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 actor’s quickness—from Ivy Compton-Burnett. The Matthews children cleverly spot the parallel between the fate of some newborn kittens and their own lives.
“Poor motherless little things.”
“It’s hardly for us to condole with them on that score.”
“No indeed I suspect that is why they look in such healthy shape.”
“We must make up to them for what they have never had.”
The traditional influence is the histrionic Dickens. Here I must digress to say that one or two American critics have said that Dickens has had a bad influence on English comedy because he supplied English writers with standard comic characters. This is to misunderstand what Dickens’s comics are composed of. Dickens did not report eccentrics for their own sake. The amount of real caricature is small. He observed people closely and understood what they were really up to when they spoke. He understood an important native attitude to the self. Dickens saw that the people around him were a race of actors strutting about the inner stage of their fantasy life; they had soliloquizing minds. In general the English novelists have had no great psychological skill and, like their public, were impatient of self-analysis. The man within is not as a rule dissected, though he may be moralized upon—George Eliot—in his relations to duty; rather the inner man is discovered to be dressed up in his daydreams. A man is comic or sinister because of the fantasy he projects from inside. This is where Angus Wilson is in the English and Dickensian tradition. He builds up people from their inner stage and looks for the actor. One reviewer has, quite correctly, called Mr. Angus Wilson a ventriloquist.
THE PERIOD lies between about 1911 and 1960 and we first see the whole Matthews family through the veil of their several daydreams. They are creating imaginary selves as they watch an early Wild West film. To only one of them, Great Aunt Rickard—known as Mouse—might the Wild West conceivably be real. The classic English spinster—she wanders about with a parrot on her shoulder and a sharp rat-a-tat-tat of sarcasms on her tongue—she has been a lonely, intrepid nomad. She is at home in deserts, wild mountains, Indian and Asiatic plains. The rest of the family are sodden in unrealized fantasy. Billy Pop—clever of Mr. Wilson to hit upon the moment when Americanisms first came in to England—the father, is a failed writer of the Savoy and Strand period, a lazy, boozy philanderer living on the money of his wife’s family. His jokes are terrible; his philosophizings evasive; he decays happily into shabby, Bohemian dandyism. The mother, mockingly known as the Countess by her brilliant and hostile children, is an Edwardian snob with a false accent—she says “beautah” for “beauty,” “meh” for “me.” She lives in dreams of second-rate social grandeur, is capricious, petulant, very randy, and rather unclean. Her taste in lovers is coarse. Her husband goes in for tarts. She can’t afford the large Kensington house they all live in, on the grandparents’ money, where all the cooking and cleaning is done by an old, fighting Cockney woman—by far the meatiest and most rooted character in the book—who, as a working-class woman in a pseudo-upper-class family, has a happy life as a knock-about comedian with a richly dirty mind. Her position gives her huge histrionic gifts a chance. Here she is, rolling home drunk:
Half past two. And down the road she comes. With a too ral, too ral, aye, does your ma know you’re out? Swing, swing, how the bleeding pavements swing. Steady, me little cock sparrer. Hold on to the railing. Whoops, she goes! All to feed the fishes. Christ, what’s that? There he comes, my own little Bobby, swinging his truncheon…. What about it, cock, lend us the end of your finger? But they wouldn’t lend you a sausage, not one of them, the bleeders. Not if your name was Henrietta Stoker, mother unknown, probably titled, six years with the Honourable Mrs. Pitditch-Perkins, French cooking trained by Monser Jools what had been at the Savoy. Oh, Lord, up she comes. Oh, Jesus help me…. Treated like dirt by the lot of them. Reagen do this, Reagen do that. Lend us a quid. Reagen. My name’s Henrietta I’ll thank you…. Tradesmen owed every where, the guv’nor boozed every night and SHE can’t keep her legs shut…. Regular old cockney I am and one of the family. Make them laugh a caution sometimes. Oh, Ria she’s a toff, darn’t she look immensikoff, and they all shouted, waatch Ria!
