As If By Magic
The Plot That Thickened
The World of Jeeves
All About Jeeves
In The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, Evelyn Waugh offers a harsh but affectionate, scarcely disguised picture of himself, a portrait of the artist as an old ogre. Mr. Pinfold, Waugh writes,
…abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing and jazz—everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime…. There was a phrase in the ’30s: “It is later than you think,” which was designed to cause uneasiness. It was never later than Mr. Pinfold thought.
The characters in Angus Wilson’s fiction, on the other hand, appear to have taken that Thirties exhortation to heart—too late, naturally enough. It is later than they thought, and they have time only to sketch out a few futile, decent gestures before death or disaster carries them away. Anthony Powell, Waugh’s friend and near-contemporary (Waugh was born in 1903, died in 1966; Powell was born in 1905), is closer to Pinfold. His characters know it’s always pretty late, but the narrator of Powell’s Music of Time would add a mild, Proustian postscript: the chemistry of Time itself, the process by which it gets just as late as you thought it was, is a fascinating spectacle, and not merely the exhibition of collapse and decay that Waugh insistently affected to see in it.
As for P.G. Wodehouse, the whole notion of time is so foreign to his work, and apparently to his life, that it seems rather crude even to mention its absence. Wodehouse was born in 1881, and has produced two very funny volumes each year since something like the age of three. Manor Books have just put out what they call a ninetieth-birthday edition of all the Jeeves stories, but Wodehouse is ninety-two already, pipping Time once again, as Bertie Wooster might say, at the post.
It’s later than Angus Wilson thinks in another sense: too late in the century, or perhaps simply in his life, for the kind of novel he keeps writing. I don’t mean it’s too late in some formal, scholastic way, that the gates are closed now, that no one can write old-fashioned novels any more and I refuse Angus Wilson the right to a comeback. I mean that on the evidence, Wilson’s talent no longer seems to be making much sense of this form of novel, with an omniscient narrator lurking inside the heads of several of the book’s characters.
Wilson’s omniscience is stretched too thin in As If By Magic and comes off badly when compared with Powell’s careful restriction of his narrative to the point of view of a single character. Wilson, for example, blandly attempts to impersonate Americans, has them say things like, “God rot his two-timing soul.” Powell has his Americans, in Temporary Kings, talk more or less like Englishmen (they say, “I’ve been spun many yarns” and “If you don’t mind my saying so”); but then they behave like Americans, whereas Wilson’s figures behave like nothing on earth. It is not a question of Powell’s having a technical alibi, since he can blame…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.