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Books: Vile Bodies Revisited

3 minute read
Melvin Maddocks

AS IF BY MAGIC by ANGUS WILSON 415 pages. Viking. $8.95.

Angus Wilson seemed to begin where Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Hux ley left off. It was as if he had been born a middle-aged comedian, clever but desolate. For him there was no initial period when a young satirist simply func tions: a predatory animal savagely but happily on the hunt.

What does a very funny writer do whose laughter is always choking into a retch? Among other stratagems, Wilson has tried to revive the well-made Victorian novel (see The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot). He has sketched portraits of the very old and the very young (Late Call).

He has even attempted essays in mysticism (The Old Men at the Zoo). As If By Magic is a little of all of these, but curiously — Wilson, after all, is now 60 — it reads more like the early Waugh-Huxley novel the author never got to write. In spirit it may well be his most youthful book. As with Huxley, there is an “idea” at bottom. Hamo Langmuir, a famous British plant breeder, is off on a VIP tour to see how his hybrid rice, nicknamed “Magic,” is faring as England’s gift to the Green Revolution. Hamo’s goddaughter, Alexandra, is following rather the same route. Hers is the sort of pilgrimage 21-year-old girls from middle-class Anglo-American homes embarked upon in the late 1960s, involving swamis in India and communes in Morocco, with Tolkien as an all-sufficient Baedeker of the soul. In Goa, these two breeds of latter-day ma gician, the scientist and the hippie, cross paths. For an instant each one senses a promise of salvation in the other before Hamo goes to his death at the hands of an Indian mob and the girl returns to England to inherit a fortune.

Like Huxley, Wilson can become an abstract moralist. The reader meets hun gry masses rather than hungry people. But in his gadfly or Waughspian capacity Wilson achieves top form. As If By Magic is rich in stock (but not too stock) characters: Japanese businessmen, German tourists, English eccentrics, American divorcees who look like failed Myrna Loys.

Above all, Wilson is a master of dialogue. Even when he cannot make a character live, he can always make him talk. Wilson people talk about Russian novels and sex, the Third World and God. Give them notice, or no notice at all, and they will do a turn on Marxism or produce a passable limerick. For these vile bodies of the ’70s are as restless in the spirit as in the flesh.

What Wilson finally articulates is the tormented, muddled idealism behind doing your own thing. Nobody has taken the comedy of being contemporary more seriously. Wilson’s practical and moral conclusion: “You have to be very strong for games.” It is a compliment the novelist deserves to Share.

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