On a particularly stormy night in 1983, the novelist Angus Wilson celebrated his seventieth birthday. It was the occasion for a very large party: suitably, since he was a novelist of very large parties. It happened at the perfect location, in Regent's Park at the London zoo, the place where he had set his most apocalyptic novel, The Old Men at the Zoo (1961), a bitter tale of Britain at a moment of nuclear holocaust, which was being filmed for TV at the time. The evening's guest-list seemed designed to prove that there was nothing at all strange or unusual about those exotic rollcalls of dramatis personae that generally precede the narrative events of a mature Angus Wilson novel. Thus No Laughing Matter (1967) announces both a long list of central characters and then a vast cast of supplementaries: 'Husbands, wives, lovers of various kinds, university teachers, and undergraduates, Russians, members of Society, politicians, journalists, members of Lloy'ds and the Bloomsbury Group, Cockneys, German refugees, staffs of preparatory schools, English residents abroad, actors and actresses, Moroccans, financiers, Scandinavians, and representatives of the Younger Generation.'
As I remember the birthday evening, all were there. Under gathering clouds and storming skies they poured into the zoo, the friends, the acquaintances, the casual contacts, the students, the colleagues, the professional contacts of a long, active, social literary lifetime. There were many famous writers, many noted critics; there were fellow-novelists and fellow-knights or titled persons, fellow-Powysians and fellow-Dickensians, fellow-biographers accompanied by their subjects where living, fellow dons and academics, fellow men-of-letters, most of them women, publishers and politicians, Americans, Indians, Australians, poets, librarians, gay couples of both genders, television directors, actors, radio reporters and an entire television crew. These were the people who that summer had been making the television serial version of The Old Men at the Zoo, and now had a splendid crowd scene. They were also working out in the various animal cages and enclosures, stirring up the beasts in order to film them, even as our own surreal party gathered amid glassy spaces and tropical greenery. Life generally following fiction, from this point onward events went on to collude with Angus Wilson's own troubled zoological fable. The storm broke and turned into tempest. Thunder cracked, the rain fell in torrents, pouring across glass ceilings and flooding entire areas. The zoo animals in their cages began to chatter, scream and shriek, just like the guests inside. The guests were summoned under cover, but for some reason started to flee outdoors, made anxious by the atmosphere. Here, soaked and tense, they added to the noise from the animal enclosures the equally Darwinian screams of social competition, sexual flirtation, and the shrill high note of humanoid public life.
There certainly could have been no better homage to the small, dapper, white-haired and blue-rinsed man who was centre to the proceedings. For parties do abound in Wilson's fiction, and they generally get out of hand or point the way to extremity or absurdity. In his brilliant first novel Hemlock and After (1952), there is the party for the opening of Vardon Hall, that dangerous thing, a centre for writers. Here Bernard Sands, an eminent Man of Letters of a kind Wilson himself was yet to become, and who is also determined to remain an Enfant Terrible, sees disintegration begin. There is a 'general crumbling of good manners and a lifting of emotional lids,' and he finally sees the event – which represents the culmination of his political negotiations and the outcome of his efforts over several troubling weeks– quickly turn into 'a tapestry of obscene horror.' The process continues until Sands is tested to extremity, and a variety of disastrous occasions – from meetings in zoos to visits to fairgrounds and Halls of Mirrors – draws together the gathering and often conflicting throngs that crowd into most of his novels. Now, thirty years after the publication of that first novel, Wilson was himself an eminent Man of Letters determined to remain an Enfant Terrible. Crowned with a white mane and showing an eagle eye, he moved through the gathering of a lifetime, of old friends and acquaintances from all over the world and all through society, each determined to respect him. This was that pleasant enough English thing, a public homage, where, perhaps, the often bitter and bitchy texture of British literary life – something to which he had very actively contributed – yielded to something else, a celebration of common endurance and a moment of real respect.
For, when we consider the tiny handful of recent British writers who can be claimed as major, of long-term importance, obvious cultural representativeness, powerful international reputation, Wilson was one. To many of his generation, the generation that follows on after Joyce and Woolf, Waugh and Greene, Orwell and Compton-Burnett, and made its mark after the Second World War, he had now become the central figure, building onward from the light, witty and economical brilliance of his early satirical short stories to become, in books like Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956), The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot (1958) and No Laughing Matter, one of the great and classic social chroniclers and moral explorers of his age. A writer with a vivid sense of the lasting potential of fiction, a seeker of new directions and a constant maker of difficult and unexpected experiments, he had also kept the novel in touch with its own past: not just an English past, though that was important, but with a wider sense of what novelists from Jane Austen to Dostoevsky, from Dickens to Zola, might pass on to contemporary fiction. Along with that he had lived a central cultural life, as critic and social commentator, and been in the widest sense a Man of Letters, a term that has lost badly in credit but quite clearly mattered in his case.
