The First Phase : Living In The Forest

Two years after the publication of HURRY ON DOWN (1953), another novel of John Wain LIVING IN THE PRESENT came out when he was only twenty-nine. It would appear that the novel has its genesis in Wain's suppression of his sexual desire in his twenties and also in his assuming 'a holier-than-thou attitude'.1 When his father introduced Wain to a man working for one of the big Insurance Companies who had a daughter, Wain had queer passion. He was expecting a "Big Thing"2 to come. But as ill luck would have it, it could hardly help being the 'Big Thing'. The man with his wife and daughter came and were introduced to Wain. Wain could not pick up intimacy with them and he went straight to his self-constructed cell and slammed the door behind him. Not that Wain did not feel the passion. Like a normal man fallen in love he, too had a tension as he writes :

There is no point in describing the tensions - the daydreams, the sleepless nights, the agonies and exaltations triggered off microscopic incidents, the pleas, declarations, self-abasements and general dog-like lasted unusually long and was unusually virulent. 3

Wain suffered inwardly. As for the consequences his own confession is noteworthy :

I became hypocritical, a prig, and an emotional liar. Confronted with sexual reckless, I conveniently forgot about my own unhealthy fantasies and assumed a holier-than-thou attitude. 4

Perhaps Wain was signally lacking in the right kind of feeling respect which alone could disinfect one against hypocrisy. Almost all the boys except one or two he was associated with were quite innocent so far as sex was concerned. And Wain, on this point, thought himself holier than and superior to those boys though he felt it was an act of hypocrisy as he confesses on making entries into his diary :

My diary entries are almost incredible, even to me. I write about him as if I were the silver-haired vicar and he the errant son of a parishioner. As long as he had been prepared mainly to talk about it, I accepted him as a companion; the minute he translated our thought into action, I raised hands and eyes to heaven. At such moments my passion seemed beautifully refined and exalted, almost satisfying. I did not see it, with the eye of honesty, as a merely undignified affair of pointless nagging and scene-making." 5

But more damaging than his hypocrisy was the fact that the experience of being so thoroughly a derelict helped make permanent his early sense of defeatism. As he comes to find it :

From childhood - babyhood, almost - I had found the world a place in which such as I were, at best, only tolerated. The prizes, the comforts, were not for us. All we could do was to get by without being presented or destroyed. And now that sex assumed a central position in my life, all this sense of discouragement, of impossible difficulty, hooked itself on to sexual instinct. This is what I mean by saying that if this one affair had worked out differently, my life would have been different. Once I had decided that sexual fulfillment was one more of the things and that were not for me, I was damaged in the really vital recesses of my being. 6

So the result, as Wain himself had admitted, was "disastrous."7 Perhaps conventional morality was responsible for it as it would inhibit the "people's happiness."8 In all probability that is "the price humanity pays for conventional morality."9 Many logical and convincing arguments may be placed for it. So far as the case of John Wain is concerned, he himself confesses, in his autobiography SPRIGHTLY RUNNING :

>In my case, for instance, it would no doubt have been a shocking thing it some woman of thirty or so, whose husband was away at the war, had picked me up and used me as a sexual plaything until he came back. I should probably have gone about saying that I had been corrupted and that it just proved that women were lustful animals. 10

All the same Wain feels the necessity of the same for gaining confidence in one's life. He accepts it further :

>But there is equally no doubt that it would have given me a much needed confidence, knitted up the two halves of my mind, broken the spell that kept me wavering on the edge of life instead of plunging in.11

Wain substantiates his argument by narrating one incident in his life :

I saw this very clearly a little later on, when I went up to Oxford. Most of us were nerve-ridden little virgins, but there were one or two who had been kicked in at the deep end (one, I remember, had been 'seduced' by his Latin mistress at school). You could pick these youths out immediately; they were less worried by life, more pleased with themselves, than the rest of us.12

Such was the mental tension Wain was passing through when he was in his early twenties. He was as hypocritical as "he had been in seventeen."13 Wain could easily see that those boys were far happier than the other boys but he "could not have been brought to admit it."14All this has a good impact on Wain when he wrote his second novel LIVING IN THE PRESENT in which he gives what he calls "a hostile sketch of a woman who corrupts a sixth former."15 Towards the end of the novel we find that the woman is persuaded to part with him, by "an appeal to her better nature."16 Finally we see the protagonist going back to his job as school teacher and to the " dreariness of his daily living."17

