John Wain As A Novelist
At the outset, it would be worthwhile to examine Wain's heroes against the label THE ANGRY YOUNG MEN. Here, we must admit, critics have been harsh on Wain to the extent that they look prejudiced against him (and also perhaps against his growing popularity and fame). Kenneth Allsop feels
Now Allsop appears to be influenced by an article of Professor Leslie A. Fieldler (of the University of Montana) entitled THE UNANGRY YOUNG MAN who, at one place, writes :
The young British writer has the inestimable advantage (comparing him with the young American writer) of representing a new class on its way into a controlling position in the culture of his country. He is able to define himself against the class he replaces : against a blend of home-sexual sensibility, upper-class aloofness, liberal politics, and avant-garde literary device.3
But soon he adds :
..he is boorish rather than well-behaved, rudely angry young ironically amused, when he is philistine rather than arty - even when he merely writes badly, he can feel he is performing a service for literature, liberating it from the tyranny of a taste based on a world of wealth and leisure which has become quite unreal.4
Almost in the same vein Fredric R. Karl vehemently criticies the heroes of Wain as he feels they have no genuine anger. He goes to the extent of saying that "the term Angry Young Man has been arbitrarily imposed"5 on the heroes of the novelists of the Fifties like John Wain. About genuine anger he opines :
An angry man, if his protest is to have significance, must react in terms beyond his own wants and dislikes. When he is angry or when he rebels, ideas are set into motion - he must stand for something significant, inarticulate though his feelings may be.6
A little further Karl almost exasperates
These Jims of the fifties feel anger as much against themselves for being trapped as against those who have trapped them. Educated to discontent, they find nothing in society that appeals to them, except perhaps female breasts and buttocks.7
O' Connor too seems to have a stern view when he feels,
HE (Wain's hero) is a rather seedy man, and suspicious of all pretensions... There is nothing heroic about him....8
As we have already examined and analysed the novels of Wain (from HURRY ON DOWN, 1953 to A WINTER IN THE HILLS, 1970), it is not too hard to conclude that the remarks made by the 'angry or un-angry' critics do not contain the whole truth. They may be true (to a considerable extent) of the heroes of the contemporaries of Wain, but that is another matter.
It seems fair to sum up and say that Wain's critics, by and large, have failed to examine his heroes in a correct perspective. It was the post-World War period when Wain began writing the novels. The whole world was in a terrible mess. What one could make out was "uncertainty, a fundamental agnosticism and a sense of uneasiness",9 in other words, an agonising fear that one was hastening confusedly towards an unknown end. The hangover of war had crippled human mind, which no longer "rested on rescue foundations".10It was a period of disillusionment, cynicism, agnosticism and life was "so characteristically a jazz one"11 that one was rather compelled either to own it without murmuring against its implications or to deny it outright from sheer crussedness. Naturally in such a situation the period was devoid of any "lively popular culture."12 Kenneth Allsop (though one can easily appreciate his sincerity), perhaps, did not keep all these in mind when he aspired to find the anger tweneties of forties writ large on the novels of Wain.
Nevertheless, this should not lead us to the idea that Wain's heroes do not have 'anger' at all. Admittedly, there are instances when Wain'ns look puny and do not rise to the stature of a rebel or an angry young man. The protagonists of THE CONTENDERS, LIVING IN THE PRESENT and A TRAVELLING WOMAN are passive and do not come up to the stature of an angry man though they may be good people. But it is fair to make a sweeping generalization by picking up a few examples from here and there? At moments, when situations demand, Wain's heroes show the quality of an angry young man.Lumley's wandering (HURRY ON DOWN) from one job to another is nothing but his love of "adventurousness"13 that Allsop so earnestly desired to find in the novels of the fifties. Then, Wain is bold enough not to accept the decadent aspect of the postwar society. Surprisingly, giants like Conrad, Lawrence and Joyce have tamely accepted" the decadent aspect of the society in which they all find themselves."14 Not only this; like an angry young man, he reacts, though negatively, against the hindrance he finds in his way. This anger manifests itself in Lumley's behaviour in pubs. Then in STRIKE THE FATHER DEAD Jeremy looks rebel having genuine anger when he revolts against his father symbolizing the 'conventional standards of the property-owning class'. He leaves his father for good and joins Percy. Again, Elena (Here it is important I consider her and not Spade as the 'hero') in THE YOUNG VISITORS moves like a true 'angry young man'. She, like a true 'hero, of any classical novel' puts up a brave fight against the pseudo-communist Spade. In THE SMALLER SKY, Geary, in search of peace of the mind, lives in the Paddington Station. He shows a different kind of anger against an agonising sense of boredom and weariness in life. He rebels and falls heavily on them though in the process he losses his life.
