Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Penguin no. 1086: Hemlock and After
by Angus Wilson

"If his father had remained a schoolmaster, everyone would have seen it for what is was - pedantic bullying; but because he had a talent for writing , it became something quite different - 'gentle and ironic questioning of our most accepted values',...You could, it seemed, write whatever came into your head, contradict yourself fundamentally in every successive book, invent people who did things out of character, do anything but really think out what you meant, so long as you advertised yourself sufficiently as a humanist."

This is a book which seems almost Dickensian in its scope, though fortunately not in its length. It follows the stories of a network of characters, all intricately linked by some path to the central figure; his story, his decline and fall, impacts on them all. It's not a book for leisurely reading; it requires concentration to follow the many characters and subplots. But through it we are given a portrait of the society at the time, and the survey is comprehensive: it includes writers, politicians, public servants, academics, cockneys, and a procuress, a faded hostess, a credulous intellectual; the successful, the failing, the evil, the mercenary and the idealistic.

The most interesting aspect was the unusual way in which all these characters were portrayed. We enter into their heads, and like a literary relay pass from the thoughts of one character to the thoughts of the next. They are all self aware, able to recognise and analyse their motivations and reactions. And we learn their judgements of others as well, but these are judgements conditioned on the attitudes and attributes of those doing the judging.  We see the characters not as they are, but as they are perceived, both by themselves and by others. The picture built up this way is not attractive. Angus Wilson's style is acerbic; no one is revealed as particularly decent or likeable.

The protagonist of the story is Bernard Sands. He has had a successful literary career, and now plans to pursue the establishment of a haven for young writers at Varden Hall, an 18th Century estate. He faces considerable local and bureaucratic opposition, not least because he wants to give his protégés the freedom to self-manage the organisation. This is a recurring theme: ideas about liberty, power and authority are explored in many ways throughout this story.

Bernard's wife Ella barely functions; she is beset by crippling fears and he embraces homosexuality in place of married life. This novel was apparently the first to depict the homosexual world, and the depiction seems almost casual, although I wondered if a better sense of the inadvertent consequences of the anti-homosexuality laws, and the enthusiasm with which they were enforced by the police, is conveyed in Peter Wildeblood's Against the Law (Penguin no. 1188), published only four years later.

It is this enthusiasm of the police that reveals to Bernard the poison within. He never recovers; a slow and creeping paralysis sets in, leading ultimately to his death. This is the story of his fall and its consequences. And what did he achieve?
"It seems strange that his books will have such influence when in his life he got so little done. I suppose it's because you where always the doer."
"My dear", Ella replied,"doing doesn't last, even if one knows what one's doing, which one usually doesn't. But Bernard was something to people - lots of people -me, for example - and that has its effect in the end, I think."
The man of ideas superior to the man of action.

But I could never escape the awfulness of the depiction of people and the things that motivate them. The agendas are recognisable: a mother who pretends to want her son to be independent, but clings to him to avoid the prospect of loneliness and uselessness; children who want their parents to keep a low profile; the man on the make who trades his freedom for potential success. But how awful to portray everyone like this, to allow no room for more noble intentions. If this is the world revealed, I prefer not to know.

1 comment:

  1. I just thought I would let you know I think your collection is very cool. Also with how you are reading one a week it reminded me of what I am doing. I am trying to read my un-read library of 65 books by the end of the year. Yeah it is a pretty intense quest. I thought you might enjoy it and might want to travel with me. Thanks for giving me some cool stuff to read :)



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...