Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1850
Wain, John 1925–
A British novelist, short story writer, poet, and essayist, Wain was early hailed for Hurry on Down, a satirical portrait of post-war Britain. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Few contemporary British writers illustrate a thematic commitment so consistently as does John Wain. Throughout Wain's first four novels and his one volume of short stories runs a constant commitment to the value of the individual and the personal, a constant assertion of the dignity of the human being. Although frequently describing and satirizing a world of chaotic folly, each of the novels contains a central statement of the moral worth of the individual. These statements are neither grandiose and pious generalizations nor complacent excuses for anything man happens to do. Often they are backed into ironically, and always they are carefully limited and defined against a background in which an ideal or all-consuming morality leads to ridiculous pretense. Yet the statement of man's worth, qualified and limited as it may be, gives both coherence and direction to John Wain's fiction….
Competition, the desire to excel, leads to a kind of involuted egotism and represents the slavish and unthinking adherence to commercial and middle-class values which is examined, in one way or another, in all Wain's fiction….
Wain's moral statements are invariably grounded in the contemporary English scene. All the novels contain sociological descriptions of houses populated by different classes, of dingy streets of similar strung-out shops which lead out of industrial cities, of one kind of squalor in grimy pottery towns, of another kind of squalor in mews flats in Chelsea…. Although references to specific places and to specific attitudes within society are constant throughout Wain's fiction, there is some change in the values assigned. In the first two novels [Hurry On Down and Living in the Present], the moral point involves a kind of acceptance of the dominant patterns of contemporary society….
Wain's two later novels [The Contenders and A Travelling Woman], on the other hand, provide a more searching examination of the society….
Man is best, in Wain's fiction, when he sticks with what he knows and can handle, when he avoids the pretense implicit in the cosmopolitan and the universal…. A form of localism, a sticking to what one was born to, is, in the midst of a world becoming rapidly less local, sometimes the best way to retain individual worth and dignity.
But localism is itself a confined and limited value, a value that by its very nature must rule out a good deal of possible human experience in order to assert or establish itself. It is almost more a means of playing safe than an indication of value. Similarly, Wain's heroes are limited, are carefully established as nonheroic…. Human character is too contradictory, too difficult, and too limited to allow a word like "hero" to apply.
In fact, although Wain demonstrates the value and the importance of the humane, he also indicates that it is often difficult to understand and explain what the human personality is like…. The values of the human, the limited, and the local are not abstractly perfect choices; they are, rather, the only sane possibilities in the midst of psychological complexities that the human being only barely comprehends. Deliberate limitation, at least, allows some measure of control.
John Wain frequently uses comedy as another means of limiting and defining the values he asserts…. [Farce] demonstrates the ludicrous quality of man's attempt to seem more in control of his surroundings than he actually is. Another comic device that Wain uses is the conversation at cross-purposes….
The diversity of the world that confronts man is also demonstrated by the kind of comic and incongruous image Wain frequently uses….
Each of Wain's first three novels ends with the hero, limited and restricted as he is, finding himself and his place. In each the hero also gets the girl as prize. In one way this kind of ending seems sentimental; the equation between value and reward seems a little too pat and soft. Yet the value, the moral center of Wain's work, is, in its insistence on the dignity of the humane and the personal, a sentimental value. In a world where man has little understanding and less control, he can at least make personal choices and at least recognize what and where he is. This is essentially a sentimental doctrine because the choices and the recognition are endowed with more emotion than they structurally or logically warrant. Man, as Wain sees him, is a creature full of complex and reverberating emotion. Depositing all this on the carefully limited and the personal is almost bound to seem sentimental, to seem as if the happy romance at the end is an unjustifiable gesture. Wain's attempts to avoid sentimentality have not been notably successful…. Wain's comic devices are often too brittle, too decorative, and too occasional to prevent the weight of the emotion from seeping through. Wain needs a richer, more central kind of comedy, a fundamental perspective that can hold the limited and local value without seeming to invest it so heavily with emotion…. For the kind of point Wain is making about the contemporary world that he depicts with such specificity, force, and intelligence, he does require some tangible expression of the value of the personal and the humane. But the form of expression often lacks a comic richness that would avoid both the brittle gimmick and the heavy sediment of emotion.
James Gindin, "The Moral Center of John Wain's Fiction," 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. 128-44.
