Thursday, July 19, 2012

Angus Wilson: a biography, by Margaret Drabble

Image from amazon

Margaret Drabble's Angus Wilson: A Biography (Martin Secker & Warburg 1995) is not only a careful telling of many aspects of the life of a brilliant novelist whom the author knew well, it is a detailed portrayal of post-war literary Britain.

Wilson worked at several US universities and travelled widely, and Drabble's well-crafted book gives fascinating glimpses into various locations, as well as cameos of numerous writers Wilson knew, both within the UK and beyond.

Brilliant but eccentric, Wilson was one of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park. One of his exploits was to run around the lake naked.

According to a 2010 book by Sinclair McKay, reviewed in the Guardian by Patricia Brown, other behaviours that earned him censure there included throwing a bottle of ink at a WREN, a member of the Women's Royal Naval Service. In later years his biographer records that although Angus Wilson was a kind and generous supporter of other writers and many good causes, there were times when he was unable to control his temper.

Beginning in 1937, Wilson worked at the Department of Printed Books at the British Museum. He left this steady employment with a degree of trepidation, to become a full-time writer. He was hired by the organizers of the avant-garde University of East Anglia at its inception, and worked there for many years.

There he got to know his future biographer, Margaret Drabble and the talented Rose Tremain, and there too, his work influenced that of that towering contemporary writer, Ian McEwan.

Angus Wilson's novel Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956), a daring portrait of British society, was considered a ground-breaker in the field of fiction. First known for his short stories, he later wrote biographies of Dickens and Kipling. He published several novels, many of which were reissued, as well as a number of collections of short stories. Michael Millgate's interview of Wilson appeared in the Paris Review in 1957.

He also wrote regularly for the Observer and other magazines and served literary organizations including PEN. In a cautious manner at first, he campaigned for gay rights in the UK.

Sir Angus Wilson won many honours and was knighted in 1980 at the age of 67, which brought him even more engagements in an already overflowing literary calendar. He was a brilliant speaker, but though he travelled, wrote, taught and spoke tirelessly into his seventies, there were many speaking requests he had to turn down.

For years, he and his partner and secretary Tony Garrett lived in a cottage in Felsham Woodside in Suffolk. (Tony, who was some years younger, had tackled the job of typing Wilson's manuscripts and keeping his schedule organized after losing his own job at the parole board because of his homosexuality.)

Wilson was over seventy when, tired of Thatcher's Britain, he departed with Tony for St. Remy in France, where they lived for three years. However, this could not last: due to ill health and the impossibility of climbing the stairs to their flat, Angus Wilson returned to England with Tony. When he died aged 78 in 1991, his powers were sadly declining.

Drabble's biography, at 670 pages, is a marathon read but a satisfying one. Her portrayal of Wilson and his times is built up through salient details about his works, his friends and sample incidents from some of the many literary parties and events he attended.

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