Passion for detail

9th June 1995 at 01:00
Angus Wilson: A Biography. By Margaret Drabble Secker and Warburg #163;20.- 0 436 20038 4

Dead in 1991,Angus Wilson is more remote than many who fluctuated in his own estimation. Two of these, E M Forster and Virginia Woolf, remain our contemporaries while he, sharp enough on the dislocation of the immediate post-war years, appeared increasingly ill at ease with changing times - something only exacerbated by the attempt to keep up: the chaotic pages of As If By Magic are the literary equivalent of that penchant for flowered shirts and kipper-ties.

He realised all too well that, by the Seventies, if not sooner, his was no longer a fashionable name. Later, beset by illness and that continued egotism, there is the undoubted horror of the final years, when he paid the price for earlier profligacy. With his books out of print, his friends not only made efforts to remedy this but also, demeaningly, had a Connollyesque whipround. This enormous, 700-page biography was conceived at that time and makes no attempt to veil a partisan spirit; unlike Margaret Drabble's study of Arnold Bennett two decades ago, it would not win converts to her cause: even those that buy it because they receive a fleeting mention as a lunch guest must find it hard to get through the continual lists into which the book sloughs several hundred pages before the end.

Perhaps the biography could not have been otherwise. A bloated morality tale, it follows the trajectory of its subject's life. His curious origins,the son of louche parents, are well conveyed (although one could have wished for more on the wayward life of his equally homosexual siblings); as are his time at Westminster with that inspired teacher John Bowle, while service at the British Museum and wartime Bletchley is depicted in all its convivial claustrophobia. Both establishments, peopled by eccentrics, could be stimulating, precipitously so: Wilson's breakdown comes as no surprise. His strength was the ability to turn it to account, his weakness never to lose a self-preoccupation which, in time, went beyond imagined slights to near-paranoia. He could not resist the flattery of an invitation. How much easier it is for a writer to get up from his desk than to sit down at it. Page upon page amounts to a nightmare of travelling the world to some conference or lecture-hall; a tedious round enlivened all too rarely by such grotesqueries as "enjoying 'fast sex' and eating plums and pickled onions to the sound of military music."

Time and again, somebody is described as a "model" for a character or the subject of a "portrait". Increasingly swollen, his novels lack independent life, their prose often downright dull. Galled though he might be at the thought (and there was nobody more obsessed by reviews of his work), much his most enduring books are likely to be the studies of Dickens and Kipling - and a more vivacious collection of his criticism could be made than is on display in Diversity and Depth in Fiction.

All too dutiful, the biography is often meaningless to those without any idea of who the incidental characters might be. Many of these were affiliated to the University of East Anglia, whose founding and continued existence must have been more a drain on Wilson's energies than stimulus when it came to fiction, whatever the benefit to his critical studies. If many of the characters, little more than named, remain as obscure as Wilson does in this torrent of detail, the biography is none the less at its most absorbing in some of these sidelights upon his life.

One must hasten to catch up with a 1965 novel, The Fly, by the illustrator Richard Chopping, and with another account of tortured office-life, Stuart Mitchel's Clerks in Lowly Orders. Vanished from sight is that wild Sixties Dutchman Gerald Reve, but his appearance here will surely gain him more new readers than Wilson himself. Perhaps the grimmest moment in a volume replete with neurosis occurs during a visit to Harold Acton at his villa outside Florence. All went well, the usual gossip and giggles, until he overheard Acton say, "that's Angus Wilson, he once wrote a novel called Anglo-Saxon Attitudes which had quite a success, but he's not done anything much since".

As this weary tale wends its formless way, all too evidently juggled around the screen of a word-processor, one longs to return to that most incisive, panoramic account of three decades of post-war life, Simon Raven's Alms for Oblivion series. That, too, has fallen out of print but will surely outpace even the more sprightly items in Wilson's lumbering output.

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