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The Cozy Beneath the Macabre : BIOGRAPHY : ANGUS WILSON, By Margaret Drabble (St. Martin's Press: $35; 716 pp.)

June 09, 1996|Peter Lewis | Peter Lewis is an English journalist, reviewer and author of "The Fifties--Portrait of a Decade."

Anthony Burgess, who was no mean judge of his peers, declared roundly that Angus Wilson was a superior novelist to Graham Greene. Both writers died in 1991, and the contrast between their reputations could not have been crueler. Greene was reprinted and treated with awe as a popular idol right up to the end. Wilson was almost totally forgotten. Nothing he had written was in print when he died--in a nursing home whose bills were paid with the aid of an appeal for donations from the literary public.

Since then his standing has begun to be rebuilt. In 1992 all his work reappeared in paperback in Britain, and "Anglo-Saxon Attitudes" became cult viewing as a television series. Now comes a hefty biography dedicated to rehabilitating this cultivated and witty nonconformist as at least as major a novelist as Greene.

His debut as a short-story writer was greeted by Edmund Wilson in the New Yorker with: "After Evelyn Waugh, what? The answer is Angus Wilson."After such a beginning, can there have been justice in so steep a decline of public favor? Margaret Drabble, a friend and admirer of Wilson's later years, clearly thinks not and does not really manage to explain it. Wilson's later novels were by general agreement not his best--though neither were Graham Greene's.

But Wilson may have suffered an additional disadvantage. His open treatment of homosexuality, so daring in the 1950s, had long lost its shock value. The law which forced so much concealment and misery had been reformed in Britain in 1967 after a prolonged campaign in which he took a prominent part. By the 1980s it was easy to forget why E. M. Forster, Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan (Wilson's school contemporary) among others had been at such pains to conceal or disguise their real theme. Having reaped the fame of being almost first in the field of "outed" literature, Wilson may have paid the price of seeming to be associated with the cause of yesterday.

He began with an extraordinary family. There were five brothers much older than he was (a 13-year gap) and feckless parents who tried to keep up a lifestyle they could not afford, flitting from one private hotel to the next. Two of the brothers were flagrantly gay--they cruised Piccadilly in drag ("trolling the Dilly" in their argot)--and a third brother, though married, kept up a menage a trois with a male friend. Their father, Willie, had never done a day's work. He gambled, visited his club, patronized the music hall like a stage-door johnny and, having gone through his own money, proceeded to spend his wife's. She came from a well-to-do Durban family. Angus spent part of his wandering childhood in South Africa, a colonial boy pulled in rickshaws and pampered by a servant.

The life of small Kensington hotels where guests kept up appearances waiting for checks, playing bridge, discussing divorce, adultery, bankruptcy and other threats gave the attentive Angus, gifted with a precision memory and power of mimicry, much useful capital to deploy years later in novels and stories full of odd characters with disreputable secrets.

The old head on his young shoulders looked freakish. "The boy with the hair" is what they called him at Westminster School, where he was a day-boy in the late 1920s. It was a shock of crinkly, untidy, yellow hair, accompanied by pale protruding eyes and a high-pitched almost falsetto voice. The general scruffiness of his Eton jacket and white collar did not prevent him from attracting a circle who listened, mesmerized, to the fantastic stories he extemporized. He saved himself from the expected bullying by story-telling and clowning, being a "character".

When he was 15 his Christian Scientist mother died of an asthma-induced heart attack, leaving everything in trust of Angus. His distress that she had died, as she feared, in a boarding house resulted in his going to Oxford with a year spending money--riches. He dined out every day to avoid the noisy, bread-roll-throwing behavior of Merton College Hall. The university dramatic society claimed much of his time. He had been a hit in the Westminster school play as Oscar Wilde's Miss Prism. More drag roles led a don's wife to say, "I hear you spent nearly all your time at Oxford dressed as a woman."

The theater was one of the few professions that would not have turned him down for his camp appearance, but Wilson found another work in the British Museum as a temporary assistant cataloger in the Department of Printer Books. The huge new catalog was begun in 1931--it was to take 20 years to reach the letter D. He spent the rest of his working career beneath the famous dome of the Reading Room where he became deputy superintendent. Here he glittered like an exotic bird in a vast circular cage, offering scholarly advice in his squeaky voice to the European refugees, and researching squirrels.

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