Angus Wilson

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Wilson, Angus (Vol. 5)

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Wilson, Angus 1913–

Wilson is an English novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic. Although some critics have discussed his agnostic humanism and have grouped him with the "angry young men" of the 1950s, most note that his are traditional sensibilities and skills, and emphasize his precise sense of social fact. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Angus Wilson is one of the most devoted exponents of traditionalism in fiction on the contemporary English scene. (p. 64)

The English novelists to whom Wilson is most often compared are Dickens, George Eliot, Henry James, Jane Austen, and Arnold Bennett; and these are the novelists whom Wilson praises most often in his criticism. (p. 67)

There is also a strain in Wilson's writing which goes back to George Eliot, though the Dickensian element may at times eclipse it. (p. 71)

Wilson's analysis of his own writing, The Wild Garden, is written using the same biographical technique employed in [his] study of Zola. Wilson feels, moreover, that his own writing has a similar blending of imaginative and naturalistic elements.

Wilson also learned about handling controversial sexual themes from Zola. Zola helped to show that sexual themes could be used for artistic, and not prurient reasons. (p. 74)

Zola, Wilson feels, gave him ideas about the basic form of fiction, but he also learned from Proust: "Zola has certainly influenced me a great deal in the form and shape of my novels. From Proust I get the feeling about paradox and the truth of improbability—especially the latter" [Paris Review, No. 17, 1957]. By "improbability" Wilson means that strange events do occur in real life, and the inclusion of such events in fiction may actually lend verisimilitude to the plot. The principal sort of improbability which Wilson refers to is the juxtaposition of people who seem to have very little in common and the revelation that, contrary to expectation, strong links can be forged between them. (p. 75)

Wilson's novels usually have an important moral issue at their centers, with lesser moral problems occurring in the subplots. (p. 80)

Wilson does not use only round characters. A number of his minor characters, most notably Mrs. Curry in Hemlock and After, are entirely evil and at the same time quite Dickensian…. On the other hand, Wilson's other characters are almost never entirely good or moral; his heroes all have flaws.

Wilson explains that there are two types of evil characters in his novels; the first kind are the flat characters of Mrs. Curry's type, people who are committed to evil; the second kind are people who are not aware of the moral implications of their actions…. The heroes in Wilson's novels are always morally self-aware; if they do evil, they know it while they are doing it or soon thereafter.

This presentation of evil on three moral planes—intrinsic evil, unconscious evil, and conscious, reluctant evil—is quite effective: the serpent, Eve, and Adam are presented in similar terms. Instead of using morality within a theological framework, however, Wilson has used liberalism and humanism as a basis for the moral code of his heroes.

Wilson is far too intelligent a writer to present the liberal humanism of his major characters in simple or dogmatic terms; indeed, this would be a capitulation to his sin of doing evil through lack of moral self-awareness. His characters prefer the opposite end of the spectrum: a self-awareness so analytical and introspective that it ends in paralysis of the will and inaction. Attempting to live decently and morally, intellectually unable to accept religious ethics, Wilson's heroes...

(This entire section contains 3099 words.)

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govern their lives with a set of impeccable humanistic precepts. The inevitable conflicts occur. The most carefully considered moral actions give pain to others, and Wilson's protagonists withdraw to a world of moral inactivity. (pp. 83-4)

The bitterest hell is the one with a memory of paradise; the most tragic fall is from high estate where the chance for salvation is narrowly missed. Wilson's hell is depressing more than anything else; the absence of salvation or the possibility of salvation produces resignation and not tragedy. (p. 85)

Wilson's interest in psychoanalysis, the self-analytic nature of his fictional methods, and the knowledge of Freud which he acquired in the thirties might lead one to expect a Freudian bias in his fiction. Actually, this is only partially true. A good deal of Wilson's writing is concerned with understanding the psychological makeup of his characters. (p. 92)

[Characters] Wilson himself seems to dislike are insufficiently analyzed…. Characters who are conservative or fascistic in Wilson's fiction rarely have an unconscious; their nastiness is taken for granted and seldom is analyzed. (pp. 94-5)

Another fault which is connected with Wilson's traditionalism is his weakness in using symbolism. Wilson's only sustained attempt at using symbols occurs in his fourth novel, The Old Men at the Zoo; the novel he wrote after this one, Late Call, is a reversion to his usual less symbolic style. (p. 95)

Rubin Rabinovitz, "Angus Wilson," in his The Reaction against Experiment in the English Novel, 1950–1960 (copyright © 1967 Columbia University Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1967, pp. 64-96.

