On these shores, despite some 20 novels, Andrew Norman Wilson is primarily revered for his biographical and popular historical works. “Tolstoy” (1988) won the Whitbread, while “The Victorians” (2002) displayed mastery of its sprawling subject and utter irreverence for the sacred cow. (In it, Wilson speculates that Queen Victoria may have been illegitimate.) He himself considers The Burial of God (1999), about the demise of religion in the 19th century, his best nonfiction work, followed closely by Dante in Love” (2011). Academic, prolific and engaging, Wilson is clearly another of those brilliant British overachievers.
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“Confessions” opens with a sad portrait of Wilson’s ex-wife, Oxford professor Catherine Duncan-Jones, slipping into dementia: “When you see that heartless soul unraveled, it’s hard to imagine how you can still believe A soul. Scale.” As an undergraduate, 20-year-old Wilson married an Elizabethan scholar 10 years her senior because a baby — the future translator of Homer — was about to be born. Everyone is actually in love with someone else. “The first two years of our marriage, we spent hours crying and wishing we hadn’t.” Still, the couple wasn’t happy together, and the memoir doesn’t end until Wilson was in his 30s.
While at Oxford, Wilson began wearing his signature uniform – a three-piece suit that he jokingly dubbed his “AN Wilson suit”.It was Duncan Jones, who wrote, “Years ago he was urging me to wear a suit, saying [classicist Maurice] Bowra glanced up and down Wadham Fellow’s gray flannel and sport coat and snarled, ‘Why are you dressing like a college student? ‘” So throughout the 1970s and 80s, Wilson was seen as a Tory, a young diehard. He was extraordinarily thin — for a while he was anorexic because Stress and “marriage grief” — just contributed to this conservative image. However, he was hardly a fan of Margaret Thatcher:
“The paradox of political instability makes the muse of history seem to be the eternal satirist. … The so-called Conservative Party is not only unconservative, but carves up Britain with highways, pollutes farmland with dangerous chemicals, and, out of greed, destroys The whole of British wealth in the two generations before the industrial revolution, namely technical skills, exercised in countless fields.”
One such area is ceramics, where his own family has been prominent for generations. His father, Norman Wilson, was promoted to managing director of Wedgwood, where he produced exquisite tableware and crockery. “His best commercial designs, I now eat most of my meals from him, have a glaze he invented called ‘Summer Sky’.”
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Describing his parents’ marriage, Wilson recalled “some Victorian rocker,” declaring: “What a good God [Thomas] Carlyle married Mrs. Carlyle, thus making two people unhappy, not four. In Wilson’s case, his mother, Dorothy, “taught me to be afraid of my father . The more capable people of anyone” meet to wring dissatisfaction from the happiest of circumstances. Later in life, however, Wilson came to recognize his father’s artistic and entrepreneurial achievements – even arguing that they far outstripped his own success as a writer – and enjoyed the company of his elderly mother.
In his teens and twenties, young Andrew was strongly drawn to the ecclesiastical vocation. The most distinguished teachers in his life were often devout Catholics or Episcopalians, starting with Sister Mary Mark (granddaughter of actress Eleonora Duse). Her humility, even in retrospect, honed him with “the genuine absurdity of nearly all the ambitions my younger self had embraced when I wanted to be a famous writer.” In these pages he continues to argue with himself on religious issues, noting that in his middle age he was a complete skeptic, but now attends Church of England services.
Wilson became literary editor of The Spectator at age 30 when the magazine’s staff “drank, for some reason, on an aggressively Slavic scale.” Now, he has mixed feelings about his time on Fleet Street, “My wife and probably all my kids thought he wasted his talents.” As he admits, “Wrote bad novels and thought They might make good novels, because they’ve been made into TV dramas; go to evening drinking parties; sleep with someone other than your wife; Not only to create, but to listen to the message that great art sends us.”
Despite this, Wilson was named one of “Britain’s best young novelists” by Granta magazine in 1983.Following a group photo of 20 voters, he recalled Martin Amis coming to say hello, though “there was a definite feeling that he did Capo Then [Ian] McEwan, [Julian] barnes and [Graham] Swift, crammed behind him like a schoolboy, was a gang I wouldn’t be invited to join. “
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With forgivable schadenfreude, he admits, “The old man—that’s me—looking at that group photo now feels a kind of wistful sympathy for all of them. Nabokov, Balzac, and the Hegelian current of history against them. There have been some brilliant crime writers in our lifetime, but no ‘literary’ novelist has matched the on a par with giants.”
Even if you’re not a staunch Anglophile, you can’t resist Wilson’s story, whether he’s detailing the horrors at Hillstone School, where the headmaster sexually abused pupils; recalls his relationship with medievalist Christopher Tower King (son of JRR); or simply praise the elegant prose of married literary man Peter Quennell, who notes that the “inevitable The land was called Quennel V”.Of the future TV star, Wilson insists that “for all the time I’ve known her, Nigella [Lawson], destined to become a food genius, eats nothing but mashed potatoes, and never brings up the topic of food. Coincidentally, Wilson and Duncan-Jones’ second daughter is food writer Bee Wilson.
Looking back over the years, self-critical, sharp-eyed AN Wilson sees “a life of broken promises.” However, this book is not one of them. From page one, “Confessions” promises to be a lot of fun, and it doesn’t fail.
promise a life of failure
The Bloomsbury Continuum. $30 for 320 pages
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