Twenty-eight years ago this month, BBC's Newsnight offered its audience a bona fide literary sensation. So inimical to him had conditions in Thatcher's Britain now become, it declared, that one of our greatest living novelists had opted for self-imposed exile. There followed an extended camera-shot of Sir Angus Wilson – damson-faced, snow-haired and looking as if he had enjoyed quite a decent lunch – gravely descending the front steps of the Athenaeum to inform the waiting interviewer that he had had enough. He was insufficiently appreciated. He had always loved France, and the French had a greater respect for writers than the benighted English. He would go, in the words of his loyal biographer, Margaret Drabble, "where he was wanted".
It was not, all things considered, one of Wilson's better performances. There was talk of empty gestures and thrown-in towels. Even his friends thought the sight of this quintessentially establishment figure – knight of the realm, president of the Royal Society of Literature – stalking down the steps of a gentleman's club to lament that he was impoverished and underregarded a shade too ironic for comfort. Was he not merely an exceptionally fine example of some of the base usages he affected to deplore? Whatever the merits of this departure, to a fifth-floor apartment in St-Rémy-de-Provence, there was an altogether tragic coda. Within six years, Wilson was dead, his last half-decade spent in a dementia-cushioned twilight with his books tumbling out of print and his finances in ruins. Mrs Thatcher clearly had the last laugh.
The strange ride of Angus Wilson – to borrow the title of his 1977 study of Rudyard Kipling – is one of the great cautionary tales of recent English literature: a scarifying parable of what happens when a once-celebrated writer somehow loses touch with the tenor of his time. Only Sir Hugh Walpole, perhaps, felt the rug of his reputation pulled from beneath his feet with quite the same bewildering speed. Back in the 1960s, a decade that fascinated him and which he did his utmost to render down into print, Wilson bestrode the English literary world like a colossus: one of the tiny band of home-grown novelists who could be spoken of in the same breath as Márquez, Calvino and Updike; one of the first appointments to the University of East Anglia's newly formed English school; the adornment of every festival panel from Cheltenham to Edinburgh. But the posthumous collected edition of his works urged into print by a gang of famous friends ended up in the remainder bins, and now, on the centenary of his birth, his novels are only available after being rescued by Faber Finds. What went wrong?
Somebody once said of Wilson that it took a special kind of talent to build an entire career on the back of your own hysteria. Certainly, most of the early stories that went into his first collection, The Wrong Set (1949), were written as a form of therapy for the numerous psychological ills from which he suffered. The flamboyant, nervy scion of an English father and South African mother, Wilson went through a nervous breakdown during war-time service at Bletchley Park before reoccupying a more congenial berth in the reading room of the British Museum. A certain amount of encouragement was offered by Cyril Connolly's Horizon, in the shape of its assistant editor Sonia Brownell (soon to become the second Mrs George Orwell) and, come the 1950s, with a second story collection and a scintillating first novel on the shelf, he was launched into the orbit of the book-world panjandrum. He was a sympathetic reviewer and all-round cultural pundit; much loved and much admired, but also prone to shrillness when he thought his efforts were under-appreciated.
What did the young Wilson write about? A preliminary list might include neurosis, hysteria, evil, homosexuality, embarrassment, domestic tension, "progress", and the powerful unease of a humanism that is moving towards some dimly envisioned liberal utopia while deeply reluctant to yield up the social privilege guaranteed to stop this utopia coming into existence. Nearly all these themes are given an airing in "Such Darling Dodos", the title piece of his second collection, and a terrific example of Wilson's rheumy eye for the new post-war world that was taking shape around him. Robin, an elderly leftwing don, is dying in a house in north Oxford, supported by his adoring wife Priscilla. They are joined by Tony, Priscilla's dandified Catholic cousin, and later by two hard-headed twentysomething friends, to whom Robin's exemplary inter-war liberalism is not much more than an embarrassment. Tony, meanwhile, is stuck in mid-stream, separated from his relations by his religion and disdainful of Priscilla's efforts to make herself "charwoman to the world", but also dimly aware that she and her husband possess a moral solidity that his restless, vacillating life has always lacked.
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