Knowledge of literature as counterfeit is a recurrent theme in modern writing; in Wilson's case, the understanding cuts deep into the speech and words of his characters, giving them something of that self-mimicking quality which is a typical attribute of tenure in his universe. But it also reaches back into the writer and implicates him. It promotes the admirable pastiche qualities of No Laughing Matter, but also those strange positional insecurities that keep on arising as the relationship between Wilson's narrative posture and his characters keeps proving oblique and surprising. Those who have seen his work as a realistic fiction of social range and moral maturity have always this side of his work to come to terms with; it is the biggest problem his writing poses. Of course he is that sort of writer: he offers himself as a moral power; there is in his work a singular moral maturity and perceptiveness. But to overlook the elements of self-doubt and self-mockery would be to miss something quite as essential, and quite as creatively significant, having to do with an uncertainty towards, or a qualification of, that fiction of adult social seriousness he so much admires. (pp. 212-13)

Wilson is unmistakable in his tough-minded interest in moral responsibility, and the milieu of extreme strain and tension in which moral acts are conducted; at times he is unsparing in his capacity for satirical exposure. Even as he relishes his world for its style, its social flamboyance, he measures and judges according to a comic and ironic mode. And one of the functions of irony and comedy in his work is to be directed, as it is in Forster's novels, towards a centre, showing up moral and emotional atrophy, self-deceit and unrecognized failure in the realm of the personal. (pp. 215-16)

Wilson's politics are ostensibly liberal and progressive, and he seems to condemn false social institutions and values; there are hints of political exposé, and of higher historical promises, of better worlds that might be, greater equality, increased tolerance. His bourgeoisie is insecure and in some ways sunk in an illusion which the novelist exposes. But history, though an active force in all his writing, hardly looks, on closer inspection, regenerative. The world of the welfare state, of which he has offered many apt portraits—including the brilliant one of the new town in Late Call—does not transcend evil, but simply provides a new frame for its continuance; the revolutionary promise is never made real, but is another falsification or illusion. The point is that Wilson acts as if historical redemption might come; he writes the liberal-humanistic, or the radical, novel but qualifies it, taking its world often for his essential world but then touching in many insecurities. (p. 218)

["God's eye view"] is in fact a commonplace form of the times, and we find it in much modern realism, satire, and comedy. But the point about Wilson's way with it is that he uses it very freely and unpuristically, as a story-teller above all interested in his story might, moving in and out of his characters as the need arises, presenting his material through many eyes, committing himself to extended episodes of exposition, allowing himself to make acerbic moral points and judgements. This use is imprecise, which is to say that Wilson performs many transactions which writers for whom such things are prime ends, basic organizational instruments for eliciting the form of art, would eschew. His material has to grow of itself, by being freely mimed and acted, in a mock-theatre in which the author creates fixed terms within which the play may occur. What Wilson needs indeed is a mode of writing which allows him a high degree of social mimicry and involvement and then a means for the assertive control of it; this duplicates the narrative activity, and potently divides it. This, I think, he has seen and worried over, which is one reason why the mode has become itself a matter for study in some of his more recent books. (pp. 218-19)

The bourgeois generational novel, the dynastic novel as we have it in Buddenbrooks or Der Stechlin or The Forsyte Saga, is a well-established realistic form, a very substantial and material species of fiction, able to give the sense of social substance, of historical motion, of familial rise and fall, of the interlocking of a family and a culture; but the telling point in No Laughing Matter is the subversion of this—the family is not a communion or a coherence, its financial roots are weak, and the substantive relationship between individual and culture is itself unreal. (p. 221)

No Laughing Matter is very much a laughing matter, or history as a certain kind of farce. It is shrill farce; the farce is itself conditioned, for one feels that the comedy and absurdity, the entire theatre, is a theatre derived from society. But theatre it is; the metaphor is very exact, and it is very total. The idea exists in all of Wilson's novels; in the earlier books we have the text presented as a kind of play, in which well-defined characters exist and well-defined scenes occur, the author then participating as actor and mime and standing back as dramatist to produce his distinctive scenario. But in this novel the metaphor is very obsessive and extensive.

It is, at one level, a figure for illusion, the social illusion, the false-seeming which allows the bourgeois family to feel that, whatever the facts of society and history, they stand at the centre of the stage. But to do that they cast off character and assume roles, roles with artificial social meanings; they are players in the sense of being people who take on other identities. The distinctive thing about the Matthews family, especially in the early pages of the novel, is that they are self-knowing actors, mocking as well as mocked people. They speak in an elaborate, self-parodying discourse drawn from stage, literature, music-hall, newspapers and general cliché ('His Nibs'); they play their part in life, so that they seem at once curiously over-full and over-empty, people with great self-awareness but no substance, people through whom society or cliché speaks. This is all part of a prevalent self-awareness, the knowledge each has of the self-deceptions practised by others; it has much to do with the insecure foundations in family, and money, and society, on which their lives are built. But the theatrical metaphor is also obviously a figure not alone for false illusions in society, the disjunctive images of a declining class, but for life.

Malcolm Bradbury, "The Fiction of Pastiche: The Comic Mode of Angus Wilson," in his Possibilities: Essays on the State of the Novel (copyright © 1973 by Malcolm Bradbury; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1973, pp. 211-31.