The plot of the novel is not a complicated one. Edgar Banks, a school teacher finds his life dull and boring. Out of frustration he wishes to commit suicide. Perhaps it is because he finds 'no value in his society.'18 Besides, he he has the feeling that he belongs to the second generation of universal agnosticism. But in order to leave the world a little better, he chalks out a plan to finish Rollo Phillipson - Smith, "a man with a storm-trooper mentality."19 He is also an agent in a totalitarian "Movement". But Edgar's first attempt at kill Phillipson - Smith proves futile. He then follows him and his foolish Scotch follower Mc Whirter to Switzerland. There too, Banks tries many a time to assassinate him but gets no success. All these look what William Van O' Connor feels as "lifted from Sherlock Holme's stories."20 Bank's hope of living life is kindled when he meets Mr. and Mrs. Crabshaw and their children, an English family moving to Geneva to improve their standard of living. This is further revived when Banks meets Mirabella, an American journalist, who goes to bed with him but fails to rid him of his twin obsessions, murder and suicide. This remains for another woman to achieve. The other woman is Catherine, the fiancee of Tom Straw, an old friend of his. Banks falls in love with Catherine but when he is convinced he can not have her he comes back to England. Catherine too has developed a sort of fascination for him and soon she joins him. It develops that Catherine, in fact, is not in love with Tom, and is thus free to return Banks's love, and that Tom does not love her either. So everybody is relieved. Over and above all this, Banks has his 'good fortune' that he gets back his school job. "The nihilist", as O' Connor finds, "had begun to live when he had decided to kill himself."21 He learns how to engage life and finally to affirm it by "sudden inspiration"22 and thereby make an attempt to enjoy "every hour of life"23

As compared to HURRY ON DOWN, the novel LIVING IN THE PRESENT is far from being called a success. The development and treatment of situation stresses the preposterous. Wain makes use of both farce and melodrama but it appears "something has gone wrong."24 And about this "something wrong" William Van O' Connor observes :

Possibility is that the conception asks that an air unreality be pervasive and constant, and Wain's imagination as a novelist has not been upto the demands.25

Commenting on why the conception does not hold firm, O' Connor continues :

There are a few scenes especially those showing Mrs. Crabshaw protecting her family. The farcical scenes, some of them deliberately vulgar do not come off. Rollo Phillipson - Smith as a neo-fascist has appeared so many times in fiction and in drama and movies that he seems made of cardboard. Catherine, Tom and several of the lesser characters do exist, but Edgar Banks does not. One feels neither his nihilism nor his affirmation - and without him the whole conception refuses to hold him.26

Rayner Heppenstall too feels that LIVING IN THE PRESENT is inferior to HURRY ON DOWN :

Mr. Wain's LIVING IN THE PRESENT, came out in the summer of 1955 and Mr. Amis's second, THAT UNCERTAIN FEELING, a month later. The second novel is notoriously a hurdle, and both these are good second novels not better, in either case, than the first.....27

John Wain himself was aware of this fact; but then he has his own reasons for LIVING IN THE PRESENT being inferior to HURRY ON DOWN. After the publication of HURRY ON DOWN. Wain had not keeping a good health. So he decided to go on leave for a year and spend the winter abroad. He was granted the leave without pay. In the month of October he went to Swiss Alps. There he had none to talk to. Over and above he had to fill up the gap left going without a year's salary. He had to make money, which made him write his second novel, obviously, LIVING IN THE PRESENT a novel, written under such circumstances was bound to have its limitations. Wain's own realisation of his shortcoming is interesting :

The less said about this book, LIVING IN THE PRESENT, the better. The months during which I worked on it were of the worst in my life; the Alps rested and restored me, but the effect was simply to put me on my feet to take another round of punishment. I came home to try and tackle my personal life again, only to make another ghastly failure of it, and during all this time I slowly forced my way through the novel, gritting my teeth and making myself write a certain number of pages each day. The result is what one might expect from a book written under the circumstances.28

