Angus Wilson Wilson, Angus (Vol. 3) - Essay

Wilson, Angus (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wilson, Angus 1913–

Wilson is an English novelist, short story writer, and essayist whose realistic novels of manners in the tradition of Jane Austen and E. M. Forster are praised for their insight, sensitivity, and intelligence. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

During the late 1940's and early 1950's, Angus Wilson acquired a reputation as a writer of sharp, astringent short stories in which the pretense or hollowness of characters' poses [was] torn apart by people or events. Carefully analytic, the early short stories, collected in The Wrong Set (1949) and Such Darling Dodos (1950), give some support to Wilson's reputation as a satirist, but even in those, and more certainly in the novels that follow, the reputation is both oversimplified and inaccurate…. More appropriately for Wilson's amorphous fictional world which is not amenable to a single, all-inclusive theme, irony, far from depending on a fixed standpoint, reverses or undercuts the expectations without making a judgment between the value of the expectation and the value of the reversal. Irony emphasizes man's lack of knowledge and assurance, his need to live and act in a world where he never fully knows the causes or consequences of his actions; satire, on the other hand, emphasizes man's foolishness, as if he could and should know better. In all his novels, Wilson never judges his estranged central characters from any single or assured point of view, never establishes an imperative that would have made life more rewarding or satisfactory for the central character….

Wilson's attitude, in his novels, has always been one of compassion for the estranged, particularly for the estranged trying desperately to re-establish significant communication with others and himself. In No Laughing Matter, with its emphasis on all the complex forces that determine the shape of human beings, that compassion is extended, given wider meaning and reference, for the determined conditions of experience make many more of us isolated or alien, divide us from our dreams and our attempts. The focus on psychological causation widens the definition of the estranged or the remote, multiplies Wilson's central character by six, even beyond six in that "Billy Pop" and the "Countess" can also not be entirely condemned, and increases the compassion for the many who find human experience and communication so difficult. The greater the understanding of human hang-ups and their origin, the more dense and complex the explanation of human attempts to break through the protective prison of self, the greater the respect and compassion for the human being.

This focus on the individual is not, however, the only focus in Wilson's fiction. The novels also describe, characterize, and rely on a great many sociological and historical phenomena of the last fifty years…. On the level of social chronicle, the novels describe overall attitudes as well as evocative details, carefully delineate perspectives changing through time instead of merely ticketing by the year in the fashion of the television documentary. In addition to providing the chronicle, Wilson's novels also demonstrate how constantly public, social or historical issues impinge on the private existence of the individual….

In The Wild Garden, Wilson claims that both "fantasy" and "realism" are important for his novels, and that without a "fusion" of these two elements he could not produce a novel. The "fantasy," the artist's arrangement, the design visible in the conscious structuring of experience and symbolizing of issues, is necessary in order to convey the "realism," the sense of life, to the reader. Wilson makes the constant assumption (and it is only an assumption, for he does not demonstrate its metaphysical truth) that there is a "real" world outside the self, a tangible, although perhaps not completely definable, reality which man can know and about which he can say something. And, given the methods of fiction, that "real" world can be best conveyed in an imaginative reconstruction that is not concerned with the minute duplication of probability at every given point. "Realism" and "fantasy" thus fuse, the latter, the artifice, granting a greater measure of imaginative and emotional credibility to the former. Wilson has also written that he frequently multiplies plots and subplots, adds characters and connects them with his major ones, in order to convey a greater sense of expanding life. He feels that the thematic novel, "even at its most excellent, say in Silas Marner or L'Étranger," lacks sufficient life, the capability to disseminate "the moral proposition so completely in a mass of living experience that it is never directly sensed as you read but only apprehended at the end as a result of the life you have shared in the book." In his early novels, in order to create in the reader this sense of diverse and expanding life, Wilson typically added bizarre characters from the various London underworlds…. In more recent novels, like Late Call and No Laughing Matter, the density of plot and subplot is less bizarre and contrived, the sense created of middle-class life is copious and all the more convincing because it is achieved less melodramatically.

Wilson's structural forms, like his use of politics and art, never completely express the novel, never solidify or become sufficiently a symbol for the universal, never permit categorization of the novel as thematic. Rather, the structure is exploratory, codifies some things within the novel and omits others, presents a form of partial definition through which and against which man, in all his complexity, can be seen. The form works both with and against reality, never (except in The Old Men at the Zoo) hardens in the set of its own premises. Literary form invariably establishes implications about an author's attitude toward his fictional world: a novel studded with flashbacks assumes the importance of the past for present circumstances and a fable implies the cohesive and applicable truth of the morality that directs it. Wilson's structural forms, however, clearly discernible as they are, work for only part of a novel, double back on themselves, or are mixed with and against other forms and techniques.