One wishes, Wain could have instilled more anger into the veins of the protagonists of his novels, though on no showing do they seem to be "un-angry man". Finally, a clear word of defence may be said with reference to the following quotes from Henry James :
The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does represent life.15
A little later he again muses :
A novel is in the broadest definition a personal and direct impression of life.16
Wain's novels (to say the least) do represent life. Wain knows that "the best that the novel can do is not to offer a refuge from actual life"17. His characters hold the mirror to the intelligent middle class and his mature clientele finds itself within the arena of his judgement. A discerning humanism and a quality of imaginative realism mark the stuff of all his novels.
Significantly, Wain is always interested in saying something about the people first and foremost; all the same he never forgets to tell about the lives of people in society. While he is very much in the line of Trollope when he believes that the writer of novels must steep himself in his imaginary personage until he knows every detail of their character and every subtle shade of their personality, he knows that for him thinking over his characters during the actual writing is not enough. He broods over them in his spare time, and considers them when he is away from his desk. This (more than anything else) enables him to make his characters look real people living in the contemporary world. The theme of his novels is profoundly rooted in the study of man in society. His is a world where common men of the contemporary society exists. He knows that he cannot be able to write a novel if he has "the illusion that only a special kind of world is worth writing about".18Thus the novels of Wain, when judged by the yard-stick of Henry James, remain a "direct impression of life" and they do "represent life."
Besides, while letting his novel function as a mirror of the contemporary life Wain has perhaps tried his utmost to preserve human dignity. This preservation of human dignity may be seen right from HURRY ON DOWN to A WINTER IN THE HILLS. As Wain has seen and felt the devaluation of human stature after the Second World War, he has a strong sense of the basic need that human dignity has to be preserved. This can be seen clearly in Edgar's attempt LIVING IN THE PRESENT to "preserve life"19. The key phrase "death destroys man" itself substantiates Wain's keen desire to maintain human dignity. In A WINTER IN THE HILLS, however, the character is more responsible for his own discomfort : at least he is not simply a victim. In the later novels, the theme of the preservation of human dignity is deepened and applied to wider areas of individual and social experience. In THE SMALLER SKY, Wain shows his sympathy with the gentle eccentric who seeks only to still the furies in his own brain by living in Paddington Station and who is, therefore, persecuted by all the forces of contemporary society. In A WINTER IN THE HILLS, the author values both independent bus drivers and poets who can survive by not manipulating or bullying others : who can preserve themselves, even for a short time, in a world where many exist by mutual manipulation. In other words, Wain's defences of the individual's dignity have become deeper, more central to the contemporary world, and above all, less vitiated by sentimentality or self-pity.
Wain's central characters have also become more active and, psychologically, more aware of themselves. In HURRY ON DOWN, LIVING IN THE PRESENT and THE CONTENDERS, the protagonists are passive, men who receive the rewards of the prize job or the prize women because they accidentally or inexplicably do not attempt to bully or manipulate others. Of course, the characters of his later novels are more complex, recognize the strains of different elements of humanity within themselves, and understand the darker sides of experienced that are not presented melodramatically Jeremy in STRIKE THE FATHER DEAD (for example) experiences consciously all the complicated and ambivalent stresses of revolt from his father. Roger in A WINTER IN THE HILLS acknowledges the complexities of his guilt at having been the only member of his family to survive World War II and realises how and why his guilt has helped propel him into a more active engagement with contemporary life. At times, Wian's humour dwells excessively on simplicities, and sometimes on the melodramatic aspects of the discomforts in LIVING IN THE PRESENT, the repetitiously callow treatments of psychological analysis in A TRAVELING WOMAN, and the exterior and political simplicities in THE YOUNG VISITORS. Yet more frequently, Wain concentrates on man in relationship with others, and recognizes, from A TRAVELING WOMAN onward that human dignity is a quality that must be preserved not only in the defensive term of the self, but also in active relationships with others. Women change from rewards or "instruments" to people who need understanding indeed while morality grows beyond the bare mechanics of survival.