While [Wilson] has been a most impressive short story writer, he has yet to write a completely satisfying novel. Either his plots creak badly (Hemlock and After, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes) or drag on interminably (The Old Men at the Zoo) or else his central characters are not involving enough to sustain full-length works (Meg Eliot of The Middle-Age of Mrs. Eliot, Sylvia Calvert of Late Call and pretty much the entire Matthews clan of No Laughing Matter). Still, each Wilson book contains several saving graces—crisp dialogue (Wilson is an accomplished mimic), a number of lively secondary characters, and some perceptive descriptive passages. I remember fondly, for example, the evil Mrs. Curry of Hemlock and After, the eccentric Rose Lorimer of Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, the nightmarish passages in The Old Men at the Zoo and the glimpse of New Town life in Late Call. With that truncated tribute out of the way, I must report, sadly, that … [As If by Magic] is absolutely dreadful and that it will only support his detractors charges that he is an author who writes and writes but has next to nothing to communicate….

Throughout the novel Wilson changes tone so often that we never know when to take him seriously, when to laugh with him or at him. Add to this a short-story-length epilogue in which the author desperately tries to tie his big, sloppy bundle together, and you have, as if by perverse magic, Wilson's worst novel thus far, one that will only embarrass the sensible Wilson devotee. (pp. 780-81)

Ronald De Feo, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 4, Winter, 1973–74.

[In As If by Magic] Wilson has been so copiously and freely inventive, so frank in his construction of a great machine-like plot, that his novel tends to transform its documentation into symbol. Wilson has worked out an elaborate series of episodes, of satiric and comic turns, that carry the actual, one hopes, a stage or two beyond its verifiable limits. And yet, one suspects, if he has outrun the actual, it will surely have overtaken him before we can impeach his extravagances. He has a fine ear for the litanies of the young…. He can catch more in a sentence than most observers see in a day. (p. 563)

Wilson's novel has been called Dickensian, and the term has its point. This novel does not have the movement between levels of a single society, the gradual uncovering of a buried secret, and the remarkable interweaving of characters and incidents that make Anglo-Saxon Attitudes the most Dickensian of Wilson's novels. But it does have a central theme that is pursued in various guises, richly imagined scenes if not characters, and a play of coincidence that is at once shocking and ironic. If the plot comes together with stunning calculation, what it yields is, after all, somewhat dry and anticlimactic; there are no festivities that involve redeemed prodigals, heavenly brides, and beautiful infants. What celebration we find at the close is somewhat like Bernard Shaw's, the freedom from illusion, with all the loneliness that its independence may cost.

Wilson has always been, to a considerable degree, a moralist…. [He] does not delight in irony for its own sake. He is skeptical enough, but not radically skeptical; he is, in fact, profoundly concerned with truth. (pp. 563-64)

Wilson makes frequent allusions to traditional English novels—as he did in The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot—to Jane Austēn, Dickens, Lawrence, E. M. Forster. Yet one is not so much struck by the game of self-conscious artifice as by the moral insight. (p. 565)

Wilson's characters gradually win sympathy in spite of the fatuities that are recorded with such lucid precision. They shade into states of madness that are hard to distinguish from self-indulgence, but they come through them and learn from the process. Such states are always more pathetic or comic, more terrible or ludicrous, than the comparative sobriety and wisdom which may succeed them, but they finally interest us most as transitional states, movements of disintegration or repair. Where they remain fixed and endlessly repetitive, as in horror comics or comic turns, they may become symbolic dimensions of a fuller self that is capable of change, that is potentially the stuff of more than fiction. So it is with the conventions that are so disarmingly parodied or so frankly employed; they provide games we are accustomed to play, and they remind us, too, of the freedom of games (where we can be as greedy and ruthless in Monopoly as we try not to be in life). Yet the novelist's games would not interest us as much as they do if they were not in some way making an assertion or a discovery we value in all our experience. Fiction, like magic, can solve our problems, but only to the extent that we are willing to become the stuff of fiction ourselves; one value of magic is to remind us of the stubbornness of things, of fiction to recall the responsibilities of selves. (pp. 565-66)

Martin Price, in The Yale Review (© 1974 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Summer, 1974.

As If by Magic is a genuine novel, and a good one. It is, despite the dust jacket's calling it Mr. Wilson's "most Dickensian novel to date," decidedly twentieth century, both in technique and in its unremittingly bleak view of human nature. Almost without exception, the characters are hateful or pathetic or both. The plot concerns the round-the-world voyages of Hamo Langmuir, an aging homosexual scientist, and of his neurotic goddaughter, Alexandra Grant. Hamo's story gradually shifts from black comedy to tragedy, in the superbly written center section of the book. Alexandra is less satisfactory. The narrator says with no detectable irony that she has finally understood that there is no Magic—either religious or literary or scientific or political—to solve all our problems for us. But I don't believe it. Whatever the narrator says, Alexandra's own words and actions in the last scene tell me that she is not much changed from the muddleheaded, paranoid young woman we met 400 pages ago. Her perception is perfectly valid (although her specific social prescriptions are simplistic), but she has seemed to reach it so often, falling back from it each time, that I see no reason why this time should be different. By having Alexandra disparage E. M. Forster and Jane Austen, Mr. Wilson sets up a standard of comparison that emphasizes his own unsureness of tone and reminds the reader of the difference between a good novel and a great one. (p. 1055)

Linda Rogers, in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1974; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), September 13, 1974.


Wilson, Angus (Vol. 3)