Friday, August 31, 2012

Such Darling Dodos, by Angus Wilson

Image from Goodreads

The collection of short stories by Angus Wilson, Such Darling Dodos (London: Secker and Warburg, 1954), is satirical, funny and brilliant. I borrowed this copy, a third imprint after its original publication in 1950, from the Vancouver Public Library. Some of Wilson's novels have been reissued since 2000.

Wilson's habit of omniscient narration allows him to plumb his characters thoroughly. In "Learning's Little Tribute," we are shown Miss Wells, "scuttling with unseemly haste" toward the cemetery gates after the funeral of a colleague. This, even though she is well aware that while it is right "to leave the relatives to their private grief," one should not depart "at the double."

This lady's misfortune, Wilson tells us, is that "though well equipped with the proper rules of conduct in life, she too often spoiled their effect in her anxiety to show her knowledge of them."

Later in the story, the snobbery of Mr. Brunton, with his "sharp little eyes" and "blue-jowled face," is unveiled in this singular sentence by the all-seeing yet not entirely ruthless narrator: "The more kindly genial side of his nature, which he reserved for his private life and in particular for his academic hobby, was not proof against the rush of more brutal sentiments which surged up in him as he saw his offer rejected in this offhand manner by a person of absolutely no importance."

"A Little Companion" is both tragic and screamingly funny. A forty-seven-year-old woman, who considers that she has come to a calm and practical acceptance her "old maid" status, is visited by the mischievous and changeable spirit of a child who calls her Mummy, and wants always to race her home. Though this visitation increasingly annoys Miss Arkwright, the manner of its eventual departure is unexpected and poignant.

"Christmas Day in the Workhouse" provides a birds-eye view of a war-time party. The setting was no doubt inspired by Wilson's time at the secret code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park. Again, he portrays the human weaknesses of snobbery and class sensibility, with a potent combination of humour and compassion.

"Totentanz" presents a wry glimpse of the social life of the academic set. The story opens at a Scottish university party, with the news that the aging but still boyish Brian has been awarded the prestigious London Professory of the History of Technics and Art. Sadly affected by the "long apprenticeship in pleasing," Brian can hardly wait to get out of the provincial backwater and assume the new professorship. At the same time, his wife Isobel, whose only career option is social climbing, inherits money enough to live a London life more in line with her aspirations.

As she climbs the social ladder, Isobel gets to know Professor Cadaver and his art-admiring wife Lady Maude, who has "seen everything ...locked from all other Western gaze by Soviet secrecy or Muslim piety." She has been shown by American millionaires their art treasures "of provenance so dubious that they could not be publicly announced without international complications" and "has spent many hours watching the best modern fakers at work."

Meanwhile, unaware that he needs money to pay an endless stream of blackmailers, Isobel has put herself in the hands of a current London fashion maven, Guy Rice. Isobel's surprising friendship with this "rather old young man," grows daily, and she relies on him for help with decor, parties and clothing styles. But all good things must come to an end, and for Brian and Isobel, Wilson fashions a particularly sticky one.

The title story, "Such Darling Dodos," though less accessible to a contemporary audience, is a masterful tale. Set in the thirties, it portrays Priscilla as "a giant schoolgirl" who has pathos as her "dominating sensation." When condescending Cousin Tony is invited for a visit to give moral support while Priscilla's husband is dying, he looks down his snooty nose on Priscilla's every speech and deed. Lying in her guest bedroom in his hairnet, dyed hair and cold cream, he mentally deplores the breakfast she brings him, as well as the "over-harsh lighting and dirty flyblown glass of the dressing table mirror, placed, of course, exactly where it should not have been..."

The great thing about these stories is that while the narrator criticizes his characters with cold precision, his portrayals still manage to maintain a certain compassion. Wilson's matter-of-fact character assassinations are brilliant, tragicomic and in the netherworld of suspended disbelief, eminently believable.

The well-known British writer Sir Angus Wilson was born in 1913 in Sussex, and died in Bury St. Edmonds in 1991. He was educated at Westminster School in London and in Merton College Oxford. He was a cataloguer for the British Museum, and during the war, served the Foreign Office in Bletchley Park.

Wilson was a tireless supporter of writers and liberal social causes, and was among the first professors to be hired at the University of East Anglia, when it opened in 1966. He also wrote plays and was the biographer of Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling. Novelist and friend Margaret Drabble published Wilson's biography in 1997. His papers reside at the University of Iowa, where he taught literature courses for many years.

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