As poet, [John] Wain aspires to "passion, logic, and formal beauty." In the place of puzzles he gives the reader cleverness—and in turn his critics are made uneasy…. Cleverness, to be admired, should not force itself on a reader's attention. Unfortunately Wain's cleverness, like [William] Empson's puzzles, is inseparable from even his more successful poems….
John Wain's search for a subject has apparently been toward old-fashioned moral truths…. If Wain is to find a place as a moralist, however, he will have to treat more complicated moral problems. He has the Midlands city that Bennett had as a source for home-grown characters and perennially engaging themes, and there is London and the Continent for contrasts. What is missing thus far is a sense of moral ambiguities.
William Van O'Connor, "John Wain: The Will to Write," in his The New University Wits and the End of Modernism (© 1963 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1963, pp. 30-53.
John Wain's long poem Wildtrack is exciting to read and is technically a remarkable accomplishment. Wain can write in any form, any style; this poem of fifty pages is thus composed in a mode of violent variety, designed to echo, I suppose, the dissonant voices of our day…. We have free verse, fourteeners, octosyllabic couplets, sonnets (eight of them, one devoted to Henry Ford), a pubsong, a parody-hymn ("Be with us in the hour of our processing"), a fine sestina, excellent terza rima, blank verse, Audenesque sixains, Eliotic ruminations, along with interspersed prose passages after the manner of Pound and Williams! This assemblage, after several readings, still leaves one breathless and wondering, really, whether it works. My present feeling is that it does not work; it is too literary, too much of an exercise, despite the excellence of many parts.
Louis L. Martz, in The Yale Review (© 1967 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Winter, 1967, pp. 279-80.
What is worrying about [John Wain's] novels is his apparent reluctance to shed his faults, to learn by doing…. Wain is a good poet and a really outstanding critic. The novel-form hides his fine taste and his clarity of thought. Perhaps, having done his work of singing the rebel of the fifties in, along with Amis and Iris Murdoch, he ought to consider giving up extended fiction (one can find few faults with his short stories).
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, p. 146.
[John Wain's] output (in both quantity and versatility) and its quality cause him to be reckoned an outstanding figure of his generation: in thirteen years he has written seven novels and has also published two volumes of criticism and two of short stories, numerous periodical articles, a number of poems (collected in three volumes), and various anthologies. He has become, as Richard Hoggart predicted, a modern "man of letters," and, while hopefully he has many fruitful years yet to come, the quantity of his writings and his serious concern with both the content and form of his art suggest that estimates (if preliminary) can be made of his work, especially his novels….
His academic background accounts in part for the solidity of his accomplishment, since he is perhaps better informed than any of his contemporaries about English literature and writes within a tradition sustained by the living presence of earlier literature. (I do not mean that he is bookish or literary, but rather that he writes within the established tradition.)…
I would suggest two reasons for Wain's failure in [the] … novels to achieve the artistic success that seems so obviously within his grasp. The first has to do with his characters. He can draw interesting eccentrics, but he paints most skilfully the humdrum, everyday, ordinary sort of person; and these perfectly delineated characters impress us no more than do their real-life prototypes. He has yet to create a memorable figure like Amis' Lucky Jim, or one of Angus Wilson's perverse characters. Wain provides the second reason himself, in his critical essay Arnold Bennett (Columbia Essays on Modern Writers, 1967) in which he writes, "Today … novelists, when they can be induced to be serious at all, either satirize, or exhort, or retreat into a purely private vision of the world …." Wain is a "serious" novelist who, being quite competent to satirize, to exhort, even to retreat, too often does these things all at the same time; and his confusion of purpose results in artistic failure.
Our appreciation of Wain's novels comes then to the question of artistry and its composition. Technical skill with the storyteller's tools? or an understanding of life that illuminates the work and the beholder? or—the obvious answer—that fusion of the two which can rightfully be called vision. Wain has the requisite technical skills, and often his understanding is significant; but only occasionally have these two come together to form an indestructible work of art…. Here is an essential problem in John Wain's novels to date: only in parts do they convince one that they should be novels rather than stories, or poems, or even essays.
Elgin W. Mellown, "Steps Toward Vision: The Development of Technique in John Wain's First Seven Novels," in South Atlantic Quarterly (© 1969 by the Duke University Press), Summer, 1969, pp. 330-42.
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