13 OCTOBER 1961, Page 13


SIR.—Can you find space for a second opinion on ,,

Angus Wilson's latest novel, Old Men at the 400 I read the book with keen delight and admira- tion and have since been dismayed by the reviews I have seen, of which Mr. John Mortimer's in your columns is typical. I have only the most shadowy Personal acquaintance with Mr. Wilson and none at all with his publishers. My only motive in writing to from is the fear that the public may be discouraged Irom reading what seems to me a very fine book. Your readers have already been given some indi- cation of the plot. Few critics, including your own, seem to have appreciated the technical achievement of its intricate structure. There are not so many Master craftsmen among the post-war novelists that We can afford to neglect them. I have always admired Mr. Wilson's skill, but hitherto with certain reserva- tions of sympathy and suspensions of credulity. As Mr. Mortimer remarks, he has described 'a small and that world.' It should be an occasion for rejoicing 'Hat he has now chosen a larger and (to me) more Plausible milieu. All his new characters, major and minor alike, seem to me brilliantly observed and drawn Nothing in the narrative is haphazard. Every incident has significance. The least successful scene is the one which some critics (not Mr. Mortimer) have singled out for praise—the party after the young keeper's funeral—which is most like Mr. Wilson's earlier work. Reviewers should welcome variety and development in a writer. Mr. Mortimer opens his review by deploring the tendency to regard writers as authorities on questions (3 morals, politics and philosophy. I think he con- forms two issues. On one I agree with him. Some days ago there appeared in the Times a letter signed by a number of well-known writers (Mr. ':Ilson among them) protesting against the arrest of an Angolan poet. Injustice, if injustice has been committed, is equally deplorable whether the victim is a Poet or a peasant. I do not believe that all the Ilignatories were familiar with this poet's work or had even heard his name before being invited to subscribe. I do not believe they all had personal isnnowledge of the circumstances of his arrest. This !_eems to me an example of 'pressure' being brought ;a them 'to pontificate.' But Mr. Mortimer's con- demnation is wider. 'Many writers,' he says, 'are not very good at anything except writing and the value. of their work is often not to be judged by the aalliY of their thoughts.' But writing is the ex- pression of thought. There is no abstract writing. All

literature implies moral standards and criticisms the less explicit the better.

0,1v1:. Mortimer's second confusion is in his use ti; sYmbolism.' In a novel the symbols are merely ''e furniture of the story. They are not to be taken allegorically as in Pilgrim's Progress. They are not devised consciously but arise spontaneously in the mood of composition.

Thirdly, and this is most important, Mr. Mor- timer and all the critics I have read have been trapped by the date-1970. It was audacious of Mr. Wilson to put his story into the near future and, as things turn out, injudicious, for Old Men at the Zoo is not a novel like Brave New World or 1984 in which a warning is offered of the dangers to posterity if existing social tendencies fructify. Mr. Wilson postulates no new scientific devices. His characters live and speak in the present or in the recent past.

A novelist has a difficult task in fixing his charac- ters in historical time. Many-1 think if one counted them up one would find most—good novels are set in the past. Public events intrude on private lives. It is very difficult to write a novel about 1961 which can give any indication of the final destiny of the characters, and it is with their final destiny that their creator is primarily, if unobtrusively, con- cerned. Mr. Wilson informs us that he does not think the public events of his book are likely to occur. If I read him right, he is concerned with what might have happened, rather than with what will happen. Consciously or unconsciously he has written a study of 1938-42. The causes of his war are deliberately made absurd. He required a war for his plot and the war he has given us is what many Englishmen feared at the time of Munich. They were given wildly exaggerated notions of the impending disaster. Gas, microbes and high explo- sive would devastate the kingdom. Communications would cease. Famine would ensue. We should capitulate and the victors would impose a Nazi regime. The young may find it hard to believe, but that was in fact the belief of many intelligent people. Mr. Wilson has accepted all that body of—as it happened—quite false assumptions and has used it in the machinery of his story. What he is concerned with, and what he so brilliantly portrays, is the working of the machinery on the lives of his characters.

EVELYN WAUGH Combe Florey House, near Taunton

John Mortimer writes: I am glad that Mr. Waugh enjoyed Mr. Wilson's book so much. In a world short of pleasure we each must find it where we can and I should not wish to prevent anyone; God for- bid, reading a book which certainly has entertaining passages.

But Mr. Waugh misunderstands me. I am sure that writers, like painters and plumbers, must have moral, philosophical and political ideas. In certain cases, however, the excellence of the plumbing or painting or writing is independent of the value of the ideas. As an instance I believe Mr. Waugh him- self to be a major humorist and a consummate artist, who has made more fundamental discoveries about dialogue than any other writer of our cen- tury; but accepting this surely does not compel me to think him a reliable guide in matters of politics, social values or religious truth.

Of course, I agree that it is not possible to stop writers developing, or attempting ambitious themes. What is dangerous is the public pressure which turns writers from valuable snook-cocking outsiders into boring Literary Figures. A 'major work,' the develop- ing writer feels, is demanded by a greedy public; and out of the deep freezer it comes, enormous, highly coloured, Jumbo-size and lacking nothing but the slightest flavour.

None of this is to belittle the successful major work, or the one that deals greatly with great issues. Somewhere Max Beerbohm said that 'Good sense about trivialities is better than nonsense about things that matter.' To agree with this is not to deny the supreme value of good sense about things that matter.

Finally symbols. Of course all words are symbolic, in a sense; a writer can only communicate in images and the reactions he hopes they will invoke. It is no doubt my loss that a kick in the genitals from a giraffe, however sick, meant so little to me. 1 am delighted that it should have reminded Mr. Waugh of Munich.