British novelist Drabble (Gates of Ivory, LJ 3/15/92), a friend of her subject, offers the first full-length biography of Wilson since his death in 1991. Drabble's extensively detailed work chronicles Wilson's birth (in 1913) to improvident parents, childhood in South Africa, return to England for an Oxford education, and willingness to give up the security of a position in the British Museum to pursue a literary career. Despite some attention to Wilson's fiction, Drabble focuses on her subject's long homosexual relationship with Tony Garrett; the celebrity he won with Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956); his self-exile from Thatcher's England; and his decline into poverty and ill health. Her study of Wilson is also a panorama of literary England in an era of conferences and guest lectures. For literature collections.-Charles Crawford Nash, Cottey Coll., Nevada, Mo.
As with many ploddingly obese biographies, there is a thin, sprightly work here aching to be set free.
Angus Wilson was one of the last gasps of breath in the British novel's slow, asymptotic death. In novels such as Anglo- Saxon Attitudes and The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot, he combined the waspishness of Evelyn Waugh with the social commentary of E.M. Forster, adding a dash of baroque Firbankian campiness for good measure. Though he was one of England's first openly gay writers, his work is more concerned with the foibles and fallibilities of English society than specifically homosexual themes. A friend of the novelist's, Drabble seems concerned with returning him to his proper place in English literature. Like many of his characters, Wilson was a colorful personality, effortlessly erudite, a great talker, but his life was usually unremarkable: He lectured and went on long holidays. And Drabble (The Gates of Ivory, 1992, etc.) feels obliged to record it all. Right to the brink of parody, list follows list as she notes seemingly every party, conference, and dinner Wilson ever attended; she even throws in the occasional menu, as well. And why not detail Wilson's slightest jauntfrom a day trip to London to a grand Indian tour? At times it's more like reading an engagement calendar than a biography. The writing tends to be bloodless, enervated, but is redeemed somewhat by her novelist's insight into Wilson's psychology. She also writes with professional understanding of Wilson's money troubles, the ceaseless Faustian necessity of teaching, lecturing, attending conferences, reviewing books, all in order to stay afloat. Such is the sad, ironic state of literature these days, that when Wilson died in 1991, much honored, even knighted, he was practically penniless, and many of his books were out of print.
Perhaps this biography, in its lumbering, cumbersome way, might bring a few of these elegant, streamlined, ever inventive works back to the bookstores.