The Angry Years by Colin Wilson

wilson_angryThis isn’t one of Colin Wilson’s better efforts, perhaps because it’s not quite one thing — it’s part autobiography (and, in that, is returning to ground already covered in Wilson’s Dreaming to Some Purpose), part biography (being about the writers who came to the fore in the 50s as part of the “Angry Young Man” movement), and, as ever with Wilson, part existentialist tract. Wilson’s best virtue as a writer is his intense interest in whatever he’s writing about, but because this book is neither one thing nor the other, it suffers from being too diffuse for his infectious focus to come across. Even in its main aspect, as biography of the Angry Young Men writers (in particular John Osbourne, John Braine, Kinglsey Amis and Kenneth Tynan), it’s a bit of an odd mix. Having to compress several lives into one volume, Wilson comes up with something that is, one moment, literary analysis, and the next, gossip about substance abuse and philandering, with little in between.

Perhaps another problem is that Wilson denies from the start that there ever really was such a thing as the “Angry Young Men” movement, aside from as a label the press applied to a group of (mostly working class) young writers, not all of whom were men (Doris Lessing and Iris Murdoch are included), who came to the fore at around the same time. (Wilson’s own The Outsider was published shortly after John Osbourne’s Look Back in Anger was first performed, this being the play that started the whole “Angry” thing). But it may be that Wilson himself is the least suited member of that generation to judge it — he quickly set out on his own path, and thereby survived it (despite taking an incredible mauling from the press backlash to the movement they themselves had created); he is also a different sort of writer altogether, not really having a chip on his shoulder from his working-class background, nor being interested in the sort of depressing, gritty realism of his contemporaries. Wilson was more interested in humans as individuals, not members of a class or a society; he was also more interested in ideas as a means of improving people’s lives, than “realism” as a means of shaking his fist at life itself.

And it’s in his ideas that Wilson is really at his most interesting. Unfortunately, in this book, he holds himself back till the epilogue, concentrating before that on the odd mix of gossip and literature from which he creates his patchy, often quite broken, biographies of the writers he covers. (Perhaps one trouble is that I’ve heard of so few of the writers Wilson mentions. There’s really a sense that this book is for people looking back on, and getting a different view of, an era they were part of, or already know about.) Wilson’s main idea, his main take on the whole Angry Young Man movement, is that it’s all about the desire for freedom. The struggle to rise above class underprivilege, Wilson points out, is just one aspect of that struggle, even though it was the one most obviously associated with the Angry Young Men. Another, Wilson says, is the struggle to rise above “sexual underprivilege”. He says: “the notion of sexual freedom precedes that of social freedom.” But, if the lives Wilson presents in this book are supposed to illustrate this argument, they don’t in any way succeed. All the writers Wilson concentrates on were philanderers, and all suffered because of it, ending up living lonely, defeated lives, if not descending into paranoia and substance abuse. I’ve read none of their works, but Wilson’s accounts of their books and plays make them sound like tedious accounts of self-wallowing in thinly disguised autobiography. Wilson himself, it’s interesting to note, remained faithful to his wife of many years, and has survived with his sanity intact, as well as still being capable of producing interesting work. But I don’t think this book represents his “interesting work”, aside from in the epilogue, which feels like Wilson allowing himself to let his hair down and talk as himself, after the preceding chapters all being at the service of other, far less interesting, writers.

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