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Angus Wilson: No Laughing Matter
A slightly different approach for Wilson as he sets out to write a family saga. There is quote on the front cover of my copy which reads an unrivalled gallop over an era. Unrivalled? Henry Williamson? Powell? Snow? Lessing? Suffice to say that it is not unrivalled. Indeed, if you are looking for one of those let’s-expose-a-whole-era books, this isn’t it. Wilson trips lightly through the twentieth century (from the Russian Revolution to Harold Wilson via the two world wars and the Cold War) but the events are only tossed in as wallpaper and have only passing bearing on the action of the novel.
No, this novel is about family. Specifically, it is about the Matthews family. At the start of the story, in the early part of the century, the children are still young. The family is Billy Matthews, would-be author and actual parasite. He has apparently produced some writing and lectures occasionally on cricket in literature but, in reality, seems to have not done a real day’s work in his life. His wife, Clara, nicknamed The Countess by her children, is also a parasite and even more arrogant, snobbish and precious than her husband. They have six children. Quentin, the eldest, is primarily brought up by his grandmother (one of the main source of funds for his parents). He later becomes Q J Matthews, the well-know left-wing journalist. Gladys, known as Podge, because she is overweight, later runs an antique shop and then goes to prison for cheating a customer but finally marries (though we only learn this after his death). Rupert becomes a celebrated stage actor and then, after the war, makes a living playing typical Brits in Hollywood films. Margaret becomes an insecure Margaret Drabble-like writer. Sukey becomes a wife and mother. And Marcus, the youngest, is, of course, gay and moves in with a rich art collector and collects the likes of Klee and Kandinsky before they become too famous and too expensive.
The big issue is the scars parents cause to their children and the Matthews have serious problems with their parents. It is not that Billy and Clara are wicked or cruel. It is just that they are totally irresponsible and fairly indifferent to their children, so wrapped up are they in their own selves. The children bitterly resent this treatment so much so that they create something called The Game where they act out their parents’ foibles and mercilessly mock them. Their failures in life may be attributable to their parents – it’s not made clear – though, in one or two cases, they become their parents. However, this book ultimately fails for, for all their foibles and weaknesses, the parents are more interesting than their children who are too pompous, too inept, too camp (in the case of Marcus) or just plain boring. Interesting as a portrait of a family gone wrong and how the members of the family survive (or don’t survive) their parents but Wilson does not have the talent to make it a fascinating family saga.
First published 1967 by Secker & Warburg