The present book purports to make an intensive study of John Wain, the man and the influences and factors (that went into the making of the artist) in the larger perspective of contemporary period. Admittedly, an evaluation of John Wain as a novelist presents a problem as he is still writing. (Incidentally, reference may be made to a recent announcement that he would make an attempt at writing plays). Then, we cannot deny the fact that we are too close to our contemporaries to observe them steadily and wholly or to judge them with a considerable degree of inward understanding or detachment. Nevertheless, we would try to find out how Wain's novels became what they are. This scrutiny should rest on two assumptions : first, that it is possible to discover a great deal about what Wain was trying to do in the novels, and how he was trying to do it; second, that he was writing against the background of a period when, what L. P. Hartley calls, "the individual has been devalued, like the pound."1
Wain's was a period in which people were still feeling the hangover of the war. All people - whether soldiers or civilians - suffered in varying intensities. They were far from happy and felt insecure. Human dignity was at stake. This sense of insecurity and suffering had a damaging effect on culture as well, as Jack Lindsay comes to find it :
We are in midst of cultural crises, of which the crisis in literature in one aspect.2
All this agonising sense of suffering and cultural crises relates to an understanding of the inevitable effects on a novelist's outlook. When all had suffered or were suffering, it was too much to expect of a novelist to feel compassion and sympathy for a character whose sufferings could not be more than those of the common people. Perhaps this may have led to the belief among some critics of the day that a 'great new' novel had not been created since the war. In this context, Arnold Kettle remarks :
.....the last twenty-five years have produced as far as one can see at this close distance, no great new English novels nor indeed more than a handful of books which one feels inclined to use the word good...... it seems more likely that this will come to be seen by literary historians as a barren period, the novels of which will be read, if at all, as sociological curiosities rather than as living at. 3
Surveys like this do give a very depressing view of the artistic level of novels belonging to this period. They suffer from 'narrowness and pessimism' among several faults. Fredrick R. Karl feels that during the period "the novel has generally tended to become restrictive rather than extensive." 4 Obviously, the reputation of Wain, belonging to this 'barren' period, appears to be faced with vicissitudes. In fact, critics have made many a vitriolic attack on the heroes of Wain's novels calling them anti-heroes devoid of genuine anger.
Kenneth Allsop alleges that it was 'the perfect day' for Wain's heroes to be angry and there were many things before them to be angry about, but he adds - "it is difficult to see any." 5
Fredrick R. Karl too makes a categorical remark that the heroes of Wain and his contemporaries do not have anger :
Primarily, the protagonists of these novelists are not really angry. They are, however, disgruntled - with themselves, with their social status, with their work, with their colleagues, with the shabbiness of daily life, with their frustrated aspirations for self-fulfillment, with the competitive spirit, with the inaccessibility of women and drink, with all the small activities whose pursuit takes up their depleted energies. If we want genuine anger, we must turn to the continental novel.6
Maugham's anger about the "un-angry" heroes of Wain's novels sound genuine :
They do not go to the university to acquire culture, but to get a job..........they are scum.7
Observations like these - suggesting critics' disappointment at a scene of general wastefulness and insipidity - are many; but while noting them carefully, one does wonder whether they really can help one know the whole (or inside) story. True, these novelists (including Wain) do not have the gifts and stature of Dickens and Jane Austen. But should this, by itself, preclude all possibilities of a genuine and fruitful revaluation? Perhaps not.
To my mind, the case of John Wain is of symptomatic significance. It implies quite a challenge to attemt to see whether a study of the novels of John Wain can lead one to take a different view, a comparitively charitable view, and in this regard, it should be worth while to tabulate precisely some outstanding questions.
Is Wain successful in preserving human dignity in his novels when it was at stake? Is Wain a moralist? could we expect to find in Wain a James Joyce, or a D.H.Lawrence in a period when 'man was devalued' and 'culture was in crisis'? Is he in the line of his contemporaries (Kingsley Amis, Peter Towry, Thomas Hinde, John Braine - to name a few of them) or thematically he looks back to his literary ancestors - Dickens, Austen, Emily Bronte and also some modern novelists of countries other than England - Saul Bellow and Dostoyevsky? Do his novels mirror the life of contemporary society? Are Wain's contemporaries correctly labelled "Angry Young Men"? Are the protagonists of Wain's novels devoid of any anger and how far is Wain successful in refuting the change that his protagonists are anti-heroes or he is not an Angry Young Man? It is in the critical perspective of these questions that the present work makes an attempt to evaluate and examine John Wain - the man and the artist.