And again, endorsing the general on the modestly ambitious book, he adds :

When it was published, the general verdict was that I had shown myself a failure, that HURRY ON DOWN must have been simply a flash of the pan, and that my literary career must be given a pauper's funeral and forgotten as quickly as possible.29

In his article, ALONG THE TIGHTROPE, Wain has written humbly both about his intentions and the novel's failure to find an audience :

(It) was meant to be constructive, and to attack fashionable despair and nihilism; the man decides to commit suicide on the first page, and on the last he looks back and wonders how he could have been so misguided ; life intervenes and teaches him the necessary lessons. The failure of this book was so spectacular that I can only assume that everyone found it literally unreadable; certainly very few of the comments it received were any use to me, because they all seemed to be by people who had not read further than the first ten pages; e.g. one journalist quite recently attacked the book as 'hysterical' because it gave a picture of contemporary young manhood as seedy, despairing, self-lacerating etc.: he should made it clear that he was he was talking about the first chapter and letting it stand for the whole, a procedure which, of generally adopted, would revolutionize criticism. There is nothing one can do about this, except admit that the book failed to reach an audience, and above it off.30

William Van O' Connor finds LIVING IN THE PRESENT dull. Accounting for it, he says :

.......the basic reason for this (being dull), it would seem is that it lacks the proper touch for what he was trying to write.31

Even the central hypothesis - that Edgar Banks determines to commit suicide - is far from being unacceptable. As Wain has completely failed to perceive or "describe the personality of a potential suicide"32 the whole structure of the novel "collapses"33 Kenneth Allsop talks about the incredibility of the novel :

Everything in the novel, the tension, the actions of characters, particularly the obsession of Banks, rely upon the credibility of this central situation. As from the outset it is impossible to feel that Banks, this dull creature with no sense of desperation, will kill himself, Wain is from then on trying a peg washing on a broken line.34

Keneth Allsop's remark that the causes of Edgar's suicide are unacceptable - may have some grain of truth. Edgar's reason for committing suicide are as follows :

1. Because this world contains people like Humbert Flannery.35

2. Because Phylis has finally left me36

3. Because I am a schoolmaster.37

4. Because loneliness is particularly hellish in London, and I live in London, and I am lonely.38

Afterwards, in chapter IX, he sticks to the first reason given above :

The February evening in London, with the racket of Flannery's party jabbing upwards through the floor-boards, and the fog milling outside, had found him arranging the details of his exit from life.39

Now each comment, noted above has a measure of truth, may be evidenced by the facts of the case itself or by the author's own admission. Yet it should not be very hard to see that inspite of all criticism against the novel it has in it a real redeeming virtue - a central statement of the moral worth of the individual. To my mind this must not be lost sight of. At the outset of the novel it is seen that Edgar thinks of committing suicide as he finds "no value of his society"40 and he feels that he belongs to the "second generation or universal agnosticism".41 But before doing so Edgar has some choices on moral ground.42 He makes his mind that before doing so he will make the world free from "the most loathsome creature he knows"43 as he thinks :

Who is there, among my acquaintance, of whom it could truthfully be said that the word would be a cleaner place without him.44

The idea of committing suicide and making the world free from the most loathsome creature continues to be there in his mind as days roll on and he fails many a time in carrying out his mission :

He desire to be rid of the world had not faded; the idea of taking a passenger with him still seemed an excellent one, and Phillipson - Smith the best candidate.45

But Edgar kills neither himself nor his victim. Something comes in the way at every critical moment in a plot that "mocks the serialized cliff hanger, and Edgar's automatic response is to preserve life."46 He is near killing his victim but his yell for saving a child falling from the tree saves him. He is a failure when he is driving his victim over a hilly road. But it is in all this pursuit that for the first time he seems to be 'living in the present' open to all emotions and reactions, but uncommitted to any scheme or cause of conduct beyond that of "rubbing out his victim and himself."47 However, to his surprise, Edgar Banks meets Tom Straw, his always much- admired old friend. With him is Catherine, his girl friend. It is here that Edgar Banks feels "that some people, with illusion or false goods, get beyond the present."48

He was conscious of only one thing : a huge and glaring idea that filled his mind so as to blot out every crumb of miscellaneous thought and sensation. This idea was not, as yet, concrete. It simply wouldn't do. Standing dumbly by Catherine's side, an empty glass clutched nervously in his hand, he struggled to drag the thing upwards into conciousness. What had happened?That evening in London, when he had begun to live in the present, everything had seemed settled. He had formed his plan, and it had seemed a magnificent one, complete and satisfying. Now, with swift and absolute certainty, he knew that it was no longer. A really artistic suicide, balanced by a farewell present to life; why had it seemed good then, why did it seem bad, small and empty now?

