No Laughing Matter
Angus Wilson has always been the anthropologist of the older generation of the English upper middle class in those dated areas where it is either seedy, distrait, or decadent. It is a theme which has been familiar since the doctrinaire Thirties; now he has treated it more elaborately. It is a roman with adroitly muddled clefs. Decadence—how is it to be defined? Can it still be usefully thought of in terms of class divisions? Are we decadent or just fading, as the family album fades? What about the adaptations, the interplay, the imponderables? I imagine that Mr. Wilson might define decadence as the refusal to face reality, exert power, take responsibility—living at secondhand. The characters in Mr. Wilson’s novel are more bizarre than decaying, but they are very brainy, very self-reliant, and, on the whole, have capitalized their injuries. He describes a whole family from youth to age in two generations and it is not surprising that two world wars have speeded the fading process.
As a critic Mr. Wilson has always been stimulating and committed. In criticism he is a feeling man. For myself, he has been most original as a writer of short stories, for there his strong personality does not overlay his characters. In the novelist he has all the advantages, but also all the defects of one who packs every ounce of showmanship in. He looks back to the long and solid Victorian novelists and believes—contrary to a very common opinion—that it is still possible to keep the long, full-bodied novel alive; not by flighty pastiche, not by stolid imitation or “pictorial journalism,” but by reconstructing the architecture, the subject, and above all the means, i.e., by picking up the discoveries made by novelists in the last fifty years. His work contains a good many echoes from this period. He doesn’t see why one cannot write a “great novel,” something with a large scene newly rendered, and, in this, he is both as traditional and profuse as, say, Saul Bellow was in Herzog. It is prejudice on my part, but I believe that both talents become too personal in their long books. There is a failure to cut the umbilical cord. Their shorter books have intensity and definition.
On the jacket of No Laughing Matter there is a cautious comparison with The Forsyte Saga made (I suppose) to catch the public eye. This is unfair to Mr. Wilson. There is a skeleton of family chronicle but that is all. Galsworthy would have been appalled by the sexual and especially the homosexual candor of the Matthews family. He would have been incapable of Mr. Wilson’s brilliantly mimicked dialogue, the ear for the catch phrase and theatrical allusions of the period. He is a deeply read man, and if one wants past references there is Joyce for the stream of consciousness, something of Gide’s Les Faux-monnayeurs in the novel within a novel, and some dialogue—picked up with an …