A BOTTLE IN THE SMOKE
By A.N. Wilson
Viking. 279 pp. $18.95
WRITING against the grain of minimalism and its various offshoots, and very much with the grain of the traditional English novel, the contemporary British writer A.N. Wilson is in the middle of creating a rich and extremely wise trilogy of novels having to do with two of the oldest themes in literature: disillusionment and betrayal.
The first novel of the trilogy, Incline Our Hearts, was published last year to much critical acclaim. Set in the years just after World War II, it documents the coming-of-age of a young English war orphan named Julian Ramsey, brought up by a fusty aunt and uncle in a rural rectory. The young Julian falls from innocence in a variety of ways, mostly through his acquaintance with the ruthlessly ambitious Raphael Hunter. At the age of 12, Julian discovers Hunter seducing his boarding-school art teacher, for whom Julian has been burning with the unadulterated passion of first love. Later, Hunter betrays the trust of a once-powerful aristocratic family close to Julian's aunt and uncle by publishing a scandalous biography of a family member.
A Bottle in the Smoke picks up Julian's story in the late 1950s, with Julian venturing into the world of adulthood. Giving up the security of a routine office job, and armed with little more than a blind faith that he can write or act, Julian sets up shop in London's bohemian Soho district. He also falls in love with and marries a young art student who belongs to the same upper-class family, the Lampitts, that Hunter deceived when Julian was much younger.
In charting his course for a successful artistic career and a fulfilling marriage, Julian, still an innocent in many ways, badly underestimates the human capacity for betrayal. The smooth, treacherous Hunter, by this time an influential figure in London literary circles, resurfaces in Julian's life. Julian's memories of Hunter seducing his art teacher are replayed, with far more disastrous consequences, when Julian's wife falls in love with him. By the time Julian realizes why Hunter has helped him get his first novel published, it is too late. Hunter also deceives the Lampitts again, this time through a cunning scheme to acquire access to an extensive set of private family papers.
As all this suggests, the vision behind A Bottle in the Smoke is on the bleak side. (The title is taken from a passage in the Psalms generally interpreted as referring to the shrivelling up of hope and joy.) But Wilson is also a genuinely comic writer, with a penchant for the eccentric. Part of the novel's action takes place in a Soho pub where Julian tends bar while waiting for fame and glory to descend upon him, and the pub regulars constitute a thoroughly Dickensian cast of characters. There is the owner of the pub, a man who looks astonishingly like T.S. Eliot but swears like a sailor; a broken-down former novelist who clings to his Roman Catholicism while living a life given over to alcohol and a mistress ("I always make an act of perfect contrition, you know, every time I make love, in case I have a bloody heart attack at the moment of climax"); and a former jockey who now rides only barstools.
On the serious side, what gives this novel its extraordinary psychological depth and moral complexity is the way in which it is told. All the events of Julian's young adulthood are filtered through the memory and judgment of Julian when he is in late middle age, looking back reflectively over his life. In contrast to the stripped-down narrative voices that have become increasingly in vogue, Wilson's narrator is freely discursive and meditative -- obsessed, really, with interpreting his experience -- and the result is an authenticity, a faithfulness to the nuances of human relationships and the implications of human actions, that is relatively rare in today's fiction. Few contemporary writers have written, for example, about the woes of a failing marriage with the emotional force and subtlety of Wilson, through the consciousness of his older and wiser narrator.
If its narrative techniques smack more of Victorianism than of Modernism, A Bottle in the Smoke is thoroughly postmodern in its self-conscious questioning of the value of what a novelist like Julian Ramsey (or A.N. Wilson) does. It is a complex question, of course, but of one thing Wilson and his literary narrator seem certain: Imaginative writing, however factually untrue (and memory, as Julian says, "is a form of necromancy"), has an uncanny ability to get at the unseen truths of human nature, the world that lies within and below human consciousness. "This narrative," Julian reflects at one point, "this framing of actions and sensations of an earlier self, has been for me a rediscovery of Blake's view that 'the inner world is all important.' " And so it can be for the reader of A Bottle in the Smoke, and that is a great deal to say about any work of fiction.
Gregory A. Schirmer is chairman of the English Department at the University of Mississippi and the author of "William Trevor: A Study of His Fiction."