Thursday, 28 March 2013

Battered Penguins - Hemlock and After by Angus Wilson

Young fiction writers are often told that the secret of success is conflict. If this advice is correct then Hemlock and After, a novel that is about nothing less than the conflict between good and evil, ought to have been a terrific hit. Unfortunately for me though plot is less important than style, and I find Wilson's writing, like that of Iris Murdoch and, to a lesser extent, CP Snow, not entirely appealing. Despite the range and liveliness of Wilson's characterisation in  this book, and the detail and accuracy of his descriptions, for me the novel lacks warmth. This is also an  aspect of Murdoch's writing that strikes me each time I try her. It may be a quirk of mine, or, since they were contemporaries, there may have been something peculiar in the water when they were both alive.

The novel opens on the day that Bernard Sands, the book's central character, receives, 'Treasury's final confirmation of official financial backing' for 'the purchase and maintenance of Vardon Hall as a centre to provide leisure and support for' younger writers. For Bernard, a 'Grand Old Man of Letters' who has recently acknowledged his own homosexuality, this is the latest in a long line of successes. He is delighted, but as time passes his delight is diminished by a 'growing apprehension of evil that had begun this summer to disrupt his comprehension of the world.'

Bernard's apprehension of evil is hardly surprising given the monsters who surround him. There is horrible Mrs Wrigley, whose portrayal is so vivid I found it hard to convince myself, when I'd finished reading, that the lingering odour I thought I could detect existed only in my imagination :

"Despite the hot June evening, Mrs Wrigley's first action on getting back to the cottage was to light the paraffin stove. The smoke filled the stuffy airless little room. Mrs Wrigley's protuberant frog's eyes smarted and watered behind her thick steel-rimmed glasses. The smell of the paraffin spread to blend with the rank odour of stale sweat, the clinging scent from the half-empty tin of sardines on the table and the sickening, periodic whiffs mingled from bad meat and dog mess somewhere near the sink. These Mrs Wrigley did not notice. She took off her worn old red leather hat - disintegrating relic of the craftwork of some proud gentlewoman - revealing a close cropped mannish head of grey hair. She did not remove the old mackintosh which she wore over her bulky, shapeless form, although she was sweating with the long climb up the hill from the village. She put the kettle on the rusty gas stove which had been bought from some of Ron's winnings at the dogs only a year ago. While she waited for the kettle to boil she prodded with her boot at  an old collie dog with sores that lay in a basket under the table. Then pouring the boiling water into a teapot full of dead tea leaves, she drew the sardine tin towards her and liberally sprinkled the contents with vinegar.'

There is Hubert Rose who is engaged in a 'frenzied search to regain those wondrous secret childhood games beside which all the pleasures of the adult world were dust and ashes in his mouth', and who tries to justify his attempt to procure a small girl for himself with the argument that she 'was born into a world with nothing to offer her [and] is going to part with something she'll be giving away to Tom, Dick, and Harry in a couple of years, at an age when an ignorant society prefers to think she's bathed in childhood innocence instead of slum smut.'

Worst of all, there is dreadful Mrs Curry, 'an elephant figure of Mabel Lucie Attwell chubbiness', who resembles a 'huge, obscene parrot' and has a fondness for 'comfiness' and 'pretty little tiny things', furnishing her cottage with pictures of 'a bluebell wood, misty and shimmering, in which two tiny naked children sported' and 'a field of dancing daffodills into which a little girl had strayed without her clothes', about which she would observe, 'quite suddenly, "Poor little thing, she's lost her frillies"' or '"Naughty little things, they want a smack a bot, don't they?"' Her utterances, we are told, are always open to two interpretations, either pleasant or 'of such extreme obscenity that the mind reeled before it.' It is she who recognises Hubert Rose for what he is and sets about procuring what he desires.

In Mrs Curry's activities, Andrew O'Hagan pointed out recently in the London Review of Books, there are echoes of the Jimmy Savile affair. Strangely, there is an even closer parallel in the description of one character's fetishisation of her clothing, which mirrors the odd way in which Savile himself treated his dead mother's dresses:

"Celia Craddock preserved most of her old evening dresses ... going to her bedroom ... she would look at them, touch, stroke them and eventually would find herself seated on the floor, surrounded by the billowing pools of rich material."

Fortunately, in the midst of the ghastliness that takes up so much of the novel, there are moments of humour, some surprisingly Barbara Pym-like:

'"I can always get you turkey eggs when you want 'em," she heard Bill say. It was difficult to imagine when she would want them ...'

some more grim than Pym:

'She had been reminded ... of a long session with an analyst - that Bavarian, Dr Wengl, who had made you draw pictures - in which they had got stuck at her father's deathbed. Dr Wengl had insisted on her visualising the scene ... but they had got nowhere; all she could recall vividly was the intricate square of iron work at the bedhead.'

others possibly appealing only to an Antipodean English person, who recognises a peculiarly English kind of pleasure:

'It was more than comforting to find the famous vine so small and fruitless, the delphiniums so inferior and the shrubbery no more than a tangled mass of dusty St John's Wort. There was general conviction among the visitors that they could have done better at home. They settled down to an afternoon of satisfied disappointment'

or to those who have been to Leicester Square:

'The evening seemed cooler. Almost anywhere but Leicester Square would have reflected its summer beauty.'

Even more fortunately, amid the seemingly unrelenting corruption of the novel's characters, one figure of integrity emerges - Ella, the apparently insane wife of Bernard Sands, whose 'foggy picture of life' is pierced by 'letters and words [which] began to weave themselves - Minors, Lincoln, loins and then again minors, minors'. Once her 'armour of neurosis' is penetrated in this way, Ella rises to the challenge and sets out to frustrate Mrs Curry in her endeavours.

In case we have not picked up the message that in this mad world only the mad can be sane, Wilson underlines it by ensuring that, of all the characters, only Ella can see Mrs Curry as she actually is. Elsewhere the woman is described as 'a gigantic moored airship' of 'soft cushiony flesh'. She is given an almost supernatural, eternal quality when she is portrayed pondering her prey and asking herself, 'What, will the line stretch on to crack o'doom? All the love-starved and the needy, and all on bended knee'.

Through Ella's eyes, however, she shrinks back to normal size and becomes unthreatening, impotent and ordinary:

'She blinked at the huge figure before her in undisguised interest, taking in every detail of the broken veins around the nose and on the cheeks beneath the layer of powder, the old-fashioned shoes with pointed toes, the flesh forced into bulges around the corsets, 'Evil power' indeed, she thought with scorn ... Why! she was just someone's cook dressed up, certainly dishonest and probably a secret drinker.'

Ella is unafraid of Mrs Curry and is able to halt her progress temporarily. However, as Bernard recognises, Mrs Curry has 'a fertile imagination for evil'. She has not been defeated forever but only for the moment. The struggle against what she represents is neverending.

Despite this, Wilson permits a touch of optimism - or at least a reminder of a grandeur in existence beyond 'the rack of self-advancement and self-pity' on which people spend their lives in Bernard's social world - to creep into his book at its close. On the final page, he shows us Ella turning from the room she is in to look at the view beyond the window:

'It was really easier to concentrate on the clouds moving above and below like great golden snowdrifts'

she decides, and with that enigmatic sentence, hinting at distant splendour, the novel ends.

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