As we turn to the views of Wain's art of novel-writing, we note that Wain's fiction demonstrates a keen and consistent interest in structure. The reader often feels that the author has begun by asking a general question on the order of "what would be like to resolve rationally to commit suicide (LIVING IN THE PRESENT)?" or "How and why would a man live entirely within the confines of a large railroad station (THE SMALLER SKY)? - questions like those one feels central to Arnold Bennett's novels - and has ended with exploring all possible ramifications of the questions, and finally rendering the matter into a befitting structure. Sometimes, the material in the novel overwhelms the question and consequently threatens the structure (as we find in THE YOUNG VISITORS having a feeble ending). At other times, however, the structure compresses and unifies the novel as in the case with THE SMALLER SKY, in which the novel builds an imagistic conjunction of sky, space and railroad station that effectively depicts the position of a moral man isolated from the contemporary universe. The reader comes across in Wain's fiction, a struggle for shape, the use of a conscious and intelligent seriousness (Wain is also distinguished poet and literary critic) to give form to his searching observation and perceptions about ordinary contemporary experience. Here one wonders whether Wain the artist deliberately courted failure. While artistic failure is common place, examples of ostentatious 'failures' like John Wain's are perhaps rare. In 1953, he was most commonly seen as a brilliant writer thrashing around in a trap of his own making. This may be true but I have more recently come to feel that there was method and not artlessness in John Wain's constant frustration of the reader's and his own expectations. Reread in sequence, the novels can be seen to exemplify a peculiarity British from of self-punishment as we find in THE YOUNG VISITORS and THE SMALLER SKY, Elena and Geary, the central character of the two novels, suffer in their own ways and look social masochists. Wain's imagination is of the maniac-depressive type, the mania resulting in bold experimentation and extravagant picaresque, and the depression in the gloomy, more self-examination of his more interment novels such as A TRAVELING WOMAN, STRIKE THE FATHER DEAD and A WINTER IN THE HILLS. This in itself is no great achievement. If they do not more that project a personality, Wain's novels, though surely engaging may not also appear to be unique. What is striking about them is the fact that they are shaped in accordance with a conscious aesthetic, and this aesthetic (if you like) has a link with the special kind of personality-structure that Wain's novels reveal.
Wain's attempt to reconcile fiction and truth was explicit in his first novel HURRY ON DOWN. Here he announced his intention to expose the mechanism of the novel by means of reviving the picaresque, which is basically satire having "the touch of comic genius"20 with a view to eliminating deception between writer and reader. His next novel LIVING IN THE PRESENT (unlike A TRAVELING WOMAN and like THE SMALLER SKY) seems to have a fine finish of structure, as here, plot, character and narrative, all contribute to the central theme - the dignity of human life. THE CONTENDERS reveals Wain's ability of describing episodes rather than making a complete delineation of characters. He carries on his method in STRIKE THE FATHER DEAD. THE SMALLER SKY contains an extraordinary exercise in self-abasement where Geary like Roger (A WINTER IN THE HILLS) deliberately suffers at the Paddington Station.
From what we have examined so far, it may safely be said that Wain's literary attitude, unlike Beckett's and Joyce's is that of a humanist. In Beckett's fiction the tedium and sterility of life is experienced by a succession of fictional personae, behind whom their creator lurks, non-committal and unseen. Wain is a confessional, not an impersonal artist, and the sterility and tedium are felt by him as a burden or obsession. His first-person narrators (Jeremy in STRIKE THE FATHER DEAD) and Spade and Elena in THE YOUNG VISITORS are not distanced but transparently auto-biographical.
