Wain, John 1925–
Wain is a British novelist, poet, short story writer, essayist, and editor. Although his fiction and much of his early poetry humorously attack the British class system, he is concerned more with human dignity than with concepts of social injustice. Wain's poetry has recently come under attack for its lack of forcefulness. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Wain is a poet of large ambitions. His early enthusiasm for the Augustan poets has left its mark on his work, not least in his hankering to make "major statements" and execute grand designs. About eight years ago in his Letters to Five Artists Wain employed Pope's favorite form in a wide-ranging exploration of the creative process. More recently he has been inclined to compete with the statements of major English writers; or rather, to place his personal imprint upon familiar materials. Samuel Johnson: A Biography, a literary tilt in which Boswell won points for thoroughness and Wain for readability, has now been followed by Feng, a "re-handling" of the story of Hamlet. As Wain sees it, the sequence of poems which make up Feng centers on the theme of power. They take us into the mind of a "sick and hallucinated [sic] person who seizes power and then has to live with it." Less obviously, the re-examine a theme stated in the last of Wain's Letters:
The ferns grow green with or without our approval. They spread their fans whether they are seen or not. There is much virtue in these ancient leaves.
But how, after nearly five centuries, does one re-handle Hamlet? Like Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Wain begins by shifting the emphasis and the point-of-view. Now the emphasis falls upon the will to power and upon the contrast of natural innocence and human depravity; and the viewpoint is that of Claudius. For his materials Wain has returned to the Historia Danica of Saxo Grammaticus, where Shakespeare's Gertrude is Gerutha, Hamlet's father is Horwendil, and Claudius is Feng. He has eliminated any suggestion of a conspiracy between Gerutha and Feng, not to mention any erotic attraction: Feng has eyes only for Horwendil's power. At the same time Feng does lust for "Amleth's dark girl"—Ophelia's counterpart—whom he finally rapes, providing Amleth with a further motive for revenge. Wain's boldest change is to formulate this story within a meditative, rather than dramatic, structure. Feng consists of seventeen enumerated sections in prose and verse, in which Feng "meditates" or "contemplates" characters, situations, and aspects of the will to power. In one, "Feng Meditates on the Madness of Amleth"; in another, "Feng Contemplates a Raptor". Typically, Feng discovers aspects of himself in some external presence, be it a soldier or a stag.
Wain's strategy has produced an engaging but uneven poem. His approach does afford us seventeen ways of looking at Feng—or more broadly, at the lust for power. Less happily, it creates a one-sided character who talks impressively of his hawklike activities but shows us mainly his ruminative side. His actions are impulsive enough, but his mind is deliberative and even plodding, his tone more donnish than predatory…. Even if one were convinced, as one is not, that this is the monologue of a twelfth-century Danish king, it must be objected that in the bulk of his musings Feng has nothing very original to say. His reflections on instinct suggest that he has been drinking deeply at the troughs of D. H. Lawrence, Jack London, and Ted Hughes. His observations on the superiority of animals are, in large...
(This entire section contains 665 words.)
part, an anachronistic melange of Restoration and Augustan moral attitudes, most prominently those of Rochester'sSatyr and of Gulliver among the Houyhnhnms. And even his most arresting notion, that animals live in an "unthinking Now" and are "complete in their present tense", has been more convincingly developed in the eighth of Rilke's Duino Elegies.
All the same, it would be a mistake to dismiss this poem or to overlook its stylistic strengths. When Wain chooses the discursive mode the results are often disappointing; but when he cultivates his descriptive gift—so evident in his biography of Johnson—the result is often vivid and exact. (pp. 295-96)
Ben Howard, "British Wells," in Poetry (© 1978 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXXXI, No. 5, February, 1978, pp. 292-305.∗
Hurry On Down is back sporting hard covers to celebrate 25 years in the business. Wain's new introduction repeats, for those who might have forgotten, that he was angry before any of the others were. Do the 'Angries' still speak to our condition? The question is, of course, false. There never was such an obligingly tidy movement, only a mood variously expressed. As comic narrative, the picaresque fortunes of Charles Lumley begin to date. The present inclination turns away from anger to disgust; and our preference now is for pugnacity experienced in the grotesque. As protest, Wain's novel, by its own admission, was a non-starter: 'I never rebelled against ordinary life … I never even got into it.' Keeping out, staying loose, staying neutral were its terms. Our understanding today of the impossibility of that pose came about largely because novels like Wain's proved it: but what cuts them off now, what may give them almost a period charm, is their notion of a hopeful compromise. That has virtually gone. (p. 679)
Zahir Jamal, "Bambini," in New Statesman (© 1978 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 95, No. 2461, May 19, 1978, pp. 678-79.∗
The story on which you first embark in The Pardoner's Tale is told in the first person by 40-ish Gus, on holiday in Wales to escape the boredom of suburbia and a failed marriage. He rescues an attractive young actress from death by drowning, takes her to his cottage and goes to bed with her: she, too, is on the run from a broken marriage. In the morning, she has disappeared, leaving a note saying that it is better for her 'to come and go like a ghost'. He searches for her in London and meets some sinister characters, including her brother and husband. In Chapter Two, you discover that that is not the 'real' story but a novel-in-progress, being written by 50-ish Giles, because only work and alcohol can make life worth living now that Harriet has left him after being his mistress for seven years.
In alternate chapters, Gus's story continues in the first person, Giles's in the third. Gus's story mirrors Giles's fantasies, hopes, fears, elations and depressions. Both men enjoy what one might call "sexendipity': young available women appear out of the blue and between their sheets…. Indeed, it is difficult to decide where there is more wish-fulfilment, in Giles's therapeutic novel or in the story of Giles's life….
