Angus Wilson Wilson, Angus (Frank Johnstone) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Jonathan Raban

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 written about madness and death at a time when madness and death have been passionate bourgeois cults; but the overwhelmingly polite reception given to his books indicates, I suppose, that there is nothing quite so stolidly ignorable as the presence of a corpse or a madman at your own dinner party. He has filled his novels with the noise of the English middle classes warding off Armageddon. What has mostly been heard has been the genteel tinkle of the Forsytes, unnaturally protracted forty years on. (p. 16)

Alexandra, the heroine of [As If By Magic] is a student of English Literature at a new university. She is also—to the alarm of some of the book's reviewers—a new kind of person. Alternately mawkishly childlike and ferociously sophisticated, she is a devout irrationalist. Her emotional life is storm-bound, a superstitious melodrama. She dresses up, she plays, she reads Tolkien and Lawrence; she is swept by bouts of optimism and despair. Her sensibility is as remote from that of her Hampstead parents as a tribal African's.

Her character is a brilliant combination of empathy, research, and myth-making. To create her, Wilson read what she would read, studied her clothes, her north-London-cum-hippie argot, her hotch-potch of mysticism and liberationism, with the relish of Flaubert gutting popular encyclopaedias for Bouvard et Pécuchet. His anthropological curiosity shows in the intricate web of small details in which she is clad—as if he had, indeed, reconstructed a strange, extinct human from his unearthed artifacts. Alexandra is more than a character; she stands for her generation, and her outlines are suitably idealised and theoretical. But at every point, Wilson manages to give her feelings an eerie particularity; her hurts and anxieties are entirely her own. Insofar as she is a creature of her society, she is meticulously painted in the colours of her kind—yet we never lose the sense of her as a uniquely scarred private animal. There are many novelists who can make their characters live on one or the other of these two levels: there are very few who can make both real at the same time. Wilson's power as a 'social novelist' (and the phrase has an unaccustomed bite when applied to his work) is largely vested in this peculiar capacity to stand sufficiently far outside to make myths and large, shapely statements, at the very moment when he is most intimately inside a single character. Since 1949, when [his first work] The Wrong Set came out, he has been animating a vast, disturbing tableau of English society. It is a portrait of the kind of hell which vulnerable private people create when they attempt to live with each other. (p. 17)

Dividing up one's life and parcelling the bits into separate 'parts of society' is something which all Wilson's characters find themselves doing perforce. For in his novels, society is segmented like an orange, and each lith has its own skin, its own intricate tracery of conventions and rules. The Belgravia hostess, the man of letters, the Cockney pickup, the hippie student, all belong to separate segments. They talk in the cosy slang of their set, they live and breathe unconsciously in the rarefied climate of its morality. But bits of themselves spill out, and Wilson becomes interested in them at just those moments when the skin breaks…. Again and again, Angus Wilson needles his people into leaving the safety of their sets, driving them into unfamiliar parts of society where they are tested in collisions with strangers. The novelist's knowledge is exemplary: he knows each segment of the orange, he has suffered these encounters and divides. He stands like a teacher in relation to his characters, at once instructing and examining them in the ways of a riven world.

Wilson's books present society as an elaborate series of separate compartments, intermitted by stretches of intolerable vacancy. In his own life, he has clearly moved much more than most men through this rather cheerless galaxy—first by the accident of his upbringing, later by deliberate choice…. I suspect taat the one great reward of his childhood was the discovery that it might be possible, in a century and a society more hopelessly disconnected than any other, to be Proteus: to go everywhere, to try on the clothes, the manners and the feelings of everybody; to reconstruct the lost wholeness of society out of the conflicting strains of one man's experience. A bit of South African … a bit of gentility … a bit of rake … a bit of Kensington … a bit of Bexley … a bit of homosexual camp … a bit of army officer; could it not be that these fragments, contained in one sensibility, might form a model for a grand recreation of England and Englishness? Wilson does, I think, see himself as a whole family of different people, and, as he has shown in No Laughing Matter, it's a very short step from being a family to being a population and a culture. In that book, he made the Matthews family act out a panoramic charade of English history from before the First World War to 1967; but in parodic interludes of 'The Family Sunday Play' they act out each other's lives as well. Children play parents, brothers walk on as sisters, sisters as brothers. It is a dark and suggestive ploy. For if at one level the book attempts to encompass the recent history of a nation, at another it hints that that history, those rifts and eddies of style and principle, might all take place inside the head of a single actor. Given the right script, anybody might play anyone else's part; and as the characters swap about, in and out of each other's roles, they hint at a monstrous histrionic arbitrariness, a version of history as a ventriloquist's farce.

There is an innate theatricality in Wilson's writing, in his vision of society, and in his own personal style. He is a very exact mimic. His lips purse into a prim O, and he turns into the shrill, piping lady proprietor of a bookshop; they slacken, and he becomes a beery, self-consciously fils du peuple sportswriter. What in life is witty, camp impersonation turns in his books into an amazing range of rich performances. The outrageous, mincing swami in As If By Magic; Sukey Pasco in No Laughing Matter, the schoolmaster's wife who gives weekly talks on the Western Region Home Service, describing family holidays in Winnie the Wolseley; the plump and beastly Mrs Curry in Hemlock and After; Harold Calvert in Late Call, with his Guardian philosophy, his string of mangled quotations, and his lugubriously orotund family humour. These characters stand just to one side of the centre of the novels they appear in; somewhat larger, funnier and badder than life, they are brilliantly-coloured pantomime creatures who walk side by side with the 'real' people who are Wilson's heroes and heroines. They are there to infect reality with the bold satire and lighting of theatre.

For this is a society in which, however seriously we take ourselves, and however complex our motives may appear, we are always on the brink of farce or melodrama. Wilson's ravishingly agile impersonations spring from a conviction that dressing-up, playing a part, acting out a charade, constitute...

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Penelope Lively

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Anne Tyler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Kiely

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Daphne Merkin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 is impossible to credit siblings in their 20s and 30s who call each other "darling heart." Moreover, the author's notions of the costs of Tom's sanity versus the risks of Piers' fancy flap around like an ill-fitting coat. One presumes Wilson set out to write an old-fashioned novel of realism that joins form and content, but his goal eluded him. His attention to life is not keen enough to fill up the grandiose structure of myth that feebly animates the book. Had he loosened up and abandoned his quest for a polished performance, had he perhaps taken the present fragmentariness of the world into account, Setting the World on Fire might at least have kindled our interest. (p. 13)

Daphne Merkin, "Myths and Mazola," in The New Leader (© 1980 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LXIII, No. 21, November 17, 1980, pp. 12-13.∗

Denis Donoghue

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter Faulkner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 536 words.)