Wilson, Angus (Frank Johnstone)
Angus (Frank Johnstone) Wilson 1913–
English novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic.
Wilson is one of the most important English novelists of the postwar years. Seen as a group, his works form a chronicle of social changes that have taken place within English society in the twentieth century. Although often extremely funny, they also contain serious critiques of that society. Wilson's subjects are usually failed or wasted lives, individuals whose crises reflect the disintegration of a larger way of life.
While not a great innovator, Wilson has experimented over the years in narrative form. He began with portraits of upper-middle-class society in his short story collections The Wrong Set and Other Stories and Such Darling Dodos. In his early novels Wilson stayed within the tradition of English realism, varying his characters and experimenting with point of view. In his later novels Wilson moved away from traditionalism, presenting a contemporary fable that blends realism and fantasy in The Old Men at the Zoo, a generational family saga in No Laughing Matter, and a highly complex symbolical novel in his recent Setting the World on Fire. In this work, critics note a successful organizational design, a moving work of social criticism, and a dramatic force that emphasizes Wilson's theatricality. Although few critics consider this a completely satisfying novel, many believe that Setting the World on Fire is a testament to Wilson's importance to contemporary literature.
(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 5; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 15.)
Who would choose to live in a novel by Angus Wilson? His characters are constantly exposed to the cruel publicity of society: everyone finds himself involuntarily, often unwittingly, on show. He may ache for silence and privacy, yearn to cultivate his inner life like a secret garden, but here the most retiring and insignificant people are condemned to be public figures…. Husbands and wives, parents and children, discover that there is nothing more demandingly public than private life. They have to learn to be actors, with the actor's conscious, uneasy control of character and expression. Failure here is dreadfully easy: a small solecism mushrooms into a humiliating disaster; what starts as a polite giggle ends as a shriek. The lights are always on, there are no corners to hide in.
Either we conduct ourselves honourably in these terrible games, or we go mad or die. Death happens here insidiously casually, and every drawing room has its share of gibbering loonies who wear tweeds and tell funny stories. It is a profoundly apprehensive and pessimistic vision of life in society, and it's perhaps not surprising that Wilson's novels should have been persistently misread. For there is a customary, Boots Lending Library version of his work which represents it as cosy, gently ironic, and, oh, so accurate about middle-class people like us. Wilson's unhinged stare has been wilfully misinterpreted as a blandly humorous twinkle. He has...
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Setting the World on Fire is an elaborately structured book; I am sure that academic commentators will soon find many … crafty parallels, convergences and contrasts in it. The fantasy in Wilson's earlier fiction is usually negative, cruel and evil. In this novel he has opened himself to hedonistic imaginings of beauty, wealth, glamour, energy and talent, giving them free rein, though with just enough control to turn fantasy into art; the result can reasonably be called baroque. It is noticeable that much of the energy goes into describing, often in elaborate and beautiful language, artifacts and performances: architecture, painting, theatrical and operatic productions, gardens. Writers on Wilson, like Peter Faulkner in his new study [see excerpt below], have emphasized the element of theatricality in his art, and in Setting the World on Fire it is dominant. But there is a price to be paid. Wilson has to tell a story moving forward in time, whereas his deep imaginative impulse seems to have been to present a static or spiralling enactment of the Phaethon myth, turning in and round on itself like the imagined baroque ceiling he describes so vividly. The human element and the business of storytelling tend to come off second-best, but the realistic novelist, who is interested in character and motives, cannot be wholly suppressed.
He emerges well on in the novel, with the account of a long, unhappy and intermittently funny...
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Setting the World on Fire is Angus Wilson's richest, most complex novel, if, in the last resort, one of the least satisfying. Yet, that being said, the dissatisfaction seems unjustified; all the Wilson skills are displayed, all that imaginative power and reflective insight that makes him for me, possibly the greatest English novelist of the post-war years. So what has gone wrong? It is a deeply symbolic novel, operatic in its symbolism and deliberately so, and perhaps it is just this that is unsettling even for the most devoted Wilson reader; you think regretfully of the calmer texture of Late Call and The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot. The opulence of the conception seems to blur the more unobtrusive but crucial novelistic crafts for which Angus Wilson is distinguished.
The central symbolism is architectural. Tothill House, the mansion owned by the Mosson family which occupies a vast tract of central London stretching from Westminster Abbey to St. John's, Smith Square, was built by Sir Roger Pratt, a marvel of classical regularity; within the very centre of the house was inserted, in violent contrast, Vanbrugh's Great Hall, a triumph of baroque flamboyance which carries upon its walls and ceiling Verrio's painting of the Phaethon legend. The Hall, the painting, and Lully's opera Phaethon (originally written for production in the Hall itself but never performed) are the essential matter of the novel: the story...