Tom Straw came bearing the answer in his face, carrying it with the strength of his square body, across the room towards him. He was scowling irritably, but the central core of goodness and honesty was as plain to Edgar's vision as if it had been made of some tangible substance. In the presence of this man, the selfishness, the isolation; the foolish theatrically of his original idea stood out revealed. He remembered undergoing a test for colour-vision........49

Edgar thus wants to gather his own meaning for abstraction like "goodness", "honesty" and "love". He does so through Tom and Catherine. These qualities seem to him sufficient to allure one to live in the future as towards the end of the novel Edgar finds :

.........he thought of the bad yesterday and the wonderful tomorrows. It was over. He was tired of living in the present.50

Now Edgar has no need of committing suicide. He writes off the idea of killing himself. There are, perhaps, three reasons for this. First, Tom will miss him when he "departs".51 Secondly, somehow or the other, while looking down at the pages of HOWARD'S END possessed by a Negro, he read and believed that 'death destroys a man, but the idea of death saves him.'52And lastly, he wants to have Catherine as Lumley wanted to get Veronica Roderick :

He wanted Catherine. She was the answer. Not this nonsense about killing and dying. Things would make sense, life would fall into a coherent pattern, if he had her. Sanity could be mirrored in her gray eyes, and nowhere else.53

Here is something positive and fundamental and now Edgar can neither neglect nor resign from society. Like Lumley of HURRY ON DOWN he is involved with society and carries a kind of class identification, a mark that may make him live. Let us contrast all this with the mood of depression into which he sinks soon :

His short upward swing towards cheerfulness, brought on by this last reflection, was quickly checked by another downward plunge into depression. Yes, he was still alive, but what use was he, how much progress did he seem able to make? He had failed in London, he had failed in Geneva, and he had failed here. Where his elaborate schemes too difficult? Would it end simply in stabbing Phillipson - Smith to death, in broad daylight, with Roger's clasp knife, and being led away, smiling and joking bravely, to condemned cell? Perhaps that was, after all, all the only way; perhaps he had simply overreaching himself by wanting to make too neat a job of it.54

Yet, from the analysis in process emerges a new personality of Edgar. From some angle he definitely feels "a constant assertion of the dignity of the human being",55 though Edgar is seen sometimes isolate and depressive. Here he seems very much like Saul Bellow's heroes who are cut off from those who love them. There is, for instance, Joseph in Saul Bellow's DANGLING MAN,who can talk only to himself, and that fact accounts for the form of the novel as a journal, the proper form of an isolate. It appers that for this theme of "the dignity of man", Wain has on him an impact of the theme of Dostoyevsky's novels. Like Alexey Velchaninov, Edgar is burdened with guilt. To each comes a "double" - a projection of his guilt nature - whom Edgar and Velchaninov have hurt in the past. Like Velchaninov, Edgar rejects theses doubles. The victims - Rollo Philipson and Trusotsky - prey on the guilt-ridden heroes with a combined hatred and love. Truotsky tells Velchaninov that he had loved him and looked up to him. Edgar fails to carry out his twin obsession of murdering Rollo Philipson and committing suicide as "it would mean never seeing Catherine again."56 Burdened with guilt that he would be betraying Tom, his friend, by loving and marrying his wife Catherine, he muses :

Getting Tom to hate him, so as to leave the way absolutely clear for suicide, had been a clever idea - once. Now that the context for that idea had been blotted out, it seemed merely squalid. He loved Catherine and was loved by her. All was perfection and light, it was the dawn or creation. It was Paradise. But there was the snake, coiled waiting round its tree. His betrayal of Tom.57

In incidents also the novels of Wain and Dostoyevsky bear some resemblance. Both heroes are temporarily alone, deserted by their respective wives. Both show an evidence of guilt. Catherine is anti - Semite. Edgar needs to justify his sense of persecution and feed his guilt. While Edgar is the persecutor Catherine needs to be able to believe that not he but the world is responsible for his fall. Similarly Trusotsky is the projection of Velchanov's self - accusation, Velchaninov the cuckold whom the eternal husband cannot do without. Both "victims" act with aristocratic pride alternating with degenerate drinking and wild displays.

