I haven’t posted anything on this site for months and months – I need to start adding a blog post more regularly! And I also need to talk more about books on the website. Spurred on by these two failings, I decided to write about the book I finished this morning, Hemlock and After by Angus Wilson.
I read the book because of a brilliant podcast, which you must check out if you haven’t listened before. I have only been listening for about six months, and still have lots of back episodes to catch up on, but it’s the best thing – the kind of thing we need on national radio, or national television – even better – why are there no book programmes on television? Today’s programme makers no doubt think a few people sitting around talking about books does not make good television, without some sort of vote each week to eliminate someone; but it would. Just like this podcast, with bookish people talking about books – no celebrities, no ‘journalists’ asking questions (the quotation marks are there because I’m really not sure about the current crop so described on television today; I am always sensitive at using quotation marks, I hear the voice of my old university tutor Dr Parkin – Professor John Parkin these days and for many years – who actively discouraged their use). The podcast I’m referring to is called Backlisted, and is hosted by John Mitchinson and Andy Miller. I think John M. and I must have been colleagues at Waterstone’s (as it then was) in London in the late 80s. My first job after leaving university (two years after leaving university…but that’s another story!) was at Waterstone’s in Charing Cross Road; John Mitchinson worked at another London branch, but sometimes mentions people I knew back then. It was a lovely time to work for them.
Anyway…listen to the podcast, it’s amazing. Lively, intelligent discussion about a particular book each time (it’s fortnightly) plus what the two hosts are reading, with two guests joining them each time. Always really good and inspiring.
They discussed this book by Angus Wilson, so I ordered it from the library – and got a lovely hardback copy with a wonderful Ronald Searle illustration on the cover. I had read Anglo-Saxon Attitudes some years ago, having first watched Andrew Davies’ excellent TV adaptation, and had enjoyed that very much, but didn’t know this novel at all.
Published in 1952, it is the story of illustrious writer Bernard Sands, who has acquired a nearby dilapidated country house in order to set up a sort of colony for young writers. He has local opponents led by the ghastly Mrs Curry, who wanted it for a hotel – though as the novel goes on, we realise the sort of hotel she had in mind. Bernard has an ailing wife, two rather distant grown-up children, and a desire to use his wealth and renown to help younger writers. We also discover that despite his conventional family life, he has had a relationship with one male friend, and is currently involved in another, with a much younger man. Mrs Curry and her friend Hubert Rose, it transpires, run a coven of pimps, pornographers and paedophiles.
So beneath the veneer of mid-century respectability, there are undercurrents of forbidden love and outright crime. I won’t say more about how this pans out, but pan out it does, and by the end of the novel everyone’s life has changed.
I love Angus Wilson’s writing. I love mid-20th-century writing generally: it often has a sort of muscularity – I am still not sure what the right word is – that is of its time, a way with words that it is both matter of fact and very expressive. There is a lot of focus in many of those books on subtleties of character and relationships, more than on plot. It is essentially the same story as Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (which was his next novel, so that should be the other way round). Bernard is very like Gerald Middleton, the chief protagonist of the later novel, and having seen the TV series of that, I could only hear Bernard as sounding – and looking – like Richard Johnson, who played Gerald. I don’t know all that much about Angus Wilson, but have the impression that both characters are versions of himself. Both have difficult wives – and one of the things that irritates me a bit about Wilson’s two books is that women generally are portrayed as pretty awful; but Ella Sands is not nearly as awful as Gerald’s ex-wife Inge in the later book. She’s not awful at all, in fact, but for most of the novel is ineffective; to soothe my irritation about Wilson’s women, however, she actually becomes heroic by the end of the book.
Both books end with a kind of resignation; a sense of good things achieved but acceptance that some things will not be resolved. I had a conversation about it with someone just the other day, saying I enjoyed it but didn’t think it was a *great* novel; but last night I had about 20 pages to go and deliberately didn’t finish it as I didn’t want it to end. I do think it’s a wonderful book.
I was trying to think about why I love the writing in those mid-century novels, and I think it’s partly the slightly formal literary style, even of the dialogue; I am now reading Jonathan Coe’s Middle England, which has me completely drawn in, but made me realise that it’s not just the writing of those older books that I love, it’s the way people talked. The phrases they used, the more complex sentences… I love films from that period too. Brief Encounter is one of my favourite films of all, and while its cut glass accents have been mocked, I find the way the characters talk utterly beautiful. I remember reading Adam Thorpe’s marvellous novel Ulverton, which follows life in a village from the seventeenth century to the present day, and one of the most notable things is how spoken language deteriorates. Of course we have no idea how people talked in the seventeenth century! We only have written language to go on. But that written language is sublime. I also recall AS Byatt saying she liked to write historical novels because they enable her to use words that have gone out of common usage.
So those are my rambling thoughts on Angus Wilson’s 1952 novel Hemlock and After. Thank you to my county library for supplying it. Thank you to Backlisted for choosing to discuss it. John and Andy are directing many of my reading choices these days!