Fifth and lastly
A WATCH IN THE NIGHT by A. N. Wilson Sinclair-Stevenson, £15.99, pp. 320
One day, A. N. Wilson will make a great subject for a biography, for in some ways his temperament is more interesting than any one of his works. Taken in sequence, the 15 or so novels, ten biogra- phies and prolific journalism he has already published will provide a patient tracker with a rewarding trail, full of twists and turns. In all his most important concerns, Wilson has been consistently contrary, first embracing, then renouncing.
Having been pious (How Can We Know? 1985), he has become sceptical (Against Religion, 1991). Having so memorably foresworn the filthy habit of book review- ing ten years ago, he has once again become a literary editor and exemplary journalist. Perhaps it is having taken a firm decision about the fundamental worthless- ness of the activity that has helped him to be so good at it? Without ever attaining perfect honesty, most reviewers and columnists remain encumbered and constrained by a vain little belief that it matters what they really think. Wilson is frictionless. Having decided on his line, he draws it with perfect fluency. It's almost a kind of negative capability.
Such professionalism makes his dedica- tion to The Lampitt Papers, the five-volume roman fleuve which concludes with A Watch in the Night, all the more puzzling. In a recent interview in the Bookseller, Wilson admitted that neither his agent nor his pub- lisher have been much enthused:
Particularly the agent [Caroline Dawnay], who practically every time begged me to stop writing it. Which wasn't very encouraging.
Although Anita Brookner is quoted on the front of this new volume calling the sequence 'blissful', it has not been received elsewhere with wholly convincing enthusi- asm. Another favourable review, which industriously put together the first three volumes (available in paperback as The Lampitt Papers, Mandarin, £8.99) with the fourth installment, Hearing Voices, is quot- ed on the back. Unfortunately, checking the cuts shows that this reviewer had the extraordinary bad luck to mistake the name of the main character, the narrator Julian Ramsay — easily done, but always more galling in a positive review.
From such a diverting writer, The Lampitt Papers does make perculiarly hard reading. Even the blurb in this book begins with the most definitively uninviting sentence:
Many years have passed and Julian Ramsay is living quietly in the bungalow which had belonged to Aunt Deirdre.
The poor publishers have had to insist that
not only will the novel appeal to those who have read its predecessors - fans, of the Lampitt Chronicles will be delighted to find in these pages many favourites from previous books and to witness the tying up of a number of loose ends -
but also to beginners:
Those new to A. N. Wilson's work will be won over by the large cast of extraordinary characters and the compassion and truth of this conclusion to this most enjoyable of literary sagas.
In fact A Watch in the Night would be bare- ly intelligible taken alone, about the worst place to begin reading Wilson, but he has nonetheless had to keep recapping, in case there are any such novices, as he goes along. There are thus such awkward passages as (take your time):
The slight pause as we all looked across the room in the direction of Kit's tall snaky fig- ure gave time for snapshots of a younger Debbie to display their flickering magic lantern-show on to the mind's screen. 1 thought of the night when we had first gone to bed together in Dartmouth Park Avenue, having put Day Muckley to bed in his own squalid lodgings in Leighton Road, NWS; of the thunderstorm which occurred while we made love; and of her disclosure that Raphael Hunter was my wife Anne's lover.
Simon Raven's bald recourse to footnotes in his sequences suddenly seems a courtesy, by comparison.
The very theme of the novel is recapitu- lation, revision, and recovery — Wilson's bash at Le Temps Retrouve. Early in the next century, Julian Ramsay, now nearly 70, a very old fogey, is contentedly watching Shakespeare on television in the Norfolk bungalow of the blurb. One of the actresses was, in her twenties, his lover, when he was in his fifties.
Placidly, Julian recalls the day when they parted, also the last time he ever made love. The long night of drunkenness which followed revealed to him (and thus now reveals to us) the truth about several crucial events in his own life. At last, we learn the facts about the death of the writer who has obsessed him, James Petworth Lampitt — and therefore also the truth about Julian's great literary and sexual rival, the biographer, literary bureaucrat and television presenter Raphael Hunter, who made his name with a falsified life of Lampitt. The final revelation, disappoint- ingly, proves to be pretty much what one has expected, since volume one: Hunter is a pervert and a murderer, as well as being, as we already knew, a careerist and adulterer.
The biographer is thus routed. That biography can't be true, whereas novels can be, is one of the heavy messages the book bears — although a better biographer than Hunter is introduced to complicate this verdict.
Wilson appears to be using The Lampitt Chronicles to work out some of his own beliefs, about literature, marriage, faith. `For better or worse, it's the thing I've put most effort into', he told the Bookseller. That's just the problem. Wilson is one of those writers, like Burgess and Theroux perhaps, whose facility is not a betrayal of their talents but the truest expression of them. The Lampitt Papers are a lapse into seriousness.
Can Wilson, however, be serious about Julian Ramsay's religion? He worships Shakespeare, whom he addresses through- out the book as 'you', the beneficient deity overseeing his life:
You, the genial Shakespeare — what if you are more like God than the Unbending First Cause? And what if the all-forgiving, all- knowing Earth-soul were more fully incar- nate in you than in the Galilean exorcist?
Ramsay, at least, hopes it is so:
To know that Shakespeare is watching over me... provides comfort, not fear. Better the kind and tolerant eyes of Shakespeare than
the merciless, stern and unmoving eyes of the First Mover.
Is this Wilson's latest creed? Certainly it's one of the more attractive solutions yet proposed to the collapse of Anglicanism a little heterodox, admittedly, even hereti- cal, but then Anglicanism has no way of determining that. And what can the Church of England supply now that Shake- speare cannot?
'The imagination needs stories which are not completely true in order to learn some of the serious lessons', as Ramsay says. Throughout his career, Wilson has relied on the Bible, the prayer book and the hymnal to strengthen his language. Shakespeare could serve just as well. What doesn't work well is a writer of Wilson's bent worrying away rather feebly at such questions as 'how do you frame the truth, or some part of the truth?', and lamely remarking that 'time, as I have observed before in these pages, causes a revision of almost all one's earlier opin- ions'. This sequence is groaning under such baggage. And who would fardels bear?
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