Though there may be a close resemblance between the two novels, yet Wain has written his own novel, not only in the creation of an English urban environment, but especially in its development of the theme of human dignity.

The wisdom of Edgar is that human life has dignity. It has greatness and beauty - the only condition being that it be human life, not subhuman or more than human. It is this dignity of human life that ultimately prevents him from committing suicide. His own statement that "death destroys a man"58 speaks of the dignity of the human life. Wain's sincere realisation of this nobility in human life is a positive aspect of the theme which is at the centre of the novel under study. Plot and character and narrative - all are done round this powerful centre, and this (to my mind) redeems the book. It saves the book from ending as a grim failure, an impression that most of the criticism (referred to earlier in this chapter) would seem to amount to.

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1. John Wain : Sprightly Running, p. 81.
2. Ibid., p. 79.
3. Ibid., p. 79.
4. Ibid., p. 81.
5. Ibid., p. 81.
6. Ibid., pp. 81-2.
7. Edmund Wilson : The Splendour and Miseries of Evelyn Waugh, Classics and Commercials, New York, 1950, p. 298.
8. John Wain : Sprightly Running, p. 82.
9. Ibid., p. 82.
10. Ibid., p. 82.
11. Ibid., p. 82.
12. Ibid., p. 82.
13. Ibid., p. 82.
14. Ibid., pp. 82-3.
15. Ibid., p. 83.
16. Ibid., p. 83.
17. William Van O'Connor : The New University Wits and the End of Modernism, p. 135.
18. James Gindin : Postwar British Fiction, 1962,pp. 131-2.
19. William Van O'Connor : The New University Wits and the End of Modernism, p. 46
20. Ibid., p 46.
21. Ibid., p 46.
22. Ibid., p 46.
23. J. M. Cross : George ELiot's Life, (Vol. II), 1985, p. 285.
24. E. M. Forster : Notes on the English Character, Abinger Harvest, 1936, p. 10.
25. William Van O'Connor : The New University Wits and the End of Modernism, p. 47
26. Ibid : p. 47.
27. Ibid : p. 47-8.
28. Rayner Heppenstall : The Fourfold Tradition. p. 215.
29. John Wain : Sprightly Running, 1963, p. 170.
30. Ibid., pp. 170-171.
31. John Wain : Along the Tightrope, in Declaration, (Mac Gibbon & Kee).
32. William Van O'Connor : The New University Wits and the End of Modernism, p. 46
33. Kenneth Allsop : The Angry Decade, p. 70.
34. Ibid., p. 70.
35. Ibid., p. 70.
36. John Wain : Living in the Present, Macmillan, London, 1963, p. 2. Though after second thought, Edgar crossed out the words "people like" as he thought one was enough.
37. Ibid., p. 3.
38. Ibid., p. 4.
39. Ibid., p. 4.
40. Ibid., p. 182
41. James Gindin : Postwar British Fiction, p. 131.
42. John Wain : Living in the Present, p. 6.
43. James Gindin : Postwar British Fiction, p. 132.
44. Ibid., p. 132.
45. John Wain : Living in the Present, London, p. 132.
46. Ibid., p. 183.
47. James Gindin : Postwar British Fiction, p. 132.
48. Ibid., p. 132.
49. Ibid., p. 134.
50. John Wain : Living in the Present, London, p. 176-177.
51. Ibid., p. 249.
52. Ibid., p. 185.
53. Ibid., p. 186.
54. Ibid., p. 227.
55. John Wain : Living in the Present, p. 139
56. James Gindin : Postwar British Fiction, p. 139.
57. John Wain : Living in the Present, p. 208
58. Ibid., p. 229.