Obituary: John Wain
Wednesday 25 May 1994
JOHN WAIN is often thought of as one of the group of angry young novelists, and poets too, which in the Fifties was known as the Movement. There was too much variety, as Philip Larkin pointed out, for any joint declaration or policy of intent, or even of much uniformity in a group that comprised poets and novelists as different as Larkin, Elizabeth Jennings, Iris Murdoch, Kingsley Amis and Wain himself.
Wain's was also a gregarious and affable personality who had no interest in grumbling and complaining about society, or in the self- cherished gloom that surrounded his friend Larkin. Indeed, his sociable, outgoing qualities were the most evident feature of Wain when an undergraduate. He got on extremely well with his tutor, CS Lewis, which might seem surprising since Wain himself had no interest in religion or in Lewis's somewhat medieval attitudes to modern life. But they loved drinking beer and discussing affairs and literature together, for both of them had a robust Johnsonian curiosity and pleasure in many different books and subjects; and both were clubbable and convivial in disposition. Indeed, Wain's book on Dr Johnson, Samuel Johnson (1974), is one of his best, for he understood and loved the man and would have held it an honour to try in part to resemble him and take the same kind of sturdy and downright moral stance.
Wain also used to frequent the Inklings, the literary circle who met in Oxford's pubs to discuss literature and to read their own work. The circle was inaugurated by Lewis and JRR Tolkien, of whom Wain used to give an accurate but benevolent imitation when he was reading his work in progress, The Lord of the Rings. Neither Larkin nor Amis, who had been rather older fellow-students of Wain at St John's College, would have cared much about that kind of thing, but Wain always had a broader and more catholic outlook than they had: nor was his independent political attitude, often radical and usually unorthodox, ever fixed in the kind of Toryism which the other two came to adopt.
The mid-Fifties were a time of change and enterprise in writing and the younger English novelists, for all their obvious dissimilarities, did also have something in common. They had an irreverent and iconoclastic attitude to the novel form and to writing generally. Wain's first novel, Hurry On Down (1953), has a good deal in common with Amis's Lucky Jim, published the following year, except that its hero, Charles Lumley, samples a greater variety of occupations - as burglar, hospital worker and window cleaner - than does the pseudo-academic Jim Dixon, nor is he presented with the same contrived fortunate solution to his problems. The humour of the novel is subtly different too - more verbal and less slapstick - nor is there anything naive about the presentation of domestic life. The put-upon young father is admirably done, and there is a splendid moment when a meek little man who has been telling a stately American woman an interminable anecdote about giving a watch to his fiancee is suddenly heard saying loudly 'I'll give the works after we get married.'
For sheer zany wit and liveliness, Wain's early novels certainly vie with those of Amis, and survive much better today than the more ponderous and complacent offerings of John Braine, whose Room at the Top appeared four years after Hurry On Down.
Wain's poetry at the time also showed a strong personality of its own and a marked sense of form. Nevill Coghill, the Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford, who translated The Canterbury Tales and was both friend and admirer and no mean judge, considered collections such as Weep Before God (1961) to be some of the best poetry to have come from a young poet since the Second World War. Certainly Wain later made an excellent Professor of Poetry himself at Oxford, bringing out a candid and searching volume of essays on the office called Professing Poetry (1977), and giving much help and encouragement to younger colleagues and aspirants of the literary arts. He was at his best a brilliant lecturer and teacher, and I shall always remember a talk he gave on Dickens's Our Mutual Friend which seemed to me to sum up the whole genius of that novel. Wain's friend and one-time colleague Professor Wallace Robson, who died last year, always spoke of Wain's inspirative conversation and teaching in terms of the highest praise.
Wain's sturdy personality made him less supple in moving with the times than were some of his contemporaries. His own deep admiration for novelists like Arnold Bennett inclined him to develop and continue with a style that was no less his own for becoming distinctly old-fashioned and out of tune with post-modernist devices. His series of novels about Oxford town, as opposed to university, typified by Young Shoulders (1982) and Where the Rivers Meet (1988), concerned a young student who moves between two worlds - the academic and the plebeian - and gives a strikingly vivid picture of the town 20 years ago: it may well remain readable when much of today's more modish fiction has been forgotten.
Matrimonially Wain had his ups and downs, but always retained the affection and loyalty of the women in his life. He grieved greatly at the death of his second wife, Eirian, with whom he had lived in Oxford for many years, and he was extremely happy in his third marriage. His sudden death will shock his many friends, young and old.
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