Angus Wilson Wilson, Angus (Vol. 2) - Essay

Wilson, Angus (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wilson, Angus 1913–

A British novelist, short story writer, and essayist, Wilson is best known for his novels Anglo-Saxon Attitudes and The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot. His fiction is often considered to be in the tradition of the novel of manners. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

After Evelyn Waugh, what? For anyone who has asked this question, the answer is Angus Wilson, whose first book, The Wrong Set and Other Stories, has just been published over here [1950]. In the England of Evelyn Waugh, everybody had plenty of money or managed to get the benefit of other people's having money; one was free to be as dizzy as one pleased, and the incidental brutality and swindling were hardly noticed in the general hilarity. In the England of Angus Wilson, the money has been giving out, and the clever upper-middle-class people are struggling, with a somewhat damaged dignity, to get hold of or to hang on to whatever income or position is attainable.

There is evidently in Mr. Wilson a strain of the harsh Scottish moralist who does not want to let anybody off and does not care if his sarcasm wounds. This is nowadays an unusual element to crop up in a British writer….

And it is true that Wilson's stories, too, from the point of view of neatness and brevity and of the avoidance of emotionalism, are products of the same cuisine; but they are carried to lengths of caricature that prevent them from being so pleasantly assimilable as the usual British product. The book becomes a sort of thriller, for one goes on from one horror to another, beginning to hold onto one's seat as one wonders what uncomfortable ignoble thing Mr. Wilson will think up next. Yet one shares in the malevolent gusto with which he invents detail, for he is a master of mimicry and parody and is as funny as anyone can be who never becomes exhilarated. It is rather like a combination of Sinclair Lewis with the more biting side of Chekhov, and Mr. Wilson's dreadful people may affect us in the long run a little like the caricatures of Lewis….

Mr. Wilson may be capable of a great deal more, and even in this little collection the impression he makes is formidable. He seems, for better or worse, to represent something that is quite distinct from the well-bred and well-turned entertainment that we have lately been getting from England.

Edmund Wilson, "Emergence of Angus Wilson" (1950), in his The Bit Between My Teeth: A Literary Chronicle 1950–1965 (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1939, 1940, 1947, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1965 by Edmund Wilson), Farrar, Straus, 1965.

Angus Wilson has dealt with a wide range and variety of contemporary experience. He has developed several different techniques in becoming … the most skillful and comprehensive novelist writing in England today [that is, in 1962]….

Angus Wilson's first two volumes of published short stories (The Wrong Set, 1949, and Such Darling Dodos, 1950) contain a good many scathing portraits of British society. Most of the stories depict, with precision and detachment, the delusions and the pretense under which people operate….

Angus Wilson is primarily a novelist. His first novel, Hemlock and After, was published in 1952. Like many of his short stories, it frequently details character in terms of sociological and historical reference…. [Despite] all [its] excesses, the novel develops a complex set of problems through a number of well-articulated points of view….

Wilson's skillful handling of multiple points of view reaches its culmination in his second novel, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956)…. The whole novel is, in one way, a highly complicated statement on the nature of truth…. Throughout the novel Wilson satirizes various forms of the quest for truth…. The novel itself, a complex series of attitudes and points of view, is developed into a diverse and profound statement about man in contemporary society.

Instead of a construction of multiple prisms flashing against one another, Angus Wilson's next novel, The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot (1958), is almost entirely the careful development of a single character. The novel, without tricks or the slightest hint of melodrama, is a novel of sensibility in an almost Jamesian sense….

Whereas Anglo-Saxon Attitudes flashed words, events, and thoughts against one another in a complicated pattern, The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot unfolds slowly as it carefully exhausts every thought or reaction that passes through Meg's mind. References to art, literature, and music are frequent, as the intelligent woman, again like a Jamesian heroine, uses all forms of art to enhance her own awareness of experience. This novel, although entirely different, is as complete and as totally satisfying as is Anglo-Saxon Attitudes.