The Pardoner's Tale is about life affecting art, about coming to terms with death, about 'a degree of emotional need. Related to pleasure but not identified with it'. However, despite these large subjects, it is more successful at providing entertainment than at provoking thought. The style is uneven, and not all the clichés can be passed off as Giles's rather than Wain's. Happily, there is also a plentiful supply of Hurry On Down-vintage humour: when a woman remarks politely that Giles's books are 'very interesting', she says it 'the way people say it when they are shown the traces of a Stone Age village, or the lay-out of a South-East Asian catamaran, when they happen not to want to know about these things'.
John Mellors, "Mirror Writing," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1978; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), Vol. 100, No. 2583, October 26, 1978, p. 546.∗
John Wain and Kingsley Amis, whose first novels, "Hurry on Down" and "Lucky Jim," came out the same year, 1953, formed the most considerable part of the not particularly well-named Angry Young Man group in postwar English letters…. [Both] have been quite versatile and complete writers in that they write excellent poetry and criticism along with their novels and short stories. (p. 14)
[But they] are really very different sorts of writer. Mr. Amis's talent is comic and corrosive. His strongest links are with a black farceur such as Evelyn Waugh, the Waugh of "Vile Bodies," "Decline and Fall" and "Put Out More Flags," before he made his run at respectability in "Brides-head Revisited" and the war trilogy. By contrast, John Wain as novelist seems serious, solid and even a little dull, in that special English way, which is actually reassuring rather than merely boring. One thinks of Arnold Bennett … or of the later, tamer Wordsworth, who yet could rise to the sober magnificence of the sonnet on mutability, a poem Mr. Wain very much admires. The promiscuous woman guitarist in "The Pardoner's Tale" says there are two kinds of attractive men: sexy ones and those who are nice but slightly wet. Whatever Mr. Wain may be in real life, the persona he projects in his fiction is usually more nice than sexy.
But things get complicated when we consider that the novelist in "The Pardoner's Tale," Giles Hermitage, is complimented by this same lithe and weasel-bodied guitarist for being an unusual combination of the nice and the sexy. There are actually two novels in "The Pardoner's Tale."… These stories alternate, chapter by chapter, and we soon grasp that whether Gus ends well or ill, especially with respect to his erotic involvements, quite depends on how well Giles makes out with Dinal Redfern…. Thus Mr. Wain shows us how life uses and is used by the working novelist. And, incidentally, he shows once again that in art a whole can be much more than the sum of its parts, for "The Pardoner's Tale" is a very good novel though neither of its constituent parts is all that great by itself. (pp. 14-15)
Clearly, resolution of one plot will determine resolution of the other. The two men, Giles and Gus, are quite similar, the two women, Dinah and Julia, polar opposites. Behind both sets of characters we sense the real author, John Wain, with his shadowy commitments to life and love. But that's none of our business…. In his sober, serious way Mr. Wain teaches us to think more clearly about books, their makers and the fascinating people who read them. (p. 15)
Julian Moynahan, "Novel in a Novel," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 25, 1979, pp. 14-15.
Traces of John Fowles and Vladimir Nabokov appear in John Wain's The Pardoner's Tale…. The book begins as an action-filled narrative centering on a missing person, a presumed kidnapping, and a sexual encounter having the flavor of adolescent fantasy…. The balance of the book shuttles between the "real" and the "invented" stories, following two complicated liaisons…. In the sequel both male protagonists get exactly what they want, establishing The Pardoner's Tale as that rare production, a novel with two happy endings.
Twice in its course the author envisages higher achievement—seems indeed on the verge of transforming his tale from a conventionally competent novelistic performance into something rich and strange. The first intimation of ambition occurs at the abrupt shift from Gus to Giles, wherein the reader discovers that the mystery atmosphere, queer and creaky, of the opening chapter is actually a unique contrivance by John Wain—mimicry of the sound of a novel haltingly composed by a writer leaning on the habit of work to sustain his sanity in a bad hour. The possibility glimpsed at this moment is of a novel that will stand as a work of technical revelation, an intricately playful probe of novelese.
The second intimation of ambition occurs during an interview between the novelist and the dying woman, in which the latter perfervidly states her belief that the former can prevent her from dying "in a fog"—can help her to understand the major events of her life, the deep conundrum of "relationships [that] succeed or fail." The possibility glimpsed at this moment is of a stern entrance into a meditative range—patient consideration of the grand issues commonly met in philosophical novels. (The book's title, with its allusion to the story in The Canterbury Tales that looks closest at the meaning of mortality, reinforces this hope.)
But despite the intimations, no lift-offs take place. The paired narratives impinge less and less upon each other, banishing opportunities for technical explorations. And it emerges that, while the sick lady talks an intense meditative game for a few pages, exerting hypnotic power on Giles Hermitage, her purpose isn't to seek illumination about last things but instead—in standard novelistic style—to entice Hermitage into an act of unexalted revenge. (pp. 90-1)
The Pardoner's Tale, a brisk-paced, noncomic read, is shrewd on the resemblances between old selfishness and new, between self-absorbed literary artists and narcissistic sexually liberated women. But it inhabits … a miniaturizing sort of place wherein literary forms are shriveled by inferiority complexes and scorn of pretentiousness ranks as the highest good. (p. 91)
Benjamin DeMott, "British to the Core," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1979 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 243, No. 5, May, 1979, pp. 89-92.∗