Wain, John 1925–
Wain is a British novelist, poet, short story writer, essayist, and editor. Although his fiction and much of his early poetry humorously attack the British class system, he is concerned more with human dignity than with concepts of social injustice. Wain's poetry has recently come under attack for its lack of forcefulness. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Wain is a poet of large ambitions. His early enthusiasm for the Augustan poets has left its mark on his work, not least in his hankering to make "major statements" and execute grand designs. About eight years ago in his Letters to Five Artists Wain employed Pope's favorite form in a wide-ranging exploration of the creative process. More recently he has been inclined to compete with the statements of major English writers; or rather, to place his personal imprint upon familiar materials. Samuel Johnson: A Biography, a literary tilt in which Boswell won points for thoroughness and Wain for readability, has now been followed by Feng, a "re-handling" of the story of Hamlet. As Wain sees it, the sequence of poems which make up Feng centers on the theme of power. They take us into the mind of a "sick and hallucinated [sic] person who seizes power and then has to live with it." Less obviously, the re-examine a theme stated in the last of Wain's Letters:
The ferns grow green with or without our approval.
They spread their fans whether they are seen or not.
There is much virtue in these ancient leaves.
But how, after nearly five centuries, does one re-handle Hamlet? Like Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Wain begins by shifting the emphasis and the point-of-view. Now the emphasis falls upon the will to power and upon the contrast of natural innocence and human depravity; and the viewpoint is that of Claudius. For his materials Wain...
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Hurry On Down is back sporting hard covers to celebrate 25 years in the business. Wain's new introduction repeats, for those who might have forgotten, that he was angry before any of the others were. Do the 'Angries' still speak to our condition? The question is, of course, false. There never was such an obligingly tidy movement, only a mood variously expressed. As comic narrative, the picaresque fortunes of Charles Lumley begin to date. The present inclination turns away from anger to disgust; and our preference now is for pugnacity experienced in the grotesque. As protest, Wain's novel, by its own admission, was a non-starter: 'I never rebelled against ordinary life … I never even got into it.' Keeping out, staying loose, staying neutral were its terms. Our understanding today of the impossibility of that pose came about largely because novels like Wain's proved it: but what cuts them off now, what may give them almost a period charm, is their notion of a hopeful compromise. That has virtually gone. (p. 679)
Zahir Jamal, "Bambini," in New Statesman (© 1978 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 95, No. 2461, May 19, 1978, pp. 678-79.∗
The story on which you first embark in The Pardoner's Tale is told in the first person by 40-ish Gus, on holiday in Wales to escape the boredom of suburbia and a failed marriage. He rescues an attractive young actress from death by drowning, takes her to his cottage and goes to bed with her: she, too, is on the run from a broken marriage. In the morning, she has disappeared, leaving a note saying that it is better for her 'to come and go like a ghost'. He searches for her in London and meets some sinister characters, including her brother and husband. In Chapter Two, you discover that that is not the 'real' story but a novel-in-progress, being written by 50-ish Giles, because only work and alcohol can make life worth living now that Harriet has left him after being his mistress for seven years.
In alternate chapters, Gus's story continues in the first person, Giles's in the third. Gus's story mirrors Giles's fantasies, hopes, fears, elations and depressions. Both men enjoy what one might call "sexendipity': young available women appear out of the blue and between their sheets…. Indeed, it is difficult to decide where there is more wish-fulfilment, in Giles's therapeutic novel or in the story of Giles's life….
The Pardoner's Tale is about life affecting art, about coming to terms with death, about 'a degree of emotional need. Related to pleasure but not identified with it'. However, despite these large subjects, it is more successful at providing entertainment than at provoking thought. The style is uneven, and not all the clichés can be passed off as Giles's rather than Wain's. Happily, there is also a plentiful supply of Hurry On Down-vintage humour: when a woman remarks politely that Giles's books are 'very interesting', she says it 'the way people say it when they are shown the traces of a Stone Age village, or the lay-out of a South-East Asian catamaran, when they happen not to want to know about these things'.
John Mellors, "Mirror Writing," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1978; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), Vol. 100, No. 2583, October 26, 1978, p. 546.∗
John Wain and Kingsley Amis, whose first novels, "Hurry on Down" and "Lucky Jim," came out the same year, 1953, formed the most considerable part of the not particularly well-named Angry Young Man group in postwar English letters…. [Both] have been quite versatile and complete writers in that they write excellent poetry and criticism along with their novels and short stories. (p. 14)
[But they] are really very different sorts of writer. Mr. Amis's talent is comic and corrosive. His strongest links are with a black farceur such as Evelyn Waugh, the Waugh of "Vile Bodies," "Decline and Fall" and "Put Out More Flags," before he made his run at respectability in "Brides-head Revisited" and the war trilogy. By contrast, John Wain as novelist seems serious, solid and even a little dull, in that special English way, which is actually reassuring rather than merely boring. One thinks of Arnold Bennett … or of the later, tamer Wordsworth, who yet could rise to the sober magnificence of the sonnet on mutability, a poem Mr. Wain very much admires. The promiscuous woman guitarist in "The Pardoner's Tale" says there are two kinds of attractive men: sexy ones and those who are nice but slightly wet. Whatever Mr. Wain may be in real life, the persona he projects in his fiction is usually more nice than sexy.
But things get complicated when we consider that the novelist in "The Pardoner's Tale," Giles Hermitage, is...
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Traces of John Fowles and Vladimir Nabokov appear in John Wain's The Pardoner's Tale…. The book begins as an action-filled narrative centering on a missing person, a presumed kidnapping, and a sexual encounter having the flavor of adolescent fantasy…. The balance of the book shuttles between the "real" and the "invented" stories, following two complicated liaisons…. In the sequel both male protagonists get exactly what they want, establishing The Pardoner's Tale as that rare production, a novel with two happy endings.
Twice in its course the author envisages higher achievement—seems indeed on the verge of transforming his tale from a conventionally competent novelistic performance into something rich and strange. The first intimation of ambition occurs at the abrupt shift from Gus to Giles, wherein the reader discovers that the mystery atmosphere, queer and creaky, of the opening chapter is actually a unique contrivance by John Wain—mimicry of the sound of a novel haltingly composed by a writer leaning on the habit of work to sustain his sanity in a bad hour. The possibility glimpsed at this moment is of a novel that will stand as a work of technical revelation, an intricately playful probe of novelese.
The second intimation of ambition occurs during an interview between the novelist and the dying woman, in which the latter perfervidly states her belief that the former can prevent her from...
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