Angus Wilson's [next] novel is entirely different from either of its predecessors. The Old Men at the Zoo (1961) is a fable, a story of the management of the zoo at Regent's Park which becomes a story of the care and management of human beings. The link between the animals and human beings is quickly and constantly made…. The Old Men at the Zoo is not, however, a prediction; fables are never that specific. Rather, the novel is an exaggerated objectification of current society, a logical extension of attitudes, slogans, and perspectives that Wilson finds currently visible. The novel is also different from 1984. Orwell's novel is a melodramatic warning, sensationally exaggerating the dangers of a specific form of government; Wilson's novel is a fable, making an exaggerated statement about the nature of the creature in contemporary society, a wider and more complex statement relevant to all forms of government. Within the context of his fable Wilson also demonstrates his allegiance to a kind of rational control. Simon, the intellectual, the administrator, is also, in a way, the hero. Man can survive, in terms of the novel, only if he recognizes his own animalism but attempts, as intelligently as he can, to govern this brutality rationally and wisely. He cannot establish programs or return to rigid, narrow codes of the past, but he can try to exercise some control over the beast, over himself. And, as in Wilson's other novels, the personal control and the professional control are equated….

Angus Wilson is the best contemporary English novelist. Each of … [the] three novels [Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot, and The Old Men at the Zoo] is an entirely different attempt to present significant issues in contemporary society. No other contemporary has treated so vast a range of social and intellectual problems or controlled so diverse material from an intelligent and coherent perspective. In addition, no other contemporary has used so various and effective techniques—a prismatic series of interconnecting mirrors, a novel of sensibility, and a striking fable—to represent the many sides of the human creature.

James Gindin, "Angus Wilson's Qualified Nationalism," in his Postwar British Fiction: New Accents and Attitudes (originally published by the University of California Press; reprinted by permission of The Regents of the University of California), University of California Press, 1962, pp. 145-64.

In Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956), Angus Wilson has written one of the most mature novels of the fifties, although maturity, we are reminded, is not always commensurate with artistic excellence. The characters of the novel are varied, the range of comment wide, the point of view, as always, sophisticated, and the verbal gifts as abundant as ever…. Wilson's work, nevertheless, fails for several reasons to realize its potential, most of the faults being embedded in the conception of the material….

The undeniable virtue of this novel derives from the sharp focus Wilson brings to bear upon character and theme. The lines here have become firmer than in Hemlock and After, and the mature wit gives tone and shape to the material. After this book all that Wilson needs to become an important novelist is a greater reliance on imaginative creation, with a corresponding de-emphasis of the specifics of character and plot, a rejection of his Zola-esque stress on catalogued detail. There is lacking, even here, an imaginative awareness of things that cannot be expressed in dialogue.

Frederick R. Karl, "A Question of Morality: Angus Wilson," in his A Reader's Guide to the Contemporary English Novel (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1961, 1962, 1971, 1972 by Frederick R. Karl), Farrar, Straus, 1962, pp. 244-49.

Wilson is the most ambitious novelist in British English who has appeared since the war; more than any other, he has attempted to bring back into fiction the amplitude and plenitude of the Victorians, so much so, indeed, that at times he seems in conscious competition with one or another of them….

Wilson's creative vitality is shown by the fact that in the four very long novels he has so far written he comes nowhere near repeating himself. Yet Hemlock and After does in a way establish the pattern underlying his novels. All his novels seem to illustrate the descent or the disintegration of a man or a way of life into chaos, even though at the end there may be, as in Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956) and The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot (1958), an emergence from chaos, a restoration of order. One of Wilson's most serious and important qualities is his awareness of the black nightside of life. But his rendering of it and of its relation to the public world of man's life in society seems not to be quite under his control. It is as though the realistic novel he seems to have set out to write, the novel that can stand as an acceptable paradigm of society, is always disrupted by compulsions from the world of private fantasy below.

Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel: In Britain and the United States (copyright © 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. in a paperback edition and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, pp. 271-72.

Angus Wilson [is] a novelist more clearly in the line of Henry James than perhaps anyone else writing today. In Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot, and Late Call, the best of his five novels, Wilson has produced what amounts to a trilogy on the theme of the wasted life, a theme he situates on several intellectual and social levels. Although these works are plainly concerned with the transfiguration of British class structure in the twentieth century, the essential focus is always upon the solitary crisis of consciousness….

Though committed to the finest scruples of technique, Wilson is not an innovator—not, at least, in the sense that we would apply the term to, say, William Burroughs or Nathalie Sarraute. He does not test the possibilities of uniquely arranged syntax or of the free-floating consciousness. But like all serious novelists (including the best of the innovators), like Zola (a writer he is especially interested in), he experiments with the causes of a particular human predicament. Where he departs from Zola is in the delicacy of the experiment. For to the severely limited materials of the Frenchman's laboratory he has added the factor of consciousness as a vital influence upon his characters—and that makes all the difference. It is upon the minute, deliberate, accumulating apprehension of motives that the novels in large part rest….