Wilson's forms are incomplete, as if no structural device, no analogue, can convey all that needs to be said about contemporary man. The incomplete form, the open form, the device that cannot serve as a full analogue for all the experience presented within the novel, leaves the reader with an increased compassion for all man's partial efforts, with partial knowledge in a "real" world that can, as the incomplete structures suggest, be only partially assimilated or understood. The incomplete or the undercut structure leaves the reader room for compassion for man who is himself less complete, less defined, less the triumphantly understanding sensibility, than he would wish and try to be…. Structural form, for Wilson, is the starting point, the set of coherent terms in which the exploration of human behavior begins; form is not, for Wilson, the analogue that summarizes, wraps up neatly, assumes the entire meaning of the fiction. Form suggests rather than encloses the experience Wilson presents.

Wilson's use of the incomplete form, like the constant mode of irony, like the formulations through art or the generalizations about political man, helps to keep the novels open, engaged with and exploring a sense of reality. In focusing on characters who attempt to know themselves, Wilson's interest is constantly psychological and historical, constantly involved with the explorations going on in the open novel. Yet the process of self-knowledge is never complete, never reaches the definitive form in which it can enclose the novel. In this sense, Wilson's later novels, like Late Call and especially No Laughing Matter, are more effective than his earlier ones, for, in the later novels, examination of self is more a process and an activity, a form that suggests and engages human experience, than an end that reaches firm and desirable conclusions…. [The] irony of the last two novels is richer and more complicated. The human search for self-knowledge engages the characters in the midst of the recognition that one can never completely know himself. This more fundamental, more completely determined, irony increases both the psychological sophistication and the comprehensive compassion in Wilson's later novels, makes them more searching and more humane.

James Gindin, "Angus Wilson," in his Harvest of a Quiet Eye: The Novel of Compassion, Indiana University Press, 1971, pp. 277-304.

An impressive book, as well as a surprising one, [As If By Magic] confirms that Wilson better than any novelist of his generation is confronting the problems of writing a fiction which is not stifled by the conventions of the past hundred years, yet avoids obscurity and retains the dramatic elements which, to my mind, are necessary if a book is justifiably to be called a novel. In escaping from genre fiction (something which most younger novelists, Margaret Drabble among them, have singularly failed to do) Wilson has extended himself into, for him, unfamiliar literary territory and perhaps this is why some of the scenes and characters do not quite come to life as fully as in his earlier novels, as if he is still finding the appropriate methods for handling certain kinds of new subject matter. For all that they are worth noting, I do not think that the odd flaws mar the work very much and I found the book exhilarating to read and admirably exact in its choice of targets for attack.

Among these targets are such modern horrors as Frodoism (The Lord of the Rings used the way a fundamentalist might use the Bible), mystical pseudo-science (the Atlantis/Flying Saucer/Stonehenge syndrome) and guru worship….

Melodramatic devices abound in As If By Magic and they are refreshing and welcome, for there certainly seems to be nothing incongruous about such devices when they have their origins so evidently in the world about us. Indeed, it is only where Wilson is at his most 'realistic' (in a scene, for instance, set at a Japanese dinner party and having among the characters an American Senator who is a dreadfully conventional caricature) that he loses conviction. Yet for all his expert use of powerful romantic imagery, an easiness with wild, farcical melodrama, Wilson retains his wry, caustic, down-to-earth grasp on his subject matter, his quiet, sympathetic irony….

The characters are still Wilson characters—articulate, sophisticated, self-knowing up to a point, seeking equilibrium between 'duty' and spontaneity—but they are, by and large, a new cast. If No Laughing Matter gave us the apotheosis of his earlier, familiar character types, As If By Magic presents a whole range of new ones, the beginning, I suspect, of a fairly radical shift in Wilson's intentions as a novelist….

Reliance on magical solutions to our problems tends to dehumanise us, to brutalise us when perhaps we are feeling at our most inspired, our most confident, and the danger signs are displayed when we find ourselves saying, as Wilson has Zoe Grant saying of her marriage in an early part of the novel, 'We never have failures.' Angus Wilson has claimed that he is 'not very good on abstract ideas'. That may be so; it could even be a virtue. But it seems to me that As If By Magic does a great deal to help identify some of the crucial problems of the present day. It is a fine, entertaining, satisfying novel. I look forward to re-reading it many times.

