Last Words

John Bayley

  • The Collected Stories of Angus Wilson
    Secker, 414 pp, £12.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 436 57612 0

His cousin Oliver Baldwin described Kipling’s story ‘Mary Postgate’ as ‘the wickedest story in the world’. It did shock its readers very much, but it is not entirely easy to determine just what the shocking element was, perhaps still is. Told with a subdued but cheerful elegance a little in the manner of Jane Austen’s novels, which Kipling much admired, it is a tale about a virtuous spinster companion during the Great War, whose employer’s nephew in the RFC is killed on a training flight. Having brought him up, Mary is very devoted to him. Later a little girl in the village is horribly killed when a house collapses, perhaps as a result of a German bomb. Further upset, Mary sets out to burn the dead nephew’s belongings in the garden incinerator, and finds in the shrubbery a wounded German airman, who pleads for help. She refuses it, and watches his death agony with intense pleasure, afterwards taking a bath and sitting on the sofa in a mood of relaxed satisfaction.

Angus Wilson had some interesting things to say about the story in his book The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling. But he did not mention its crucial point: did these events really happen, or was the climactic one a self-induced fantasy, something that took place only in Mary’s mind? Kipling tells the story as if the wounded airman were real, and the reader, too, accepts it for a fact, but critics have pointed out that he is more likely to be a hallucination, and have admired the way in which Kipling handles the ‘ambiguity’. He may have adapted the technique of it from Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, which he also much admired, and he uses the same device in other stories, notably the earlier ‘Mrs Bathurst’. The significant point, however, is that the impression of wickedness in the tale may derive not so much from the events in it as from the way the narrational technique is used to conceal Kipling’s own feelings: his hatred of the German barbarian and his lust for revenge. The fantasy, as his cousin may have apprehended, is his, and he uses the figure of Mary Postgate to give it a sort of clinical detachment. In wartime a gentle spinster may be more ruthless than a man: the female of the species not only deadly in what she does, but in what she wishes she could do. Kipling, incidentally, had heard stories when he was young about how the women behaved in Afghanistan towards wounded British soldiers.

The short-story form seems peculiarly well suited to the exercise of personal fantasy, because its ready-made spareness and detachment can conceal the author as the full-length novel can scarcely do. Mérimée’s ‘Mateo Falcone’ is an early type of the conte cruel, a genre which developed in France as a special art-form: Michel Tournier still practises it today. The effect of these tales is quite different from that of ‘Mary Postgate’ because there is no personal animus involved – they do but poison in jest. The fantasy may be there, but there is no violence behind it. The same is true of most ‘nasty’ stories written now in England or America – for example, those of Joyce Carol Oates or Ian McEwan. Indeed, there seems to be a whole genre of repulsive literature in our time written by mild, serious, high-minded people who strike one as not so much indulging in personal fantasies as producing the kind of things that they feel ought to be written in the post-Beckett era.

Angus Wilson is not a bit like that. In the literary cocktail of his stories there is full-strength alcohol. Some of it may come from the Kipling he so much admires, some possibly from the stories of D.H. Lawrence. There is certainly a hint of Lawrence in Wilson’s verbal exuberance and zest, and in his ruthless geniality, although the Wilson world is all his own. Lawrence, like Kipling, makes extensive use of what might be termed the ambiguous event, or non-event, and Wilson does it too, in his own masterly way. In ‘The Captain’s Doll’ and ‘The Fox’ things happen – a wife’s defenestration and a lesbian lady’s execution by a falling tree – which strike one as taking place less in the world of action than in that of wish-fulfilment: the husband’s and the young soldier’s desire to do, or to see done, what then appears actually to take place. Even ‘The woman who rode away’ is perhaps best read in this light, as Lawrence’s half-sardonic, half-wistful play with the theme of foolish modern romance and true primitive energy. In rather the same spirit, Angus Wilson plays with his vividly-realised contemporary types, placing them in situations in which the life of the mind cannot be distinguished from the comic-dreadful thing that happens, embarrassing situations which actually occur.

