross magnification. Child of a humble Welsh background, Fanny was a successful model and pop-singer in the Sixties before marrying and subsequently divorcing a Tory MP. By 1979, riding the Zeitgeist, she is the wealthy owner of a chain of modish shops dealing in Victoriana. Her sex-life has become lavishly promiscuous, though her resident lover, Charles, a black Old Etonian lawyer, has proved bisexual.

Partly for commercial and partly for aesthetic reasons, Fanny buys an empty Victorian church in Birmingham, in the middle of an area scheduled for redevelopment as a Leisure Park. Fred Jobling, a middle-aged Council official wedded to the idea of the Park, tries to obstruct the purchase only to fall wildly in love with Fanny, who inexplicably (given Fred’s paunch and body odour) returns his passion.

The narrative ramifies furiously and entertainingly. Fred has a wife whom he longs to murder. Charles acquires a boyfriend whose loving wife has not guessed at her husband’s homosexual leanings. Fanny’s children, corrupted by the erotic and libertarian atmosphere of her household, interfere malevolently in the lives of her friends. But there is a further story that is to link all the others. Fanny’s grandmother, Nana Owen, chances upon the diaries that her own father, Oswald Fish, had kept in the 1880s and 1890s. They show poor Fish, a church architect and designer of ornamental metal-work, torn between the claims of art, of social position, of family life and of sexual desire. His career collapses into misery and madness. As his story unfolds, it emerges that he is coincidentally connected with virtually every major character in the novel and that Fanny’s church was his one substantial artistic creation. At the price of a few heavily expository paragraphs, Wilson has created a deliberately outrageous plot – as outrageous as the plots of the Verdi operas that Fanny – loves which is ingenious, interesting, funny and thematically rich. If Wilson’s religious satires left his own position in doubt, he makes amends in this novel. For all their good impulses, their enthusiasms and their tolerance, Fanny and her friends, representative figures of the past twenty years of England’s history, are tainted beyond redemption: they can bring forth nothing but futility and evil. Wilson’s symbolism is none the less effective for being comic: on the day Margaret Thatcher wins her election Fanny’s church collapses, killing her beloved corgis. In this story nobody’s dreams come true. The weaknesses that Oswald Fish could at least to some extent resist and sublimate are refracted through descendants helpless because they have known no saving discipline.

This is by far the best novel that Wilson has produced. The need to achieve quick effects pushes him into some trite passages: ‘They were the brightest, liveliest eyes he had ever seen; eyes whose hypnotic magic could make a man do murder or go mad.’ But these are minor blemishes. Who was Oswald Fish? is an immensely ambitious enterprise. Its breadth and vigour preclude the preciousness that marred some of his earlier work. His diagnosis of the ills of our society relates political, sexual and aesthetic needs and frustrations. By tackling a theme so impossibly large, and tackling it with impudent good humour, he attains a sort of gyroscopic energy that keeps opposed elements in equilibrium. Most of the characters are vividly two-dimensional – they include Jeremy Tradescant, who brings us up to date on his sister – but Charles’s lover, David Matheson, is a sad, complex figure, movingly portrayed. A passage of intimate feeling can follow a scene of black farce. It’s hard to say how these extremes are harmonised. Perhaps the historical perspective provided by Fish’s diaries permits of certain distortions, like a wide-angle lens. Perhaps the sheer fecundity of plot and incident deflects attention from the individual parts to the relationship between the parts. Whatever the secret may be, Wilson has written a novel that makes the very most of his various and distinctive talents.