Leesfragment: Reading Angus Wilson

27 november 2015 , door Paul Binding
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Vanaf 2 februari zijn bij Athenaeum Boekhandel alle Faber Finds verkrijgbaar, de heruitgaven in printing on demand van Faber & Faber, met een zeshonderdtal titels van onder andere Joyce Cary, John Cowper Powys, H.G. Wells, W.N.P. Barbellion, John Betjeman en A.J.P. Taylor op basis van voorstellen van auteurs als P.D. James, John Lanchester, Julian Barnes, David Mitchell, A.S. Byatt. Ook opgenomen in de reeks: Angus Wilson. Angus Wilson?

Paul Binding (TLS) introduceert de vier beste romans van Wilson - alle als Faber Finds te krijgen, mét de met 10% verlaagde prijs.

N.B. 5 februari spreekt de editor van de reeks, John Seaton, bij Spui25.

Angus Wilson (1913-91) was one of the great English novelists and short story writers of the 20th century. Winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot, and knighted for services to literature, Wilson was much admired by fellow writers. P. D. James described him as a 'writer of unique talent who combines consistently enthralling and entertaining storytelling with a highly original voice and fine literary craftsmanship'.

Writer, critic and regular TLS reviewer Paul Binding is another such fan, and to mark publication of more of Wilson's work (bringing the number to 12) in Faber Finds, he provides us with short celebrations of four of Wilson's finest works.

The Wild Garden (1963)

In The Wild Garden Angus Wilson explores his makings as a creative writer. The youngest child by thirteen years of disappointed, improvident parents already well into middle age, he imbibed early, he says, a ‘fiction-making atmosphere’, listening to adults telling stories to compensate themselves for what life had actually brought them.

His South African mother, who regretted many times her marriage to Willie Johnstone-Wilson, returned in her tales to the adventures of colonial childhood, to a ‘clearing in the wild’ made by pioneers against the savage exuberance of Nature. Wilson’s father, an idler often obliged to dodge creditors from one private hotel to another, liked to reminisce about boyhood on the Scottish borders, on a small estate with a wild garden where the region’s animal and plant-life flourished. These two gardens, Wilson thinks, stood for related but importantly distinct aspects of life, and had bearing on his own imaginative development.

A Bit Off the Map (1957)

A Bit Off the Map was Wilson’s last collection of short stories, the theme linking these eight being the pursuit of unsuitable goals by misguided, though often sympathetic people.

In the title-story a teddy-boy gets himself taken up by a group of youngish London intellectuals with no good consequences. Wilson hilariously sends up here some of the more pretentious qualities associated with the hangers-on of his famous namesake (and friend) Colin Wilson of The Outsider.

In ‘More Friend than Lodger’ the bored wife of a London publisher has an affair with one of his more dashing, audacious authors, Rodney Galt, another person affected by the then fashionable amoralism. Perhaps she realises more fully than she dares admit to herself the hollowness of this literary man’s personality. These two stories are of novella length; other shorter stories such as ‘Once a Lady’ are no less trenchant in the light they cast on the mores of a muddle-headed society.

Late Call (1964)

In Late Call Sylvia Calvert retires after a lifetime of managing private hotels on the south coast, to go and live, together with her shiftless, scrounging husband Arthur (‘Captain Calvert’, in conversation and fantasy a hero of the Great War) with her recently widowed son, Harold, and his three children in Carshall, a New Town on the edge of the Midlands. Carshall, though its communitarian principles are sincere, em and widely held, is also a viper’s nest of personal antagonisms masquerading as ideological objections, of hopes and beliefs eaten into by private tensions or inadequacies.

Harold Calvert constitutes a battlefield in himself for many of these, and has devoted friends and enemies. His three children, on the brink of adulthood, have to accommodate their own personal demands with Carshall’s (and their father’s) expectations of them, Ray his gay sensibility, Mark his left-wing political commitments, Judy an adolescent snobbery that makes her pine for ‘ancien régime’ ways.For Sylvia all this is difficult, demanding, but interesting too.

Emotionally this is Wilson’s fullest novel, artistically the most skilfully wrought to date, with an opening chapter introducing the protagonist in her rural childhood, and therefore ensuring our sympathies with her, but also making much use of mimicry and parody to establish the lowbrow but often vital culture that surrounds Sylvia and her contemporaries, and which is purveyed by television and light fiction.

Yet, for all its extraordinary insight into the England Harold Wilson was about to preside over, the novel never feels dated, so triumphantly are all its individual characters realised.

As If By Magic (1973)

As If By Magic tackles another side of the Sixties, that of its powerful counter-culture, propagated both by the media and by institutions such as the new universities. (Wilson himself was Professor of English at the University of East Anglia, Norwich.)

In this novel, one of the first surely to portray our planet as Marshall McLuhan’s ‘global village’, we follow two interconnecting journeys of two consciously ‘modern’ individuals: Hamo Langmuir, ground-breaking agronomist, and his god-daughter, Alexandra Grant, a university student. Both travellers carry with them, across the continents, a baggage of contemporary knowledge and theories, idealistic hopes, self-deceptions and potentially destructive ignorance of other societies.

The rice that Hamo has developed may work ‘magic’ in its quick returns, but what about those whom this crop will make redundant? His compassion for the many Asian boys who appeal to him sexually cannot remove them from lives of poverty and exploitation. Alexandra and the two fellow-students with whom she forms a ‘magic’ trio, a sexual threesome, spurn the materialistic, and look for truth in the as yet undeveloped world.

The novel takes us from England and Japan to Borneo, North Africa, Sri Lanka and Goa. Nevertheless these young people move through the Third World with an unacknowledged superiority because, somewhere or other, they know that the money in their background will assert itself to rescue them from difficulty and disaster.

This is a work of great imaginative daring, often severe in its judgements but also revealing its author’s sympathy and wisdom.

Faber & Faber publishers

MINDBOOKSATH : athenaeum