The agitation that blows like a comic gale through the stories of The Wrong Set and Such Darling Dodos is as strong as ever today. As in the cases of Kipling and of Lawrence, the heart of the story is the relief it affords to the author, a relief in which its art makes the reader share with irresistible abandonment. The sense of creation is as fresh as paint, and the characters are not so much turned inside out for our amusement as enlisted in a wild party in which everyone can do their thing, the author most of all. Wilson’s characters are openly created, as Mary Postgate ambiguously was, in terms of the inner shock brought about by the need for sustaining an outward persona. Kipling is in deep sympathy with this, and so is Wilson: neither shares Lawrence’s compulsive need to put his characters down. With Wilson as with Kipling we are all in the same boat – in fact, one of Kipling’s titles.

Wilson marshals the inner life of his characters like a conductor encouraging an orchestra, and the composition is always superbly organised. He orchestrates human wickedness, his own included, in terms of its inner drives, the unacted desires which throw people out of windows, or drop trees on them, or leave them to die in agony. ‘Realpolitik’ is a continuous virtuoso performance: the enactment, mostly in dialogue, of a staff meeting at an imaginary provincial art gallery, with a new Machiavellian and philistine director seeking to get rid of the honourable old figures who have been running the place according to custom and tradition. Although the exchanges are masterly on the page, and supposed as taking place, their real location is in the head, the place where the most wounding utterance is planned in advance, or perfected afterwards in the mood of l’esprit d’escalier. After the meeting, with the staff driven before him in disarray, the director gloats with his secretary and ally, who is none the less doubtful about the wisdom of what he has done, and says: ‘It’s not those misfits I’m worrying about, it’s you.’

‘Me?’ said John. ‘Why?’

‘You’re getting too fond of bullying,’ said Veronica, ‘it interferes with your charm, and charm’s essential for your success.’ She went out to make the coffee.

What Veronica said was very true, thought John, and he made a note to be more detached in his attitude. All the same these criticisms were bad for his self-esteem. For all her loyalty Veronica knew him to well, got too near home. Charm was important to success, but self-esteem was more so.

Not only does she understand him, but her understanding and criticism are conveyed to John not so much by words as by his own intuition of what she is thinking about him. The story ends with John planning to get rid of her.

In ‘Mother’s Sense of Fun’ there is a subtle gradation between what is actually said, and the impression it is designed, almost unconsciously, to produce. Mother contrives to make her son’s friends sound ridiculous, to themselves and to him. Her warm jokey good-sport manner paralyses them like a spider wrapping up a fly: simple as she is, her jealousy gives her an extraordinary range of diplomatic finesse. She even manages to shoot down her son’s most valued and most sophisticated woman friend by refusing to be shocked by the kind of stories she tells, whereupon the stories themselves lose all point and merely look silly. The upshot of the tale is brilliant, and moving. Mother catches a cold, giving the son a ‘treat’ outing, and it turns to pneumonia. As she dies, he can just hear her murmur: ‘My poor boy will be very lonely without mother.’ The sense of freedom and release is wonderful, and he plans all sorts of things for himself, but one night he has a nasty dream, with no one to turn to as he wakes up from it:

He felt dreadfully lonely, so lonely that he began to cry. He told himself that this sense of solitude would pass with time, but in his heart he knew that this was not true. He might be free in little things, but in essentials she had tied him to her and now she had left him for ever. She had had the last word in the matter as usual. ‘My poor boy will be lonely,’ she had said. She was dead right.

