AT 67, ANGUS WILSON has apparently entered grand-old manhood. He was knighted earlier this year, and, to celebrate the publication of his eighth novel, his American publishers have brought out Angus Wilson: Mimic and Moralist , a study of his works and career. Its author, Peter Faulkner, touts Wilson as "one of the half-dozen most distinguished [living] English writers."
This is a fair assessment, but Wilson is not well-known in the United States, where few of his books are in print. One of the reasons Wilson lags here may be his pace. He takes so long to produce a novel -- this is only his third in 15 years -- that, for readers distracted by noisy book promotions, he tends to disappear for long spells. Another is the solid evenness of his work: Most of his novels are excellent, but none is a stunning masterpiece. And then -- off-putting to some critics -- there is his traditional approach to the novel.
Except for No Laughing Matter , a long, multifarious family-chronicle novel, Wilson has eschewed experimentation in his fiction on the ground that it sights "man as a social being." Instead, his novels display the careful narration, deft characterization (which draws on his famous skill at mimicry), social acuity and grand scale that we associate with the great victorians.
Though Faulkner is at pains to soft-pedal Wilson's atavism, the man himself seems to relish it. In view of his flair for portraying humbugs and grotesques, Dickens is his most obvious master, and Wilson has toyed with this link. "'And people say that Micawber's an impossible character,'" says Billy Matthews, the feckless father in No Laughing Matter ." 'They haven't met me, you know.'" He has also written The World of Charles Dickens, a fine critical study.
Yet Wilson's eccentrics generally play minor roles, and his protagonists are nothing like Dickens' innocents. Overall Wilson's fiction seems more redolent of Trollope's. Like Trollope, the postal inspector turned novelist, Wilson worked for many years as a bureaucrat: His last position was deputy to the superintendent of the British Museum Reading Room. Both men came away from their official stints fascinated by the power struggles that exercised their colleagues. Like the clergymen of Trollope's Barsetshire novels and the M.P.s of his Palliser ones, Wilson's characters vie for control of the institutions to which they belong: the writers' residential hall in Hemlock and After , the medieval history faculty in Anglo-Saxon attitudes , the London Zoo in the Old Men at the Zoo, the new town in Late Call , the Rapson Trust in As If By Magic . Those novels -- especially the Old Men at the Zoo -- make gripping reads for anyone hooked on political power.
The new novel, Setting the World on Fire , is a departure for Wilson -- an adult Gothic. The book is set in and around Tothill House, a 17th-century mansion that borders (fictively) on Westminister Abbey. The house is the product of two architects: the conservative Pratt, who designed the original, classical structure, and the flamboyant Vanbrugh, who added a great baroque hall a generation later.
Through the female line the house has passed to the wealthy Mosson family, whose present-day scions are Piers and Tom. Piers, the elder brother, is an expansive, meteoric fellow who delights in drawing out people. Tom is timid and agoraphobic but devoted to Piers, whose excesses he sometimes curbs. The boys' temperaments dovetail with the dual design of the house: Priers is nicknamed "Van" after Vanbrugh, and Tom becomes "Pratt."
The ceiling of the great hall is covered with a tableau of the myth of Phaethon, the youth who took over the chariot of his father, the Sun. When the horses got out of control and the world began to go up in flames, Jove had to strike the boy dead and shatter the chariot. Alone in the hall as the book opens, little Piers finds himself simpatico with the free-falling Phaethon. (Piers does not realize that at this point in the tableau the youth is dead by fulmination.) The novel centers on Piers' efforts as a precocious schoolboy to stage Lully's rediscovered opera Phaethon in the great hall.
Piers' scheme depends on getting permission from those in control of the house: Lady Mosson, his puritanical American grandmother, and old Mr. Mosson, his doddering great-grandfather. Pier's prospects seem bright unitl his exuberance helps propel a family luncheon into a fiasco of sexual revelations, including his mother's adultery and his uncle's affinity for le vice anglais (the desire to be spanked). These outrages put Lady Mosson in a disowning mood and ensure that the great hall will stay dark.
The last section of the novel is rushed, ill-fitting and flat. The problem may be that Wilson chose the wrong brother to kill. Despite this miscalculation, Setting the World on Fire is well worth reading. It is suffused with wit and sharp observations of the rich. And it ungrudgingly affords sheer entertainment in a way that few serious American novels do. As for Wilson's conservatism, it sets him refreshingly apart from the fabulists and interior monologuists. In his essay "Some Children of the Goddess'" Norman Mailer comments on the difficulty of making fictional sense out of our fragmentary world. "The Tolstoyan novel begins to be impossible. Who can create a vast canvas when the imagination must submit itself to a plethora of detail in each joint of society?" As he has shown in several earlier novels, Angus Wilson can.