Angus Frank Johnstone Wilson (1913-1991) was a famous English novelist, and short story writer born in Bexhill, educated at Westminster School and Merton College, Oxford. During the war, he worked on decoding at Bletchley Park, returning in 1946 to the British Museum where he became deputy superintendent of the Reading Room, a post he resigned in 1955 to become a freelance writer. He is a satirist. He is perhaps the only genuine satirist, taking the word satire in the true sense of the term, i.e. using satire as a criticism of society related to positive moral standards. He is also out and out modern in the sense that he gives us a vivid and recognizable replica of some aspects of the society we live in. He is also the only storyteller after James Joyce who has the guts to handle intricate plots and a large cast of variegated background just as Dickens did with verve and enthusiasm.
His first two volumes, The Wrong Set (1949) and Such Darling Dodos (1950), were short stories and revealed an outstanding talent for satiric mimicry and sharp social observation. Along with a Dickensian relish for the macabre and farcical, these skills were also on display in his first novel, Hemlock and After (1952), about an attempt to establish a writers’ centre in a country house and Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956), whose plot revolves around an archaeological forgery reminiscent of the Piltdown case.
A further volume of sardonic stories, A Bit off the Map (1957), was followed by The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot (1958), a novel with deeper emotional dimensions, about the wife of an apparently wealthy barrister, who finds herself suddenly widowed in reduced circumstances. He was awarded the 1958 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot and later received a knighthood for his services to literature. With The Old Men at the Zoo (1961), Wilson gave allegorical expression to his fascination with conflicts between the wild and the tame, the disciplined and the free. Late Call (1964) focuses with careful social and psychological naturalism on a retired woman obliged to live in a New Town with her widowed son. No Laughing Matter (1967), Wilson’s most ambitious and masterly novel, chronicles the fortunes of a large middle-class family, and, making brilliant use of parody and pastiche, opens up a vivid panorama of more than half a century of English cultural, political, social, and sexual life.
His picaresque novel As if by Magic (1973) juxtaposes the often bizarre experiences of a plant geneticist and his hippie god-daughter as they journey around Asia. More tightly constructed, Setting the World on Fire (1980) contrasts the characters and destinies of two brothers, one a theatre director in love with artistic daring, the other a lawyer dismayed by disorder and encroaching chaos. Wilson also wrote on Emile Zola (1952), Charles Dickens (1970), and Rudyard Kipling (1977), and explored his own creative processes in The Wild Garden (1963). He was President of the Royal Society of Literature from 1983 to 1988. A biography by Margaret Drabble was published in 1995.
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