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Angus Wilson's uncommon energy is demonstrated not only by the number of his books … but also by the very fiber of his writing. As a novelist he is tireless in his pursuit of each and every character. He pounces upon the slightest telltale gesture or turn of phrase. Elision—the gliding over of smaller occurrences, summation of random conversations or any other form of creative shorthand—appears to strike him as a kind of cheating. He is meticulous, exhaustive in building up his scenes, word by word and clink of china upon clink of china. The result is people so firmly defined that you feel you could count the stitches in their English lawn dresses—although, in fact, you could not, for it is by their speech and movements that he describes them. Manner is crucial. Color of coat, length of hair tell Angus Wilson less than a single scrap of nervous laughter. (p. 33)
Setting the World on Fire, if diagramed, would resemble one of those evergreen swags draped along a mantel at Christmas-time: a taut moment, a long droop, another taut moment, and so on. When Piers goes on and on about his theatrical productions (several of which we witness, in varying degrees of completion), the combined weight of casting problems, costume frills, wig styles, acoustics, and placement of orchestra is enough to sink the whole novel. There are extended conversations so fidgety and detailed that the reader positively itches, and they're not for any...
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[Although] the novel is old enough to have a "tradition," which some would like to mortify by calling "great," writers like Angus Wilson are more likely to be drawn to the form precisely for its vulnerability to shapelessness and its susceptibility to vulgarity than to its respectability. Such a writer exposes himself in the act of writing to the same dangers and possibilities his readers struggle with every day. He is not a superior specimen, but a gifted equal.
During his long and varied career, Angus Wilson has continually experimented with narrative techniques and searched for definitions of his craft that do not exclude the messy world of private and public experience any more than they exclude the ordered world of books. His fiction is an unusual combination of two familiar English traits: earnestness and irony. Part of him is uncertain, groping, tolerant; part of him is knowing and crisp. All of his work, including his earliest short fiction, is a curious mixture of rough spots and polish; yet ease of expression is not an end in itself. He never tries quite the same thing twice. He likes to move on. (p. 39)
Wilson's two most acclaimed and best-known works of the 1950's were ["Anglo-Saxon Attitudes" and "The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot"]…. Both novels contain whole sections of glittering dialogue, wonderfully satiric imitations of academics, politicians, diplomats, artists, scientists…. But although, as Mr....
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Angus Wilson is a British writer of repute who doesn't rattle any skeletons. His latest novel, Setting the World on Fire … is about as old-fashioned—indeed, doddering—a literary gesture as you can get. The only fire is in its title. The book itself is so stodgy that one is led to wonder whether Wilson intended the stodginess to be taken ironically, as a flicker of defiance; after all, it is filled with snatches of intelligence, as English novels generally are. Unfortunately, the intelligence is creakily rooted in those ageless, civilized truths we all wearily assent to, so Wilson's novel never attains enough tension to be defiant. It seems merely out-of-step, lumbering instead of stately….
Wilson's opening is much the best part of his book….
This poetic and accurate rendition of the wendings of a child's mind appears to promise a work of sparkling imagination. Regrettably, the expectation is not fulfilled. Characterization, so deftly done here, loses its vigor after Part One; instead, Wilson proffers bits of pre-meditated types—one of this and a little of that. Once he ignores, or loses faith in his own unguided artistic instincts, the novel turns resolutely formulaic: Wilson leads us and perhaps himself firmly by the nose….
Setting the World on Fire is startlingly unconvincing. It is hard to believe in anyone talking or thinking like the characters in this book, it...
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It is well known that Wilson has been complicating his art in the later novels, beginning with No Laughing Matter…. His early novels, notably Hemlock and After, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, and The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot, sat comfortably if not comfortingly within the tradition of English realism. They were about what they appeared to be about, no more and no less. Mainly, they were about the comedy, irony, and tragedy of social existence, of being present to oneself by being present, necessarily, to other people. Wilson showed a critical interest in his subject, observing the instances of personal and social life with an eye keen enough for every decent purpose but not self-consciously sharpened for the occasion. As in the short stories of Such Darling Dodos, what was observed was not humiliated by the mind that observed it. In Hemlock and After and the other early novels, Wilson was vigilant about characters when vigilance was what they deserved, but he did not imply that they existed only to be detected or to appease his ironic zeal. His eye for revealing detail, his ear for nuances and idiosyncrasies of speech were acute within the limits imposed by generosity: he did not presume to dispose of his characters merely by finding them fallible. Fallible in one degree or another, they were unfailingly interesting, it was easy to care about them.
Some of this interest is carried over into Setting the...
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Wilson expresses the problem of the contemporary novelist in a striking question: "How can we combine caring with shaping?" The remarkable feature of his own career as a writer has been the way in which, despite the nihilistic tendencies of the age, Wilson has retained his care for humanity while enriching the formal elements of his work—though the formal complexity of the early works is often under-estimated…. Wilson agrees with the suggestion that his later novels reveal a less solid world than the earlier ones, relating this to his growing sense of the fragility of our civilisation. Some people, like Wilson's central characters, try to come to an understanding of the situation, but many avoid the issue and play "louder and louder games to disguise from themselves the earthquake surface on which we all live". Again we are made aware of the serious concern for humanity at the centre of Wilson's art. Despite his awareness of the elements of role-playing in social situations, which give the opportunities for his brilliant exercises in mimicry, and his modernist awareness of the subjective basis of all utterances, which leads to the use of pastiche, Wilson still affirms that "I do have a sense that there is something real" under the social surface, and his sympathies are always with those who try to develop that reality rather than retreat from it into a purely social identity…. [There is] a paradox which is central to his achievement. And it is...
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