Book Review

Wilson Confesses

This book’s confessional title must provoke some disbelief, since the confessor, A. N. Wilson, has certainly not failed any writerly promise he possessed, having published more than fifty books in various genres—novels, biographies, social, political and religious histories, philosophical inquiry—just to name a few.[1] He stands as the predomi­nant figure in English comic literary matters as they have unfolded over the past five decades and should be added to a list that, beginning with Evelyn Waugh, includes Anthony Powell, Kingsley and Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens, and Clive James. This nearly 100-year stretch begins with Waugh’s Decline and Fall (1928) and is marked by what Wyndham Lewis, in a phrase from his novel Tarr, called “the curse of humor.” These writers may fail to satisfy readers devoted to Tolstoy or Virginia Woolf and convinced that the great Modernist display of names like Joyce, Proust, Faulkner, Beckett, Auden, and Saul Bellow put such comic and satiric talents very much in the shade. If Cyril Connolly be taken seriously when he proclaimed that the only motive for writing novels is to produce a masterpiece, then it seems A. N. Wilson has been too continually busy to put in the requisite work on a book in the line for masterpiece status.
But one must not mistake Wilson’s confession of failed promises as apologizing for no masterpiece having issued from his pen, since it is not a literary failure that is referred to by the title of his new book. In fact it’s difficult to say with any confidence what exactly were the promises he failed. As a novelist, he has done substantial work, and he himself is satisfied at least with his longest and relatively recent one, The Potter’s Hand. Quite a bit of Confessions is devoted to his father, Norman Wilson’s skill as ceramicist and potter (Norman held a commanding position as managing director of the Wedgwood enterprise). Wilson hasn’t much to say about the earlier novels that fall within the book’s time frame, which takes us up only to the late 1980s as he prepares to write his large and excellent biography of Tolstoy (for which Wilson learned Russian). This means that what I take to be his best novels, written early in this century, get no attention: The Vicar of Sorrows, Dream Children and, most especially, My Name Is Legion, each deserving of more admiration than it has received. I should be surprised to find that there is an appreciative audience for any of the three; perhaps Wilson himself will address them when he comes to write a successor to the present book.
While noting many pleasures in Wilson’s confessions, readers should be warned that they will encounter, here and there, a clump of figures of very little interest, names that will awaken no thrill of recognition. One example from the opening paragraph of Chapter 30 that begins with an attractive woman we’ve met in the previous chapter:

Tanya would eventually become the sister-in-law of Christina Hobhouse, who had befriended Aunt Elizabeth at the mobile library in Llansteffan and who attended the recusant mass in Dai Thomas’s tin hut. Tanya would marry Henry Harrod, a barrister in chambers with my old friend Mark Blackett-Ord. Henry’s brother, Christina’s husband, was the economist Dominick Harrod. They were related to Sir Johnson Forbes-Robertson . . .