Wain is like Bunyan's pilgrim, ever condemned to go on writing in the hope of getting rid of the burden on his back. Let us remember here a fact of history that seventeenth-century English literature exemplifies two of the ways in which a writer may respond to the overwhelming presence of evil and dead in the world.The first is the way of the Jacobean dramatist, with their farcical and morbid connoisseurship of evil, revenge and the suffering of the innocent; a way that is broached in A WINTER IN THE HILLS. The second is the isolated sole searching for what is lasting among the ephemeral phantoms that assail him; this is what Wain pursues in his novels like HURRY ON DOWN and THE SMALLER SKY. I would suggest that these are the two sides on the lurid, isolated and self-punishing personality that make the hero a social masochist.
In almost all Wain's novels - whether a success or a failure from the point of view of art - a love for human dignity is felt, sometimes directly and sometimes inherently or even indirectly. Now that we have examined Wain as a novelist, one question remains unanswered and that is - we can go on to call Wain - a pure artist? Perhaps his own criticism will help us here. About a pure artist Wain opines :
....The novel is pure, i.e. entirely self reliant, when it reaches the point at which it contains no extraneous material : everything is dramatized, presented through characterization or from incident that arises naturally from the characterization. With James.... with Joyce, this ideal is completely realized.21
One regrets to have to say that judged by his own yard-stick, his failure would seem spectacular. Far from realising the ideal he prescribes a pure artist, he fails to eliminate or preclude all extraneous material, and what is more, to achieve a convincing dramatization of his ideas through the intensity and complexity of characterization. All the same it should be remembered that many great novelists have found it rather difficult to stand this acid test as laid down in Wain formal criticism. And if they fail to be 'pure artist' one need not stress the purity as a basic requirement. They and also, Wain are novelists of consequence. They are predominantly novelists of 'personal relations'. Wain's characters (in particular) are silhouetted against a social setting, which gives a realistic touch to his portrayal of personal relationship. His wit and irony, charm and literary play, in expounding his social comedy, constitute the principle element of his art.
In the sphere of the tradition of the English novel Wain follows the path of the 'intelligent, well-bred, sophisticated, critical, under-middle-class novel'. It is much portrayed class over several generations. It is in this intelligent and critical portrayal of the upper middle class (perhaps excepting THE CONTENDERS), that a link between Jane Austen and Wain can be established. While Jane Austen seems to be in harmony with her late eighteenth century society and has, therefore, little reason to protest against her civilization, Wain offers his liberal protest against some aspects of contemporary society. He is a contemporary writer who finds in George Meredith, the late Victorian novelist, a kindred soul, particularly with regard to the protest against the materialism and stodginess of the times. Meredith's influence on John Wain can be discerned in terms of poetical elements as well, in the manner of expressing and upholding imaginative and spiritual livliness in the field of art. It would appear that Wain has not yet managed to out grow the stature of a minor poet. His main achievements that will compel a reader's attention are primarily those of a novelist and a critic - or may be willing to grant that, as a novelist, Wain is endowed with a special gift - a discerning critical sense. This is manifest not only in his novels but also in his critical essays. Certainly he is not as original and scholarly as T. S. Eliot nor as analytical and discriminating as F. R. Leavis. At any rate, he is not a 'pure' literary critic. But he will impress anyone as a sincere and practical critic, with a talent for perceptive study and deep analysis. His essays on Orwell and Hopkins (to name only to from a list of many) are cases in point.
To conclude : Wain's creative contribution observed against the background of his times, would seem particularly significant. Seen in the perspective of a period of human devaluation, Wain remains a distinguished contemporary writer. He will be known for his sterling qualities, namely judiciousness, honesty and humility. His comic vein like his easy growing style shows a mind disinclined to seek power. In this regard we can safely place in the line of Dickens, Jane Austen and Smollett, of Dostoyevsky and Saul Bellow. It must be admitted here ungrudgingly that no claim of a 'major' achievement has been advanced in the present thesis : surely, Wain is neither Lawrence nor Joyce in terms of genius and achievement and stature. Yet he remains a notable novelist having great charm and distinction. At least we should be willing to call him a small 'minor classic' in contemporary English fiction. If Wain's reputation as a minor novelist continues to survive, perhaps we should be thankful not only to his affirmation of human dignity but also to his membership of the contemporary avant-garde.