The story goes to the heart not just of its own situation but of all social and family life. Boredom and exasperation are necessary to our sense of belonging: we are lonely without the people who provoke them. Mother’s last word reverberates through the social universe. ‘ “Ah well, thank God for a sense of humour, without it the evening might have been very dull.” How he had longed to say that even with it the evening had not been very interesting.’ The sense of fun is social collusion, being one of us, and Jane Austen would have appreciated the special twist of the knife that Wilson gives it here. Being ‘one of us’ is no fun if someone – in this case mother – forces the relationship possessively and purposefully upon us. But even that is better than being lonely. Wilson’s style shows to particular advantage in the last words of the story, where the simple and moving cliché language (‘would pass with time, but in his heart ... ’) is brought up with a snap against a brisker catchphrase: ‘She was dead right.’

In ‘Significant Experience’, ‘Crazy Crowd’, and ‘Et Dona Ferentes’, the real subject appears suddenly behind the back, as it were, of the narrative: always a sign of the best kind of short story. The first is about an undergraduate who is picked up by a rich older woman in Paris and has a good time until her tantrums and her impossibleness begin to get him down. He escapes cold-bloodedly from the hotel in the South of France where they are staying, and on the way to the station is pursued and teased by a lithe male adolescent. It is this which he later mentions to his friends as the vac’s ‘significant experience’. Less Somerset Maugham and more purely Wilson is the marvellous evocation of a family in ‘Crazy Crowd’, when a bright young academic from a humble background goes with his fiancée for the weekend to her Cambridgeshire home. Her stiflingly lively family reduce him to a state of misery and rage, she herself becoming with them a quite different person, and only the last resort of her physical caresses can calm him down. Although a social point is made – the daunting charm of an upper class – the real point is how individuals and communities frighten each other without meaning to, or do they really mean to? Involuntary social cruelty is in any case worse than the real thing in this effervescent pre-Lucky Jim story.

Wilson’s great strength as a narrator is the way in which his sense of camp flows without effort or warning into an area of pain or grief, or simple wickedness, which are all described with robust and resolute honesty. In ‘Et Dona Ferentes’ we encounter misery head-on in the first sentences – that of Monica, the chain-smoking wife scourged by invisible furies, the ghosts of handsome boys for whom her much-loved husband has so often fallen. In this story pain is far more real than sex: although sex, in the person of the young Swede who is staying with them, her son’s pen-friend, is more in the foreground. Sensing the wife’s tension, and resenting her rudeness to him, the handsome Swedish boy offers himself to her husband, who dreams of a situation in which they could spend the night together in a hotel, and in which he could buy the boy expensive presents. But nothing happens, except that the wife is condemned more closely to her prison of fear, and the husband to his dreams of liberation. ‘He threw open one of the windows and let in a refreshing breeze that blew across from the hills.’ Love, like sex, is with most of us no more than a persistent fantasy. And yet there is an almost intolerably moving moment in ‘Heart of Elm’, when the old servant, from whom her employer has been longing to escape for years, dies in her arms with a last cry of ‘My dearie, my lovie.’ Dying, she can reveal what she hardly knew she had felt, and the employer wakes from her dream of liberation from her tyranny to a bleak realisation of what it had really meant.

After the mid-Fifties Angus Wilson launched himself as a novelist, and the later stories, comparatively few in number, seem to have in miniature the preoccupations of the larger form rather than the special features of the short story. They openly discuss political and social questions, and are uncompromisingly on the side of the Labour Government, which the early stories are only by implication. Like Zola, of whom Wilson had made a study, they are full of facts and observations about facts, and they have a kind of intelligent looseness about them which is very original. They have some resemblance to Pushkin’s short studies for novels, but at story length. ‘A Bit off the Map’ is a good example of this odd and interesting genre. In terms of impact, however, the early stories in The Wrong Set and Such Darling Dodos are in a class of their own. ‘Raspberry Jam’ must certainly be one of the wickedest stories in the world, and all the more so because, as with ‘Mary Postgate’, wickedness does not attach itself to any motive or person, but is horribly present in the directions the words themselves seem to be taking. And there is no doubt in that story that the climactic horror really does happen.