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Angus Wilson: As If By Magic

There are three ways of writing a 60s novel. You can either treat the Sixties totally seriously. This, of course, is a recipe for disaster. Just ask Richard Brautigan or even Norman Mailer. You can mock the Sixties like Terry Southern. And you can use the Sixties, even wallow in the Sixties, to make your point à la Pynchon or Burroughs. Unfortunately, in this novel, Wilson is not quite sure what he wants to do, only that he wants to write a Sixties novel. Wilson’s initial approach is the not very original one of pitting the Lawrentian (as in D H Lawrence) view of the world against the Tolkien – earthy sex against magic.

The story concerns Hamo Langmuir, sort of in the magic corner (he is a plant geneticist and the creator of a Green Revolution crop called, inevitably, Magic). His story is that he is travelling round the world on a sort of goodwill tour for Magic. Most of his trip is spent in getting into scrapes based on cultural differences, often, though not always, associated with his homosexual desires for the attractive young men of the Far East. On the sort of Lawrentian side is his god-daughter (niece of his erstwhile lover, Leslie), Alexandra. She is meant to be a child of the Sixties, very anti-parents, often depressed and sharing two men à la Women in Love. When she has a child by one of them, she does her Sixties visit-the-ashrams-of-Morocco-and-India tour, where, like her godfather, she has her own cultural problems. Inevitably, the two meet up (in Goa) and there is a crisis and Alexandra, at least, ends up living more or less happily and magic-free ever after.

It is a brave attempt – the attempt to do the Lawrence-Tolkien clash and to do a sort of tour through the Sixties. But it really does not work at all. I got the feeling that Wilson sort of lost interest in the Lawrence-Tolkien clash halfway through, only coming back to it at the end. In fact he seemed more interested in Hamo’s erotic chase after the beautiful young men of Asia. Asides on the Green Revolution and other Sixties phenomena now seem dated and quaint. Frankly, Wilson was not a Sixties man.

Publishing history

First published 1973 by Secker & Warburg