Proto-Postcolonial? Angus Wilson and the Languages of Liberalism

By MacKay, Marina | International Fiction Review, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Proto-Postcolonial? Angus Wilson and the Languages of Liberalism


MacKay, Marina, International Fiction Review


All fiction for me is a kind of magic and trickery--a confidence trick, trying to make people believe something is true that isn't. (1)

Sir Angus Wilson, novelist, critic, journalist, playwright, and professor, has always been seen as that very English figure: the all-round man of letters. In his novels of the fifties and sixties he minutely dissected the moral and psychological crises of the English middle classes, so his early seventies adventure in the global, postmodern, postcolonial novel was, to say the least, unexpected. Although knighted for his services to literature, Wilson is much less read than he once was, and the decline of his reputation may be dated from the publication of this seventh novel, As if by Magic (1972). (2) Taking English liberalism into global contexts, Wilson shows how postcolonial English sensibilities have colluded with neocolonial exploitation and economic Realpolitik.

The novel has two parallel narratives and two heroes. One narrative strand follows Alexandra, a graduate of a new university who, finding herself pregnant, pursues the hippie trail to Goa in the late sixties, along with her two partners, working-class Ned and nouveau riche Rodrigo. In the second strand, Alexandra's gay godfather, the plant geneticist Hamo Langmuir, travels around Asia to witness the effects of his experiment, the miracle-yield rice "Magic." Aside from these concerns of personal and professional development, we are told by the subheadings that Alexandra and Hamo are on other missions: Alexandra is "in search of a hero," Hamo in search of "the perfect youth." Partaking as it does of the sexual freedoms of the sixties, witnessed at first hand by Wilson while a professor at the radical University of East Anglia, the novel was never going to be free from risk for a novelist of middlebrow seriousness in his late middle age.

The novel, however, formally enacts this freedom, dissolving the omniscient third-person narration of Wilson's early fiction into a series of pastiches: Dickens, de Sade, Forster, the Old Testament, "Angry" realism, and so on. It is tempting indeed to describe this as a postmodern novel, except that As if by Magic ridicules jargonistic critical approaches, caricaturing literary smugness as itself a brand of colonization of art. When the heiress Alexandra is asked to finance an avant-garde film, we are told that "she had no idea what a meta-movie might be, but if it had anything to do with meta-novels then she didn't wish to have anything to do with it." (3) Here, the narrative seems to have itself become metafictional, but while "metafiction" has some critical currency, "meta-novel" is a neologism; it only sounds like a critical term, such as might be applied, for example, to the work of Christine Brooke-Rose (with whom Wilson worked at the wartime code-breaking headquarters at Bletchley Park) or B. S. Johnson, who, ironically, had dismissed Wilson as a social realist: "I'm sure social historians in the future will look to Angus Wilson ... and say, 'Yes, that's what it must have been like to live then." (4) The trap for the postmodern reader is clear: the global, narratively unstable As if by Magic may allude to "meta-novels" and allow its audience to congratulate themselves on their recognition of a self-referential device, only to realize that they are being sent up along with Alexandra's pretentious friends.

Alexandra's allusion to the "meta-novel" links her to her mother, Zoe, who represents overtly the middlebrow, Sunday-supplement sector of Wilson's original readership, and demonstrates their misguided intellectual complacency. She embarrasses Alexandra--and the reader--when she attempts to engage with her daughter's interests: "'But I thought character in the novel had been dissolved.' 'Oh, Mama, please!' 'Yes, I know, darling, not in neo-trad and all that ...'" (62). Shame at Zoe's desire to parade her limited knowledge is evident in Alexandra's attempt to silence her, but Alexandra's desire to distance herself from her mother is defeated by their shared social class, explicit in their forms of address--Alexandra's "Mama" is matched by Zoe's "darling. …

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