Frank Kermode

  • Angus Wilson by Margaret Drabble
    Secker, 714 pp, £20.00, May 1995, ISBN 0 436 20038 4

At a party given forty-odd years ago by the suddenly-famous Angus Wilson, Dwight Macdonald ‘introduced himself, American-style, to Rose Macaulay, describing himself as an editor of the Partisan Review and founder of his own journal Politics: she stared at him and said, “Have you come all the way across the room to tell me that? How kind.” ’ ‘American-style’ may be a hint that in the writer’s opinion Macdonald deserved this put-down, for being an Anglophile American if for nothing else. I find it hard to believe she really takes this view, but whether she does or not, the remark she reports might still provoke an English snigger: any suggestion that it was an exhibition of shockingly bad manners would be met with surprise or more probably contempt. Its interest in the present context is that it is the sort of thing somebody might say in an Angus Wilson story, but it is also the sort of thing that he himself would in principle have deplored.

As Margaret Drabble emphasises, he disliked that anti-American reflex, attributing it (perhaps too simply) to simple envy. He loved the USA, where he had dozens of friends, whom he treated, so far as one can tell, with his usual amiability and generosity. Yet the gratuitous insult, the tease, even the rather cruel practical joke, are familiar ingredients of his writing, in some sense as much part of his world as his love of right conduct, one might just say, of goodness. Conscious of certain affinities with Kipling, Wilson called these minor social brutalities ‘Stalkyisms’. Ms Drabble observes that they can ‘go beyond the mere prank’, and mentions both the scholarly hoax in Anglo-Saxon Attitudes and its parallel in Kipling’s great story ‘Dayspring Mishandled’. One cannot imagine Wilson ever wounding a polite stranger in the way Rose Macaulay wanted to, but he must have understood the impulse to behave so. He was aware of his own potential cruelty, and sadistic fantasies notoriously animate some of his fiction, but in life the desire to hurt was usually controlled by an extraordinary, habitual benevolence. Along with his gaiety and his sometimes almost childish enjoyment of life, his good nature was the personal quality for which almost everybody in his huge acquaintance is likely best to remember him. It was accompanied by a deeply-felt if rather helpless sense of the sadness and drabness of some lives, and of the courage so often peremptorily required of people who have not been taught to expect or endure guilt and sorrow.

The conflict between Wilson’s generous humanity and his apparently selfish delight in extravagant behaviour, in the crazy crowd, is a persistent theme of this large and satisfying biography. The famously freakish, feckless Johnstone-Wilson family, the source of so much in the stories and novels, is explored in detail. Expatriate, rentier, class-bound, sly, odd, sinking into genteel poverty, they provoked in Wilson, the youngest of his generation, an exasperated pity, and supplied him with many grotesque, comic and pathetic ideas and images.

The gay world he was destined to inhabit provided equally sad and delightful anomalies, occasions for compassion, ridicule and self-display. Presumably in reasonably secure conditions, Wilson, ‘wearing flame-coloured pyjamas and carrying a madonna lily’, played Buggery in an Oxford show of the Seven Deadly Sins. In an age when it was dangerous to advertise homosexual inclinations he was flamboyantly gay, indeed it was inconceivable that he might for any reason even pretend to be otherwise.

He supported the increasingly powerful movement for gay liberation with a mixture of boldness and caution; though devoted to the cause he was conscious that he could, if too bold, damage the sales of the books that provided his income. The uncertainty of that income, the likelihood that it couldn’t indefinitely support his comfortable (though not magnificent) way of life, was in his later years to become a constant and harrowing anxiety; but it did not stop him from speaking out on just occasion.

Drabble interestingly suggests that his familiarity with homosexual societies all over the world, what she calls his membership of the Homintern, was to Wilson what Freemasonry had been to Kipling: it valuably extended his range of congenial acquaintance. As he grew older he spent more and more time abroad; spoiled in childhood by the South African sun, he detested the English winter, and found he could write best in warm weather and out of doors. But the facilities offered by this notional club probably added to the pleasure of abroad, and as time passed Wilson’s desire to travel grew more and more exorbitant.

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