Thursday 6 October 2016

The Angry Young Men - review of The Angry Years by Colin Wilson (2007)

The Angry Young Men was a largely nonsensical media coinage for what was supposed to be the new generation of post WWII writers - the term was launched in 1956 by the play Look Back in Anger by John Osborne and The Outsider by Colin Wilson.

I became aware of the Angries only after discovering The Outsider in the summer of 1978, having read Kingsley Amis's novel Lucky Jim a year before (which, although from 1953 is usually regarded as an 'Angry' book; it is one of the funniest books I have ever read). For some reason I became very interested in the general idea of the 1950s at this point; and took to listening to Trad Jazz and wearing a corduroy jacket with leather patches - with or without trademark polo neck sweater.

I sampled a wide range of the literary output of the fifties - but aside from Colin Wilson I must admit I did not find very much to enjoy. Among those mentioned in this book I did not take to John Wain, Stuart Holroyd, JP Donleavy, Samuel Beckett, Arnold Wesker, Alan Sillitoe - and I never read John Braine or Kenneth Tynan.

I wasted a lot of time reading Amis, without finding anything else anything like as good as Lucky Jim - although his second and third novels (That Uncertain Feeling and I Like It Here) both had good stuff in them. Look Back In Anger was certainly original and had a kind of energy - but watching it was a torment; and Osborne's other works were entirely without interest.

I don't like it nowadays, but Iris Murdoch's first novel - Under The Net - was a favourite re-read for several years. And of course that miserable so-and-so Phillip Larkin (who is sometimes, absurdly, regarded as an Angry) was our last really worthwhile English poet.

Despite this long term interest, I have only just read Colin Wilson's account of the era. Especially considering the book was written in his mid-seventies - there is a lot of detail and energy in it - and I found it well-organised. Although I should warn that this book is certainly depressing in its sordid litany of lives ruined by drink, drugs, dissipation, sexual promiscuity and marital infidelities - Wilson is actually pursuing a thesis throughout: he clearly had a philosophical, almost spiritual reason for writing the book about his contemporaries and their successes and failures.

Indeed, as he approached the end of his life, Wilson seemed to be returning to the same focus as his second philosophical book: Religion and the Rebel - the necessity of a spiritual awakening, that Man needed a religion in order to live well. At times Wilson seems to argue himself right up to the very edge of theism, especially when analysing the demotivation and despair which overwhelmed so many of his friends, colleagues and acquaintances.

But to return to the theme of sex - and there is a lot about it; my conviction was again reinforced that sex has always been the nemesis of the recurrent romanticism revivals since 1800 - and that is what the Angry Young Men were. They were the British equivalent of the US Beat Generation, or the French Existentialists; and therefore in origin an 'attempted' or embryonic spiritual revival.

Whatever high ideals and ambitions were harboured by the best of these writers was wrecked on the writers unrepentant embrace and celebration of the sexual revolution. This took away much of the energy, created an atmosphere of exploitation and dishonesty, and blocked-off the only answer they could ever have found: Christianity. Consequently, they largely wasted their time and lives, running round in circles, showing off, and making excuses.


Bill said...

This sounds similar to the observations about DH Lawrence and his art - an almost-spiritual life dissipated (in a prior generation).

pyrrhus said...

Agree that the Angry Young Men (from which I exempt Kingsley Amis) were pretty much a bust. BTW, I really liked two other Amis novels, The Green Man, and Take a Girl Like You....

Bruce Charlton said...

I think what most appealed to me about the Colin Wilson side of the angries; was the idea of having long, passionate conversations about existentialism in coffee bars.

Mercurius Aulicus said...

I liked The Alteration (1976) - an alternative history novel set in a parallel universe in which the Reformation did not take place.

Bruce Charlton said...

@pyrrhus and Mercurious - I have read Take a Girl (disliked it strongly!) and The Alteration (enjoyed it, moderately - and it stayed in my memory). But aside from those three I mention, none of Amis's work stimulated me to re-read - which is the test for me.

Actually, I have re-read some of his essays, memoirs and letters because they are so *very* funny. I suspect Colin Wilson did not really appreciate comic writing; but Amis was a master - some of his early letters to close friends like Larkin are as good as anything I have seen in terms of the exact use of words in humour.

Wilson quotes part of the kind of thing I mean - Amis is writing to Larkin of his fantasy of putting the whole Wordsworth circle: "in a big house, so they could not get out and be scalded to death with urine-steam".

Amis's casual writings are full of such stuff, which is far beyond most humourists - in this sense Amis was a bawdy and cynical version of PG Wodehouse, whose humour has the same source.