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is still the most fully achieved novel Wilson has produced. While it has not the reach of Late Call …, its exploration of Gerald Middleton and the tangle of afflictions into which he has drifted is more scrupulous than anything we have been accustomed to since James. Wilson's remarkable attention to method can be seen most strikingly in the pervasive thematic and functional influence of the book's focal event: the discovery in 1912 of the tomb of Bishop Eorpwald, a seventh-century Christian convert. Suitably, since Wilson is probing the bygone seasons of his protagonist's life, that event antedates the time span of the novel and exists in the far background. But like James's Mrs. Newsome, who never appears in the pages of The Ambassadors, it is a looming and potent spectre in the foreground….

Like all investigations into the heart of the matter, into the foundations of truth, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is inconclusive—but suggestive. To hint at the implications, one must overstate: reality, since it is not fixed, demands scrutiny instant by instant. The fact cannot be confronted after the fact, for by then the evasion is also a fact, irrevocable and often desolating in its consequences. To seek out the past in the hope of erasing that evasion is an exercise in futility and frustration…. Only the living instant can be conciliated. And this awareness is all that the past can contribute to the present. But it is everything….

It is evident in Wilson's work that he is a writer of the highest seriousness. His concern with that journey into the darkest recesses of the self is one which has inhabited all of literature. It is the passage of Oedipus, Gawain, Hamlet, Marlow, Raskalnikov [sic]. These comparisons are not meant to imply, however, that Wilson is of the stature of say Dostoevski or Conrad. It is easy to fall into the error of overpraising one's subject in order to justify it. Wilson has not yet made an achievement that would place him in the ranks of these great writers. Too much in his work violates the requisite set forth by James: that a fiction must before all things be interesting. Too frequently the vacancy and drag, the deadly friction, of the failed lives which are his subject take command of his work. As in the case of James, however (and it would be sheer sentimentality to say that James always fulfills his own requisite), the very frictions against which he works are a measure of his ambition, of the task he has set for himself. More and more he has renounced the easy targets so vulnerable to heavy satire and concerned himself with the nuances and gradations of human fallibility, those accretions that grain by grain build not to the sudden and sensational shock but to that atmosphere of muted terror that is most pervasively true to human existence—the terror of felt hopelessness, the terror of that jungle of evasions which can finally trap a life inescapably in its senseless grip. Wilson has gone a long way toward accomplishing his task.

Arthur Edelstein, "Angus Wilson: The Territory Behind" (© 1965 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), in Contemporary British Novelists, edited by Charles Shapiro, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965, pp. 144-61.

Angus Wilson … is a darling of the intellectuals, though he … has been happy with a traditional approach to form in the novel. Content, however, is a very different matter. Wilson digs deep into the roots of human morality and comes up with good and evil….

Like most highly imaginative artists, Wilson tends to be happier when indulging a vein of fantasy than when merely being an accurate recording-machine. The Old Men at the Zoo moves farther away from traditional naturalism than do his other novels: he has a future setting, and some of his events seem divorced from probability—in other words, reality and myth come together…. To me, The Old Men at the Zoo seems the best thing that Wilson has ever done.

Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, pp. 102-04.

[Angus] Wilson blurs too often the line between the tricks he loves to see through and those he loves to use for his own advantage. His stylistic pyrotechnics are sometimes bent to ends not much loftier than nostalgia, snobbery, or self-pity; and these effects ring particularly false in [No Laughing Matter,] a novel devoted so largely to inauthentic language. A soft and self-indulgent family-chronicle is, after all, intolerable in this day and age; and when Mr. Wilson's acuteness slips into the merely catty, and his beautifully phrased nightmares start affecting us as verbal light-shows, the novel has clearly lost its edge. That edge is simply the thin blade of controlling irony, an unmanipulated and dispassionate channel of vision which can suggest, beyond a charade, some sort of doom-judgment on the soul. Instead of anything like this. Mr. Wilson has settled for a costume-piece, complacency in drag.

Robert Martin Adams, in Hudson Review, Spring, 1968, pp. 225-26.

