A Bottle in the Smoke
A Bottle in the Smoke is the eighteenth book in only thirteen years by the prodigiously energetic, forty-year-old English novelist and biographer A. N. Wilson, and the second installment in a trilogy that was initiated in 1989 with Incline Our Hearts, winner of the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters. The earlier volume, set in postwar England, traces a decade in the life of its narrator-protagonist Julian Ramsay from the death of his parents through his life with his guardians (Uncle Roy, an Anglican minister, and Aunt Deirdre) and his schooling and sexual initiation to his National Service. A Bottle in the Smoke picks up the story where Incline Our Hearts leaves off; with Julian anxious if not exactly ready to declare his independence. Although the two are of equal length, the later novel proves far more temporally circumscribed and is set around the time of the Suez Crisis (1956) when, like Julian, Britain itself was being stripped of its last vestiges of world power. As inclining hearts meet declining fortunes, Julian discovers his life to be no less circumscribed than his narrative.
Chronologically, but not narratively, the novel begins with Julian chafing over having to drudge daily in the accounts department of Tempest and Holmes, shirt makers, where his father toiled before him. Julian dreams of becoming a novelist, or an actor, but does little more than dream (and rail against Tempest and Holmes) until a friend, William Bloom, advises him to quit his job and devote himself to his writing while working part-time at the Black Bottle, a Soho pub, whose owner, Cyril, bears a striking resemblance to T. S. Eliot and whose patrons include a Mr. Porn and a once popular but now tiresome and almost always drunk novelist named Day Muckley. Like almost everyone else in this novel, Cyril and Muckley are not so much characters as caricatures. comical certainly, but also grotesque in Sherwood Anderson’s sense of the word. Most of them are, as Julian the character will soon become and as Julian the narrator already is, latter-day versions of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, compulsively and to a degree comically telling tales that slowly fuse into a single story, a chorus of pain against which Julian’s own tale of unwarranted great expectations and perhaps deserved pratfalls takes on surprising depth.
Thanks to another old friend, Miles Damley, Julian meets “Robyn,” actually Anne Starling, daughter of Sibyl Lampitt, now Lady Starling. That Julian should fall in love with Anne seems both odd and appropriate. Not only is she everything that the dissembling, procrastinating, ever-adolescent Julian is not; she is also the very fulfillment of the Lampitt-mania from which Julian had hoped to escape by leaving provincial Timplingham and his uncle’s adulation of upper-class life and privilege for what he assumes will be the meritocracy of cosmopolitan London. Real merit, however, in A Bottle in the Smoke, proves to be in short supply—as short as happy marriages or, for that matter, happiness of any kind. Advantage, on the other hand—particularly taking unfair advantage of others—abounds. The bumbling, blustering Sargie Lampitt uses Anne and Julian, rather transparently, in an attempt to reclaim his elder brother Jimbo’s literary remains from the predatory Raphael Hunter, whose biography of James Pertworth Lampitt has been the cause of much displeasure within the family. Hunter, in turn, enlists Anne and Julian in his own “very friendly conspiracy” to keep the papers just where they are, hinting that a second volume is forthcoming. Whereas in Incline Our Hearts Julian saw Hunter as an unsavory rival, he now finds him far more appealing: a man who possesses the fame Julian covets and the self-confidence that he lacks. Helping Julian get his novel published, Hunter serves as surrogate father, but only insofar as this act of kindness will further his own plan. He will serve as Anne’s confidant and perhaps lover for the very same reason. Although obsessed as a biographer with his subjects’ sexual lives (and unscrupulously interpolating evidence or suggestions of sexual misdeeds when none exists), Hunter is himself entirely indifferent to sex except as a necessary means to his self- serving ends. Master manipulator that he is, he will adroitly script and direct Anne, Julian, Sargie, and others in a vast, indeed international, plot worthy of Leo Tolstoy, the subject of Wilson’s 1989 biography. They will believe that by selling Jimbo’s papers and their copyright to a wealthy American buyer, Virgil D. Everett, Jr., the Lampitts will thwart Hunter and thus prevent the appearance of a second damaging volume. Using everyone but confiding the truth in no one, Hunter has quietly persuaded Everett of the papers’ importance and had himself appointed curator of a collection the worth of which seems to depend entirely on Hunter’s ability to convince others—readers, television viewers, the Lampitts, as well as Everett—of their literary as well as monetary value.
Recalling the scene when, too late, the truth became known, Julian makes the kind of point one often finds in realist fiction: “I suppose that in a novel, the...
(The entire section is 2155 words.)