The children of this quarreling, sour-smelling setup are gifted and wretched. They see themselves as actors in a broken-down, stranded Rep company; and when things get bad they play what is called The Game. In this they act out a court scene in which the awful parents are on mock trial. Their satire is bitchy and disabused yet it is also compassionate. Why did whimsical Billy Pop call his wife The Countess? It’s a nursery genteelism for Cuntess. Marcus, one of the sons, who will become a homosexual later in the chronicle, plays the part of his loved and hated mother:
“Do you remember, Billah,” she asked, “when we bunnah hugged till dawn? Your breath smells Billah. Oh God! You’ve let yourself go to pieces.” “Come to that,” says Billy Pop [played by Rupert who will eventually become a famous actor]. “Come to that you stink like a whore’s knocking shop.”
Quentin, the eldest son, home from the 1914 war, plays the judge all his life. He will eventually become a leftwing journalist, a trouble to the Communists and Socialists in the Spanish war. He will be beaten up by Irish Black Shirts, refuse to sign a manifesto in Moscow, and will end up as a well-known national broadcaster. He is never ridiculed, though he is often shouted down; if he acts it is in the real world and represents Mr. Wilson’s committal and conscience. (But public speaking is a form of acting.) Look at the others. Honest, clumsy Gladys, tennis player, first to know as a child what Cuntess means, and shamed by the semi-bankruptcy of the family, becomes a business girl and is eventually the secretive mistress of an obvious crook called Alf whose commercial affairs are sweaty-faced fraud. Naturally, he lands her in jail in order to save his own skin. The actress in Gladys emerges when she appears in court; she skillfully hides Alf’s identity by behaving frivolously and impudently to the Judge. There is an important point of character here; it amounts to a social diagnosis too. The family has no respect for society. The hated family binds them. Gladys is a clumsy E. M. Forsterite who puts “personal relationships” first, even bad ones. After four years in jail she settles down with an easy-going bloke and breeds dogs.
Then there are Margaret and Sukey. Margaret will turn into a writer of integrity, waspish to begin with, softer and popular later on. We read bits of the novels she is writing and her progress is expertly and seriously shown. Mr. Wilson is not a critic for nothing. Her acting is seen in her compulsion to turn the family reality into the unreality of literature. Sukey, a headmaster’s wife and practical mother, seems totally without inner life, but her energies go on to a stage where self-preservation and duty are in conflict. Easily settled: Sukey elects, à l’anglaise, for the great escape called Worry. Marcus, the youngest, whose schoolboy scenes with his brother are very well done, spits in the face of one of his mother’s lovers, turns homosexual and, imitating mother, invites his boyfriends to the house. There is a very funny bedroom scene with a Colonel who combines disciplinary moral lectures with seduction. Eventually Marcus finds the right man and goes in for lavish, theatrical parties in Hampstead, and selling modern paintings. The thing to note is that all these children of the decadence are iron-willed. They have gone through a dreadful family mill; it has hardened their egos, and if they are emotionally disjointed they are not emotionally dead or deceived.
THESE are the people who have somehow to find their way through the Twenties and to react to the rise of Fascism, the Communist revival, the Second World War; to changes of fashion, to political and literary meetings. Quentin has to fight against being called a crank, Margaret, the novelist, has to defend herself against the charge that she is indifferent to the people she writes about—and indeed a lot of Mr. Wilson’s very witty book, which is full of malice as well as ideas, is a defense of the view that malice is not alien to the passions for truth, integrity, and the affections: a lot of blah and stupidity has to be cauterized. The picture of Margaret thinking her pernickety way from the real life character before her into the imaginary relations she is creating is good. In fact all the characters are sound in talk and action for—as one knows from his short stories—Mr. Wilson is a master of the small iceberg that has much meaning beneath it. We see Rupert—who will be a success in Chekhov—studying his part seriously, and here the theater scenes are excellent. The moment when Rupert gambles and astutely seduces a great actress is very good too. There are many such sharp instances within the cinematic commentary that carries the chronicle forward. And the characters are not static. They change with the years. Even the hopeless parents, Billy Pop and the Countess, now supported by the family, become more tolerable as their joints stiffen. They have a cock-eyed dignity. Billy Pop’s literary memoirs, recalling the good old days when he wrote that series on cricket for Blackwoods, are beautifully parodied.