This is not the rule of Wilson’s narrative, but also not that much of an exception. Such paragraphs in the book ask to be read rapidly.
Other moments in the narrative call for a completely different response, although even careful reading may leave one puzzled. The most significant thing about Wilson’s earlier life is marriage in his early twenties to his Oxford tutor, Katherine Duncan-Jones, a significant Shakespeare scholar. The union produced two daughters (both of whom went on to impressive careers), but even before the parents’ eventual divorce years later, things seem to have usually been far from content. Then there is the disparity between the early years of his once vigorous mother (Jean Dorothy Crowder), who later became agoraphobic and who even after a short ride in the automobile suffered not only from motion sickness, but from “near-hysteria.” What had happened to the confident young woman whose “lack of connect between the teenage Jean Dorothy and the woman I knew as my mother”? Wilson answers as follows: “I suppose the simple answer is ‘marriage.’ Seventy years on this planet have taught me . . . that this cherished institution, while nourishing those rare beings for whom it ‘works,’ is, for a significant number of those who risk it—I’d say most—an arrangement of life that is utterly destructive of the human soul.” He goes on to assure us that his mother remains to him “utterly incomprehensible.” Wilson is now married to an art historian, Ruth Guilding, and we may presume (we may hope) in a relationship that has not destroyed either of their souls. My point is that Wilson can’t resist producing a good shocking sentence that contemplates ultimate things and people in ultimate terms in a short paragraph where the word “utterly” occurs twice.
In his introduction, Wilson admits that he has been spoken of by “[f]ans and hostile critics alike” as someone “who was too fluent, who wrote with too much ease.” He is at pains to explain this by insisting that though he has indeed not suffered from “writer’s block,” the task of matching words to the truth of experience is a mighty one and ongoing. This seems reasonable but doesn’t engage with a related question he might have put to himself: whether there’s any connection between his fluency as a writer and his astonishing ability to change his mind about religion, a subject that continued to engage him. A striking instance of such change can be seen in a six-year stretch (1985–9l), years not covered in his narrative when, in a short inquiry, How Can We Know?, he declared “that in spite of everything, I did believe the Christian religion to be inescapably and irresistibly true,” only to follow up six years later with calling religion “the tragedy of mankind” and announcing that insofar as religion was making a comeback, it was “bad news for the human race.” For himself, he has discarded “any formal religious affiliations.” The title of the pamphlet in which he records this quite significant turnaround is an inflammatory one: Against Religion. It seems to me likely that “fluency” in the use of words has something to do with the fluency with which contradictory attitudes toward existential questions undergo drastic revision. I point this out not to score against Wilson, but to suggest that such revision is central to his literary-philosophical view and that its very extremity makes us want to read him.
Confessions is so packed with characters who perform memorably or not so memorably on Wilson’s stage, with language frequently used to mimic every stutter and malapropism that it’s impossible for the reviewer to gather things up in clear-cut organized paragraphs. It’s fluency that makes things exciting for us; yet nothing is resolved for long, always to be replaced by another candidate for the writer’s attention. Remembering his journalistic debut at Rugby when he was editor of the school paper, he was tipped off to some matter so exhilarating that it prefaces a lifetime habit: seeing his words on the printed page gives him a “buzz,” a heady rush stronger than what he gets from writing a novel—the “adrenalin” rush that propels him through his journalistic feats at The Spectator, the Evening Standard, Private Eye, and numerous other papers. It is a here-then-there career that has its analogue with the changes of mind between belief and nonbelief, since the confessions are never straightforward.
One example will suggest the “buzz” Wilson may have gotten out of taking a gossipy item from academia and dressing it up in prose that’s designedly too clever by half. It concerns the scholar Anne Barton, in charge of hiring and firing at Oxford’s New College where Wilson was teaching. He presents her to us thus:

Anne, once a beautiful American, was now a strange, twitching, blinking, obese figure who made (to those who complained about the habit to me) embarrassing advances to the undergraduates. She was sleeping with the English don from St Catz, Michael Gearin-Tosh. With his high-pitched Bloomsbury giggle, his flamboyant clothes (fur coats, silk scarves) and his shock of long curly silver hair, he seemed an unlikely lover for Anne, particularly as he shared her weakness for chasing his male students round the room, rather than teaching them. Nevertheless, a pair they were. Tosh lived in the lodgings at St Hugh’s, having more than once proposed marriage to the Principal, Rachel Trickett, but there was more in their relationship of Betsey Trotwood and Mr Dick than there was of romance.

Perhaps I could better take all this in if I’d matriculated at Oxford? But Wilson is just warming up and the next paragraph continues with Barton, Tosh, and Trickett and how Wilson became “an object of mistrust” since he was friends with “the Quintons.” “This was because Marcelle, Anne (in those days Bobbyann Roesen) and Gaby Annan—as she became—had been three college girls together at Bryn Mawr, and one seldom saw either Gaby or Marcelle without their wishing to dwell on the amorous adventures or, very occasionally, other aspects of Anne’s character, such as her intellectual mediocrity, or her marriages, first to American academic Bill Righter, later to theatre director John Barton.” It’s hard not to feel that things have gotten out of hand as Wilson feels the “buzz” and lets it all hang out. So the embarrassed but maybe still curious reader, if he stops to contemplate his feelings, finds that they are decidedly mixed.
Mixed feelings is a good name for one’s state of mind in contemplating this book as a whole. I have said nothing or very little here about Wilson’s parents, his disastrous early “education” at the dreadful Hillstone School, his getting sacked from The Spectator for tampering with a review. These and other adventures enliven the book, and I hope I’ve not simplified things by choosing to dwell on two passages in which Wilson’s prose invites some headshaking. I’ve read Confessions twice with much enjoyment each time, but neither reading brought any overall clarity to Wilson’s effort. He attempts no such clarity in the final chapter when he quotes Isaiah Berlin’s well-known distinction between the hedgehog and the fox—that the fox knows many things, the hedgehog one big thing. Wilson suggests that “the game can be extended beyond the literary”: “With my inconstant heart, and my wavering, superficial mind, I was a fox, with interests and loyalties all over the place, many of them incompatible with one another, but I was the son of a hedgehog whose entire raison d’être had consisted in working with and for the Wedgwoods . . . producing his own stunning bowls and vases.” The warmth with which his father is treated throughout the book is patent and sympathetic. But it’s the fox with interests all over the place who takes charge of its narrative and makes it such an invigorating, at times maddening, affair.
[1] CONFESSIONS: A Life of Failed Promises, by A. N. Wilson. Bloomsbury Continuum. $30.00.