Angus Wilson's No Laughing Matter [is] the best thing he has done since Anglo-Saxon Attitudes. The new novel is a family saga, but the blurb is right to say that to mention The Constant Nymph (which is referred to slightingly in the novel) or The Forsyte Saga is to suggest a contrast as much as a likeness. More to the point would be to recall Virginia Woolf's three distinct treatments of the family or the group, To the Lighthouse, The Waves, and The Years, in the last of which she adopted the chronicle form as a way of examining the interplay of time and relationship. For it is this interplay that really attracts the serious writer to the genre, with its opportunities for displaying the paradoxical uniqueness and corporateness of life, and the contrast between the external flow of time and the static inner core of personality. Angus Wilson is very conscious—in parts too conscious—of the tricks that can be played with this conventional narrative form….

Wilson's style is nowhere distinguished. To have paid too much attention to it would have destroyed the cumulative effect of the book. But his vigor is exhilarating, and he succeeds in creating a world in which, for once, outside circumstances are as important as inner conflicts or consciousness. Money or its lack plays its normally important part. To some of the characters politics or business is more absorbing than sex; to others writing or acting more obsessively interesting than human relationships; to all of them love is as often affection, companionship, or blood relationship as physical passion. This inclusive view of life makes it easier for Wilson to avoid oversimplifying characters or experience. One has the feeling, too, that he really likes the characters he is writing about. Some of these qualities are inherent in the form, but only when it is used by a writer of inventiveness, energy, and breadth of sympathy. Wilson displays all these, and if No Laughing Matter is not a great novel, it remains a considerable literary achievement, and one that breaks out of the straitjacket of neat simplification which restricts so much contemporary fiction.

Rachel Trickett, in The Yale Review (© 1968 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1968, pp. 446-48.

[Angus Wilson] is both a writer of middle-brow appeal and true literary seriousness, a fact which enables him to elude confident critical placing. Without doubt Wilson is a writer of unusually fine intelligence, wide reading and great sensitivity. Yet for him, as for many of his contemporaries, writing is just a question of writing, of saying what one wants to say, without theoretical worrying….

His first three novels, Hemlock and After, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes and The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot—published between 1952 and 1958–are very English in their nonchalance about form, in their precise social mimicry, and in the nature of their moral preoccupations. Despite a sense of what James called 'felt life' and, in the first two, a Dickensian range of characters, the thematic elements in these novels are obtrusive. One is constantly invited to ponder questions of responsibility and guilt, the familiar Wilcox-Schlegel opposition between the public life of busy achievement and the private life of spiritual cultivation, and the dilemmas inherent in truly understanding the motives for one's actions. Whereas for Baudelaire true progress lay in diminishing the traces of original sin, for many English novelists it lies in diminishing the traces of self-deception, in steadfastly eradicating the original Emma Woodhouse from one's soul. Wilson is a distinguished practitioner in this tradition, whose brightest luminary is George Eliot: the novel is seen as the vehicle for a particular liberal ideology, where characters are secure in their freedom to refine on their motives, truly to understand each other, and, above all, themselves…. Yet with a mid-twentieth-century representative of this tradition such as Wilson, one's admiration is tempered with a sense that the questions so searchingly gone into for the nth time in this or that novel are beginning to look trivial, both intrinsically and in the larger context of the history of our times. It is in the centripetal nature of its preoccupations that English culture can look parochial and irrelevant to outsiders. For writers who have known, and often still live in, a world where torture and deportation, the arbitrary exercise of unlimited power and the familiarity of casual violence are a part of daily experience, the dilemmas of the English liberal are likely to seem a little fine drawn…. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes does offer the relaxed interest provided by a busily crowded fictional canvas—with part of his mind it seems that Wilson has always wanted to dépasser The Forsyte Saga—and it shows his fascination with the years just before 1914. The whole elaborate plot of his novel depends on an event in the year 1912 when a pagan fertility idol is introduced into the tomb of an Anglo-Saxon bishop. The hoax, which reverberates through the novel (and is clearly a fictional version of the Piltdown Man scandal), was perpetrated by a friend of the young Gerald Middleton called Gilbert Stokesay. Although he was killed in the First World War, Stokesay persists in Gerald's memories as one of the central characters of the story: a reactionary poet and essayist of the cast of T. E. Hulme and Wyndham Lewis, a disciple of Nietzsche and a sadist. Although, as a good liberal, Wilson deplores such types, he is evidently interested in them; one finds them again in The Old Men at the Zoo and a short story called 'More Friend Than Lodger'. There had been one or two Edwardian echoes of a sinister kind in Hemlock and After: the corrupter of children, Hubert Rose, affects Edwardian speech and appearance, and Sherman Winter and his degenerate friends misbehave in the bedrooms of Varden Hall because 'it was somehow, they felt, Edwardian'. In both novels, and again in The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot, there is plenty of evidence that Wilson's liberal imagination is deeply affected by recurring images of violence and cruelty, in ways that both point to deep-seated private obsessions and reflect the public violence of our times….