Michael Moorcock, "Angus Wilson's Magic," in Books and Bookmen, July, 1973, pp. 32-5.

Wilson's language, which in Hemlock and After, say, or Anglo-Saxon Attitudes was a disciplined, intelligent, funny affair, now [in As If By Magic] just tries half-heartedly for a few jokes and insights, then gives up, becomes the language of a writer who has mistaken his own rather lazy literary manner for the way the world really is. Worse, in fact: a writer who can't really be bothered even to have a manner, and who can't work up much enthusiasm for the way the world really is either….

[It's] … too late in the century, or perhaps simply in his life, for the kind of novel he keeps writing. I don't mean it's too late in some formal, scholastic way, that the gates are closed now, that no one can write old-fashioned novels any more and I refuse Angus Wilson the right to a comeback. I mean that on the evidence, Wilson's talent no longer seems to be making much sense of this form of novel, with an omniscient narrator lurking inside the heads of several of the book's characters….

As If By Magic is governed by a vast, careless, lordly condescension both toward its characters and toward its readers. The characters can't complain, of course; but we can.

Michael Wood, "It's Later than You Think," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), November 1, 1973, pp. 20-1.

Angus Wilson is the most finely and directly ambitious of contemporary British novelists, one of the few (C. P. Snow is another) who confront the modern world head-on, making no attempt to take refuge in rediscovery of their own childhood, or in minute examination of a single class or group. His last novel, No Laughing Matter, offered a view of half a century in British life from 1912 onward, with the characters seen as actors in a national play and some of the scenes even cast in dramatic form. The range of characters and incident was wide, and so was the variation in tone. Like Dickens, one of his masters, Angus Wilson deals in melodrama and switches within a few pages from knockabout comedy to sentiment, from philosophical discussion to violent action. In No Laughing Matter these juxtapositions were almost all successful in pointing up ironies. As If By Magic shows them sometimes failing in their intended effects….

As If By Magic is a long, complex novel, and a summary of the main themes can hardly do it justice. There are sharp, brilliant portraits of many minor characters…. And the concern with values beyond purely rational or practical ones is not mocked—mockery is reserved for the means by which people try to find such values—but approached with a sort of wistful cynicism sometimes reminiscent of early Aldous Huxley. The novel is too wayward and diffuse to be called a success, but it remains continuously interesting, it does confront some real problems in our time, not conventionally but in a deeply personal and individual way, and of how many novels can one say as much?

Julian Symons, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), November 11, 1973, p. 13.

Angus Wilson seemed to begin where Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley left off. It was as if he had been born a middle-aged comedian, clever but desolate. For him there was no initial period when a young satirist simply functions: a predatory animal savagely but happily on the hunt.

What does a very funny writer do whose laughter is always choking into a retch? Among other stratagems, Wilson has tried to revive the well-made Victorian novel (see The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot). He has sketched portraits of the very old and the very young (Late Call). He has even attempted essays in mysticism (The Old Men at the Zoo).

As If By Magic is a little of all of these, but curiously—Wilson, after all, is now 60—it reads more like the early Waugh-Huxley novel the author never got to write. In spirit it may well be his most youthful book….

Like Huxley, Wilson can become an abstract moralist. The reader meets hungry masses rather than hungry people. But in his gadfly or Waughspian capacity Wilson achieves top form. As If By Magic is rich in stock (but not too stock) characters: Japanese businessmen, German tourists, English eccentrics, American divorcees who look like failed Myrna Loys.

Above all, Wilson is a master of dialogue. Even when he cannot make a character live, he can always make him talk. Wilson people talk about Russian novels and sex, the Third World and God. Give them notice, or no notice at all, and they will do a turn on Marxism or produce a passable limerick. For these vile bodies of the '70s are as restless in the spirit as in the flesh.

What Wilson finally articulates is the tormented, muddled idealism behind doing your own thing. Nobody has taken the comedy of being contemporary more seriously. Wilson's practical and moral conclusion: "You have to be very strong for games." It is a compliment the novelist deserves to share.

Melvin Maddocks, "Vile Bodies Revisited," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1973 by Time Inc.), December 3, 1973, pp. 107-08.