Book Review: AN Wilson’s Memoir “Confessions”

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Tell me about a complicated man. Thus begins Emily Wilson’s recently acclaimed translation of “The odyssey.” While the phrase “a complicated man” clearly refers to Odysseus, it also perfectly sums up the father of this eminent classicist, the 72-year-old English novelist and literary journalist AN Wilson, author of the recently published “Confessions: A Life of Failed Promises.” Recounting a privileged childhood, a youthful first marriage and exciting years as a Fleet Street critic and editor, these kaleidoscopic memoirs themselves confirm Antonia Fraser’s blurb on the dust jacket: “AN Wilson is the most enjoyable writer I know to read. “.

On these shores, and despite some 20 novels, Andrew Norman Wilson is appreciated mainly for his biographies and works of popular history. “tolstoy” (1988) won the Whitbread Award, while “the victorians” (2002) exhibited both a commanding mastery of its vast subject matter and a complete lack of reverence for sacred cows. (In it, Wilson speculated that Queen Victoria might have been illegitimate.) He himself maintains that “god’s funeral” (1999), about the death of religious beliefs during the 19th century, is his best nonfiction work, closely followed by “dante in love(2011). Erratic, prolific and compulsively readable, Wilson is obviously another one of those outrageously gifted Brits.

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“Confessions” opens with a sad portrayal of Wilson’s ex-wife, Oxford don Katherine Duncan-Jones, as she gradually descends into insanity: “It’s hard to see how you can still believe in a soul when you’ve seen it crumble on that ruthless scale.” .” As a student, Wilson, 20, married the Elizabethan scholar of a decade because she had a baby, the future translator of Homer, on the way. Each was genuinely in love with someone else. “In the first two years After we were married we spent hours and hours crying and wishing we hadn’t gotten married.”Nonetheless, the couple remained unhappily together until Wilson hit his 30s, when this memoir ends.

During his days at Oxford, Wilson began wearing his signature uniform: a three-piece suit, which he ironically refers to as his “AN Wilson suit”. It was Duncan-Jones, he writes, “who urged me to always wear a suit, all those years ago, citing [classicist Maurice] Bowra, his gaze darting up and down the gray flannel and sports jacket of a Wadham intern, barked, ‘Why are you dressed like a college student?’” . That he was exceptionally thin: for a time he suffered from anorexia. because stress and “marital blues” only contributed to this conservative image. However, he was hardly a fan of Margaret Thatcher:

“The paradoxes of political upheaval make the Muse of History seem like the eternal satirist. … The so-called Tories far from conserving, divided Britain with motorways, polluted its farmland with dangerous chemicals and, in their greed, destroyed everything that had built Britain’s wealth in the first two generations of the Industrial Revolution, namely, technical skills, exercised in innumerable fields.”

One such field was ceramics, in which his own family had excelled for generations. His father, Norman Wilson, who rose to become managing director of Wedgwood, could produce dinnerware and ceramics of consummate beauty. “The prettiest of his commercial designs, which I still eat most of my meals from, had a frosting of his invention called ‘Summer Sky’.”

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In describing his parents’ marriage, Wilson recalls “a Victorian joker” who declared: “What kind of God doing [Thomas] Carlyle married Mrs. Carlyle, which made two people unhappy instead of four.” In Wilson’s case, his mother, Dorothy, “taught me to fear my father… just as, later, he taught me to sympathize, deeply, with his marriage to a neurotic killjoy,” one with “a capacity greater than anyone I’ve ever met.” they came together to squeeze the discontent out of the happiest of circumstances.” Later in his life, however, Wilson came to recognize his father’s artistic and corporate achievements, even judging them far greater than his own successes as a writer, and to enjoy the company of his father’s elderly mother. the.

In his late teens and early 20s, young Andrew was strongly drawn to a career in the church. The most prominent teachers in his life tended to be devout Catholics or Anglicans, beginning with Sister Mary Mark (granddaughter of actress Eleonora Duse). His humility, even in recollection, chides him with “the sheer absurdity of almost all the ambitions my younger self underwent when I wanted to be a famous writer.” He continues to argue with himself about religion throughout these pages, noting that in his middle years he was a complete skeptic, but now he is again attending Church of England services.

At the early age of 30, Wilson became literary editor of the Spectator, at a time when the magazine’s staff were “drinking on a positively Slavic scale, for one reason or another.” He now has mixed feelings about his time at Fleet Street, “considered a waste of talent by both my wives and probably all my children”. As he himself admits, “Writing bad novels, and thinking that they can pass for good novels because they have become television programs; go to drinking parties early at night; sleeping with people who are not one’s wife; gossiping and chatting… it was too nice and it numbed the ability, not only to create, but to listen to the messages that great art sent us.”

Nonetheless, in 1983, Wilson was honored as one of Granta magazine’s “Best Young British Novelists”. After a group photo of the chosen 20, he recalls that Martin Amis came over to say hello, although “there was a distinct feeling that he did it as a capo di tutti capi cast [Ian] McEwan, [Julian] barnes and [Graham] Swift, huddling behind him like schoolboys, were a gang I wasn’t going to be invited to join.”

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With pardonable schadenfreude, he confesses that “the old man, that’s me, looking at that group photograph now feels a nostalgic sympathy for all of them. They had had the arrogance to set themselves up as rivals to the giants, to Joyce, to Nabokov, to Balzac, and the great Hegelian tide of history was against them. There have been some brilliant crime writers in our lifetime, but no ‘literary’ novelist to match the giants.

Even if you’re not a die-hard Anglophile, it’s impossible to resist Wilson’s narrative, whether it’s detailing the horrors of Hillstone School, where the headmaster sexually abused his students; remembering his friendship with the medievalist Christopher Tolkien (son of JRR); or simply praising the elegant prose of that very married man of letters, Peter Quennell, whose fifth wife, he notes, “was inevitably known as Quennell Number Five.” Of a future TV star, Wilson insists that “the whole time I knew her well, Nigella [Lawson], destined to be famous as a culinary genius, never ate anything except mashed potatoes and never mentioned the subject of food. Coincidentally, Wilson’s second daughter with Duncan-Jones is food writer Bee Wilson.

Looking back over the years, self-deprecating and piercing-eyed AN Wilson sees “a life of broken promises”. This book, however, is not one of them. From its first pages, “Confessions” promises to be tremendously entertaining, and it doesn’t fail in the slightest.

A life of broken promises

Bloomsbury Continuum. 320 pages $30

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