Wilson died, after a longish period of weakening illness and literary silence, in 1992, and so his seventieth birthday marked a striking high moment in his fame and fortunes. His importance was and remains obvious, yet his reputation was and is eternally mixed. For some he remains the classic example of a late modern novelist attempting to recreate or sustain the British novel of the past, for others he is a writer of striking experiment. His reputation is mixed in basis and opens up on a wide variety of judgement. And if critics frequently sensed some ambiguity in his creative instinct – an ambiguity of balance, say, between the malicious satirist and the sober moralist – this was hardly surprising to the subject of their comments, pointing himself, for instance, to that "fierce sadism and a compensating gentleness" with which he always viewed his characters, or his sense of the inevitably dual nature of all actions and motives. If his writing was ambiguous, so, he reflected, was all writing, and he showed how this was so in the subjects of his notable biographies, on Zola, Dickens, and Kipling.
Some of the finest and frankest comments on his own work come in his splendid self-analysis The Wild Garden, or Speaking of Writing (1963), one of the best books there is about the nature of literary impulse and composition we have from a recent British writer. A sense that writing is both authoritative and counterfeit, morally expressive and narcissistically self-indulgent if not self-cancelling, is common enough in modern literary theory. Wilson shared it, and had his own reflections on the ambiguities and insecurities critics often liked to tease out from his work. With those critics and readers who liked to see his work as a realistic social chronicle, or a powerful moral witness, he was generally uneasy; at the same time those who read the opposite in him, a writer of pure play and parody, have to reckon with the fact that his fiction does deal with key questions of moral duty and maturity. Still, to overlook the analytic self-doubt, if not self-mockery also present would be to miss many things, not least the way in which his work is notably of its time, or in other words notably "postmodern."
Like many another British writer (though in Wilson's case there is a South African family background to remember), his work is probably best seen in the light of comedy. As his American namesake Edmund Wilson suggested, he belonged as a natural successor to Evelyn Waugh: a devastating satirist of his time, his culture and his class, he was the malicious and sharp-edged analyst of a collapsing, over-mannered postwar Britain. In Hemlock and After, a work of powerful moral analysis, Bernard Sands progresses from enfant terrible to moral scourge of others: "If he had forced from the public and the critics respect and hearing for his eternal questioning of their best-loved 'truths,' he must never allow them to feel they were indulging the court jester. They should continue to take from him exactly the pill they did not like, and take it without any danger of whimsy." We can feel the author observing himself in this, but the author is also the moral scourge of the moral scourge, going on to note: "If on occasion he mistrusted his own powers, it was not a mistrust he intended others to share." Wilson always had a way of adding irony to irony, establishing what we know well enough in our post-Freudian world, that humanism and high morality often emerge from ambiguity and impurity of motive. To do all this means establishing a narrative tone mixing moral wisdom with satirical toughness, taking the kind of qualities Jane Austen and George Eliot added to English fiction, but further turning the moral screw. The moral toughness, as here, establishes something like satirical self-knowledge; the malice often suggests there is something eternally absurd and puppet-like about all our actions.
All this is one reason why Wilson's chief novels, which appear so realistic and substantial, often dissolve into something else as we read them, becoming a distinctive kind of modern gothic, a writing of grotesque creatures and things. If they point in the classic direction of humanism, moral duty, and the need to follow the path of clarity and truth, they also point to a recurrent emptiness in all human actions, manifested by the self-conscious theatricality that informs it. Life – Dickens too saw as much – is a role or performance, society a theatre, masks, disguises and deceptions are everywhere. The lives we try to live truthfully are counterfeit, the game is a carnival, and this touches the novelist too, who is at once the truthteller and the mimic teasing and mocking the seriousness of life. This doubled sense of life is something the novel is very good at; modern critics, following the Russian Mikhail Bahktin, have come to call it the "carnivalesque." For Wilson it was something that pressed hard on the social and moral tradition of the British novel, which he respected, and in whose lineage he followed, to a point. But like many another writer he felt he wrote in a time when the lineage was dissolving, when social breadth was being broken into by psychological depth: "We are on the threshold of a psychology for which the older novel forms do not provide," he noted. Unconscious, uncanny, perverse and fantastic sensation had to take its place near the centre of fiction, dissolving the aura of moral certainty that once seemed to be part of their author's repertoire. Wilson's own several shifts of direction and his altering allegiances as a novelist had a good deal to do with this; he never sought to make the novel into a safe haven for social, moral or solemn literary certainties. From the beginning there was a spirit of tonal revolt in his writings; in the later work, which some found disappointing, difficult or obscure, it intensified. His later books – No Laughing Matter (1967), As If By Magic (1973) and Setting the World on Fire (1980) in particular – were, like those of a good many writers who began in the 1950s, a continuing quarrel with the tradition, an exploration of the troubled spirit of serious fiction in contemporary Britain….