The sense of nightmare, apparent in the first three books in isolated incidents and recurring images, provided the central material of Wilson's fourth novel, The Old Men at the Zoo, a venture into prophetic fantasy. After rereading it, I feel that I dismissed it in much too summary a fashion when discussing Wilson's work a few years ago. It undoubtedly has major faults. The first part of the book, which deals with the petty intrigues of the directors of the London Zoo, reads rather like a wooden and slow-moving imitation of Snow; the prevalent animal symbolism makes its point, but is too heavily handled.

In later chapters, however, the book becomes imaginatively alive. In the situation that Wilson describes the England of 1970 is militarily threatened by an alliance of European powers; the impending war lends an apocalyptic note to the story, but the atmosphere is hardly suggestive of the outbreak of the Third World War as usually imagined in such fantasies, or even of the advent of the Second World War; rather it seems to recall the summer of 1914, and in the idea of an alliance of European powers threatening Britain it looks back to the alarmist stories of imaginary wars and invasions of Britain that appeared in abundance between 1870 and 1914….

The Old Men at the Zoo seems to have performed a kind of blood-letting for Wilson's imagination, as though it enabled him to face, and for the time being at least subdue, his own inner fantasies. His next novel, Late Call, is, by contrast, a work of considerable serenity and relative freedom from obsessions, although the serenity is tempered by spiritual bleakness. In contrast to Wilson's earlier novels, one might call it 'positive' or 'affirmative', although one should, perhaps, preserve a cautionary memory of Bernard Sands, the novelist hero of Hemlock and After, who read with sardonic enjoyment the eager though uncomprehending reviews that described one of his books as a 'refreshing, if unexpected, source of renewed hope and affirmation in living' and 'a sadly needed testimony to the endurance of the human spirit'….

Late Call is, in essence, a highly conservative book, although it puts forward no propositions, and does not seem unfairminded in its descriptions of British life in the 1960s. Wilson aims some accurate satire at what one might call the Observer-ethos, with its naïve love of gadgets, doctrinaire progressiveness, would-be-exotic eating habits, cultural status-seeking and neurotic concern to be with-it….

Several critics have … reserved their highest praise for Wilson's … No Laughing Matter. This is his longest and most ambitious book so far, in which he returns to the crowded canvas and broad temporal sweep of Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, tracing the fortunes of a not very ordinary English upper-middle-class family called Matthews from 1912 to the present day. Wilson uses the Matthews family as a focus for his fictional attempt on the Condition of England question…. No Laughing Matter is a defiantly traditional generations-novel, with a bustling variety of characters and a great deal of exuberant interplay between them. At the same time Wilson's prose is richer and more relaxed than in his early novels, and his language is able to embody a wider spectrum of feeling and to draw on a greater variety of technical devices. Indeed, several of the chapters take the form of playlets imitating the successive theatrical styles of the past fifty years; a nice example of Wilson's mimetic talents and one that, on the whole, comes off. The novel contains many brilliant episodes, yet the successes remain local and remind one that Wilson began his literary career as a short story writer, and has always had difficulty in responding adequately to the structural demands of the full-scale novel, greatly drawn to it though he is. Increasingly in No Laughing Matter one feels that Wilson has not been able to muster sufficient imaginative energy to animate the whole of his ample design, and there is a palpable weariness in the last part of the book, as compared with its brilliant opening…. Wilson's gifts are fully in evidence in this novel, and so are his limitations. His intuitions and his power of mimicry are as keen as ever: he can instantly reveal the subtle tensions in a complex family relationship, or the unexpected contortions of a consciousness suddenly brought against a new level of reality. He is, above all, a novelist of manners and not at all of ideas, and ideas are what No Laughing Matter conspicuously lacks; not, of course, as conversational tags or fashionable allusions, but as a significant dimension in the narrative. Despite Wilson's admirable wish to include history in this novel, it does not transcend the personal.

Bernard Bergonzi, in his The Situation of the Novel (reprinted from The Situation of the Novel by Bernard Bergonzi by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press; © 1970 by the University of Pittsburgh Press), University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970, pp. 151-61.