- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 13, 2005

MARTIN RUBIN

on Angus Wilson’s

ANGLO-SAXON ATTITUDES

There can be few things more demeaning for a writer of substance than to be marginalized out of the mainstream, where once he more than held his own, into a subgroup. But in our age of identity politics, it has, alas, become all too common to consign writers to categories based on race, gender or sexual orientation, and into this last little box it has been the misfortune of the fine English postwar novelist and short story writer, Angus Wilson (1913-1991), to fall.

To regard Wilson as a “homosexual writer” is not only to undervalue his achievement as perhaps the finest British novelist of his generation, but also goes directly against his credo as an artist. There can be few homosexual men of Wilson’s generation who lived as openly and honestly with regard to sexual orientation as he did. After all, one must remember that until he was in his mid-50s, homosexual acts were not only illegal but many people, some of them quite prominent, were routinely jailed for engaging in them.

But when it came to his writing, Wilson refused to put his artistry and his art in a ghetto. There are indeed homosexual characters in his novels and stories, but there are far more people who are indubitably straight. Indeed, throughout Wilson’s oeuvre, the homosexual and straight characters and their milieus are as intertwined as they actually are in many parts of society. Sometimes, but not always, the collision of these parallel universes is significant to dramatic tension; more often they flow concurrently through society. On occasion, his focus is only on heterosexuals.

And certainly in his second — and, to my mind, finest — novel, “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes” (originally published in1956; currently available through New York Review Books Classics, $14.95, 347 pages, with an introduction by Jane Smiley), the homosexual and straight worlds are seamlessly and gracefully intertwined. Unusually for an Englishman of his generation, Wilson was a fervent admirer of Dickens, and there is a subtly Dickensian quality to this novel, its broad canvas filled with English characters in every sense of the word. But Wilson never falls neatly into little categories; and as he was also a devotee of that master of French realistic fiction, Emile Zola, it is perhaps not too much to say that a blend of these very different influences helped create the unique world of this intricately-constructed, brilliantly-conceived and executed novel.

The novel’s main action, which is also linked to the many fascinating subplots, centers on the ripples still resonating in the 1950s from an historical hoax perpetrated shortly before World War I. Clearly based on the famous scandal of The Piltdown Man, the “Melpham” controversy which animates “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes” raises similar issues involving the intermixture of pagan and Christian elements in the evolution of religion in the British isles.

But it is not the English or even the Anglo-Catholic church which provides the stage for Wilson’s elaborate plot. Rather it is the academy, centered on London University and the Historical Association of Medievalists, which provides a fruitful arena for Wilson’s refined but nonetheless devastating pyrotechnics. Along the way, he exposes a network of fascinating characters in many walks of life, all sharply portrayed with just the right mixture of social comedy and intense feeling. You can understand why those two famously hard-to-please writers, Edmund Wilson and Evelyn Waugh, were such great fans of Angus Wilson.

Readers of this protean novel should perhaps be warned that this latest edition comes with a very problematic introduction by the American novelist Jane Smiley. Unlike the English novelist Margaret Drabble, who wrote Wilson’s biography some years back, Ms. Smiley does not seem particularly attuned to his work; perhaps she was chosen since both Ms. Smiley and Ms. Drabble are authors of brief biographies of Dickens. Indeed, Ms. Smiley’s introduction contains this astonishingly wrongheaded analysis of the novelistic art at work in “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes:”

“But though Wilson loved Dickens and did not love Anthony Trollope, his style and sensibility are more akin to Trollope than Dickens. What Dickens does that Wilson does not do is to enter imaginatively and linguistically into a character’s subjective world, indicating in a few sentences of narrative or dialogue how that character’s mode of perceiving the world, and his inner symbolic life, distinguishes him from every other character and dictates how he acts. The sort of heightened intensity that Dickens’s novels gain from this technique is absent from Wilson. His sensibility, like Trollope’s, is primarily social.”

Pace Ms. Smiley, Wilson’s achievement as a novelist and indeed as a short story writer is precisely his uncanny ability to enter imaginatively and linguistically into his characters’ subjective worlds, and not only the protagonists’ but almost every character from major to minor. He can do it more economically than almost anyone else I can think of; indeed he can be said to do so powerfully on perhaps every single page of this novel.

The other writer about whom he wrote a biography and who was a major influence on him was Rudyard Kipling and it seems to me obvious that he shares with this master that uncanny ability to speak convincingly in a seemingly endless array of voices. And words themselves, individual, almost mini-leitmotiv words, play a particular, prominent role in the flow of the novel, thanks to Wilson’s habit of sometimes beginning a scene with the same word which has just concluded the previous one.

And while we are on the subject of Ms. Smiley’s less than helpful introduction, here is another of her pronouncements that should not be allowed to scare readers off: “But Americans may be forgiven if they don’t quite understand what everything in ‘Anglo-Saxon Attitudes’ means, because it is full of behavior codes and language codes, nuances in attitudes and relationships that are perplexing, and even invisible, to outsiders.”

On the contrary, Wilson’s genius is to carry his novel’s house tortoiselike on its own back. The text itself contains everything the common reader needs to appreciate the subtle distinctions: social, emotional, historical, sexual — and other categories too many to enumerate. He even provides fictional “documents” at the end which shed all sorts of light on what has been going on and a helpful cast of characters at the beginning which readers can consult along the way.

So read this splendid novel and you will find yourself not only entertained and at times vastly amused, but actually wiser about human nature. You will not only experience vicariously some interesting slices of postwar English life, but you will be conducted into a world of fine moral and ethical distinctions, which are this novelist’s particular forte. Much wisdom and humanity are to be found in the pages of “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes.”

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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