The white-haired mentor's tale

ANGUS WILSON: A BIOGRAPHY Margaret Drabble Secker & Warburg pounds 20; Angus Wilson was the Indispensable Man of post-war literature. Penelope Fitzgerald applauds the new biography by his old friend, Margaret Drabble
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"You've better things to do with your time, dear girl," Angus Wilson told Margaret Drabble when, after 24 years' friendship, she suggested writing something about him. No, he would do that himself - Angus Wilson on Angus Wilson. He never managed it, and by 1991, when he died, his standing as a novelist had suffered and he had begun to feel like an old trouper or an old queen whose show was no longer wanted. This skilful and sympathetic book, then, is in the first place a matter of rehabilitation, or picking up the pieces, which may not be the very best basis for a biography, but is still an extremely good one.

Throughout she calls him, affectionately, "Angus". She is "Drabble". Angus came from a confusing, shabby-genteel family and a half-world of expatriates and private hotels where he was the precocious, blue-eyed youngest, an eavesdropper on the world. The child's eye view, he came to believe, was crucial to the writer, (although one of his schoolfriends thought Angus had never had a real childhood at all). When at the age of 36 he published his first volume of short stories, The Wrong Set, it included the very earliest, "Raspberry Jam": a small boy looks on while two odd village ladies, who don't wish to be spied upon, put out their pet-bullfinch's eyes with a pin. Angus liked to say that he had thought of this story, almost that it had thought of him, on a single afternoon. Drabble, however, has found four earlier drafts in the notebooks. You almost regret her thoroughness.

Hemlock and After (1951) and Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956), his first two novels, were generous in scope, but just as deliciously, or frighteningly, acid in flavour. Their success and that of the much calmer Middle Age of Mrs Eliot (1958) led to an unpredictable result; his commitments expanded enormously and so, in spite of the nervous strain, did his happiness. For the next 25 years, as literature entered what Drabble calls "the Age of Conferences", Angus emerged, with only Stephen Spender as a serious rival, as the Indispensable Man. In 1963 he became first lecturer, then Professor, at the new University of East Anglia as it rose from Norfolk's flat fields. He was on the committee of the Royal Literary Fund and the Arts Council, Chairman of the National Book League and the Society of Authors, eventually a Companion of Literature and a knight. As a distinguished visiting lecturer he patrolled Europe and America, hugely welcomed as a sort of white-haired totem by the world's students. Ceaseless travelling is pretty sure to mean comic mishaps, and Drabble doesn't miss these, but at the same time she skilfully keeps us in mind of the heroism with which Angus (perhaps literally) worked himself to death. He succeeded, not as a born organiser but as someone who was interested in other human beings, a brilliant, malicious man who was still, at heart, a sweet-natured busybody, prodigal with time and effort. Organisation was left to his lover, secretary, driver and cook, Tony Garrett.

All these activities mean that Drabble is faced with a cast of hundreds, but she never lets one slip. Some are famous; others, although their names are listed, are totally obscure; some have their own anecdotes: "Juliet Corke married a Frenchman and Angus spoke at the wedding in fluent French recalling the little tabby cat she had once given him", Gerard van het Reve "would ask for a plate and some mustard if the conversation grew dull; he would then spread the plate with mustard and lay his penis temptingly upon the plate". Drabble vividly describes the places Angus went to, and even, on occasion, places he might have gone to, but didn't. Drabble assesses the reviews of each book and suggests the originals of the characters (four are given for Rose Lorimer, the sublimely ridiculous lecturer in Anglo-Saxon Attitudes). She knows the names of Angus's roses, and makes us interested in his meals. Her sense of period, down to the very year, is, as always, matchless, and you can feel time pass inside and outside the cottage at Felsham Woodside. There is, on the other hand, not much evidence from accountants and it's not quite clear why the money ran out just before Angus and Tony (now acting as a nurse) left England for St Remy. Independent readers will remember the dignified appeal for funds in May 1990 from Rose Tremain, who had been one of his pupils. The end, as Drabble says, was not a happy one. But Dr Patrick Woodcock, who looked after Angus and many of his friends, once told me that the best provision against old age was "to make sure of your little treats" and these Angus had, in the visitors who brought him his last luxury, gossip.

"He made no secret of the fact that he was a homosexual," Drabble says, "and this volume is in part a history of what we now call gay liberation, and the decreasing need for discretion." Francis King suggested in his memoirs, Yesterday Came Suddenly, that at first Angus Wilson hated his own sexuality, but this does not appear from the biography. He seems to have been admitted to dressing-up games, and perhaps seduced, by his elder brothers. However, although in Hemlock and After he wrote, for 1952, quite openly about the subject (Rupert Hart-Davis's Hugh Walpole, published in the same year, never mentions it) he still felt obliged in his early novels to restrict himself. Getting rid of the restraints didn't improve him as a writer - when does it ever? Meanwhile in his official capacity as a smiling public man, he felt, although he never denied or compromised, that it was better to proceed with caution. I should add that anyone anxious to read about the details of his personal sex life has come to the wrong counter. Drabble has been guided, as she explains in her preface, by Tony Garrett, to whom the book is dedicated, and who told her that he was prepared to talk about the relationship "but not about actual sexual activity . . . firstly because I cannot ask Angus for his permission". The truth about his sexual adventures, Angus always insisted, was in his fiction. Everyone is at liberty to look for it there.

His real subject, as he explained in his Northcliffe lectures and his self-analytical The Wild Garden, was evil, as distinct from right and wrong and their traditional playground of comedy. Margaret Drabble accepts this and says: "He demonstrated that it was still possible to write a great novel." This implied direct competition with the great Victorian classics, and Angus in fact wrote distinctive studies of Dickens and Kipling, but Drabble goes off course, I think, in trying to show that what attracted him to them was that his life-story was like theirs. It wasn't. Their attraction for him, surely, was the lavish, unaccountable nature of their genius - Kipling's daemon, or Dickens's "I thought of Mr Pickwick". Faced by what seemed almost the duty of greatness, and uncertain of his own daemon, insecurity threatened, and to banish insecurity Angus took to avoiding silence. Nobody who ever knew it could forget his voice - heard from outside in the street, growing louder on the stairs, non- stop into the rooms rising into plaintive arabesques, pausing only for a painfully brilliant imitation. You can hear it, so to speak, through the chinks of this admirable biography, a solid tribute of scholarship and affection.