Mr. Wilson is a wit whose natural effusiveness has to repair the damage. This very necessary satirical spirit is leveling and, in a long novel of closeups, destroys the past. There are dead stretches in the book simply because he has so many ideas. I think the stress on The Game is a mistake, for its effect is to repeat what we already know. Since all the characters are seen on their inner stage, it is overdoing it to repeat this in an overt charade. Another difficulty is that if the Matthewses are an argument for upper-middle-class decadence, they are a special case. As Bohemians they are cut off from the rest of society. They are seen in isolation. We see remarkably little of their lovers and friends or of the society they come from. In the end he has not been able to resist taking his young characters to Egypt and Morocco. This is energetic on his part, but does not add to the idea. It is an occupational risk with chroniclers that they begin to be swayed by the years more than they are by their characters. There are two austere and brief Angus Wilsons inside the expansive novelist: the critic and the writer of short stories or brief episodes. They do his best work. There is a good deal of it in this ambitious novel.
THERE IS NOTHING TRADITIONAL about Nell Dunn’s Poor Cow. Joy, the Battersea girl with her husband in jail for burglary and her lover doing a fourteen-year stretch for robbery with violence, is impossible in the discursive tradition. Her book is simple but intimate reporting without comment—a skeleton of a working girl’s confession which any novelist would spoil by encasing it in literary flesh. All novelists say too much. Joy’s amorality is explicit, naïve, and even delicate. She tells the truth. She is dazed, and unemphatic about being man-mad, sex-mad, shopping at cheap shops; she writes touching misspelt love letters to her man in jail, swears eternal fidelity, goes to bed casually with men for a couple of quid when she wants a bit extra, and talks or thinks, in a language which is a mixture of the prim and the filthy, of her confused feelings. Blame a man for being a thief? Not at all: it is his nature. Marriage is no good. The man comes home tired and does nothing but stare at the telly. A husband won’t let you go out to work.
When I was on my own I liked to go to work and it was like a routine to me. Now I’m all up the spout, I’m fucking arse upward…. I can’t get on with women, I dont like women, women are too catty. I means that’s nature. Lets face it. Women get your wick…. I cant stick this sort of security, I can’t stick all these women with their kids. I’d break the world in half for my Jonny…, but its being bogged down every blessed moment and all day among women. You go in the shops, its bleeding women—you go to the park, its bleeding women, all so sure, so full of themselves and sex—sex I cant stand it any more…. I just want to be something—I cant be nothing all my life. I’m losing everything. I’m even losing me tits…. Spose something happens to me like to those people up at the hospital.
The one certain sensuality is Joy’s love of her child; for the rest she is guessing her bewildered way between respectability and prostitution. Poverty is not her trouble. There’s always money for the telly, the new curtains, a new plastic lamp.
Nell Dunn’s reporting, her observation, her ear for contemporary London speech in low life are startling. She does not force a narrative on Joy, but relies on the suddenness and naturalness of her intimate fragments. She lets the girl speak for herself. There is art in this which makes her superior at any rate to the sociologists with their greed for a tendentious total recall and their bullying way of lumping individuals into groups. Joy is herself, not evidence of this or that in Battersea life. There is no imposed idea. The result is that Nell Dunn catches what I think must be a new thing in modern urban life: the exposed, unsupported, morally anonymous condition of people who have nothing that can really mean much to them except the vagaries of the sexual itch, what the telly says, and what is lit up in the supermarkets and pubs. Joy’s filthy language is as innocent as her hair-do, perhaps the only connection she has with society at large. Society is the streets.
“If anyone saw me now,” she says, grabbing her kid, “they’d say ‘She’s had a rough night, poor cow’.”
There is nothing self-pitying or sentimental in that: Joy is frail and sweet, and even if she is the end product of the commercials, she has spirit.