John Wain

 

Comedies

 

Bit of a long shot Ė I like David Lodge, and vaguely recalled that John Wain was also an academic literary critic.

 

The novel is probably teasingly autobiographical, as it follows the career and home life of an academic just gaining a position after graduating with an honours first in history in 1933.

 

Itís very much set in a time and place, overtly following the pre-war and war years, and while Wain isnít shy of political dialogue, he is more concerned with major family events. The career is more a background.

 

You get a real feel for a different time characterised by different values, caught between the modern indifference to morality, and the stark Ďproperí behaviour prescribed by, say, the still strong Victorian tradition. Thus the protagonist is an atheist who largely without regret pursues an affair while forced away from his wife and child during the war Ė yet he (and Wain one feels) is quietly but deeply proud of how his country persevered and overcame against Hitler. As one of the opening quotations says:

It is hard for men to fight when they know only what they are fighting against and not what they are fighting for. (Arthur Koestler Ė whoever he may be)

A very post-modern sentiment, yet he is still fighting.

 

And donít get the wrong idea: while there is some soul-searching going on, the book is not largely reams of introspection Ė there is usually some action or dialogue carrying you along. Not, of course, Ďthrillerí action.

 

Thereís no-one I really love or hate or laugh with here, thereís a level of reserve that is frightfully English, which is why the book didnít vitally grip me. That being said, it still always kept my interest, and was full of diverting pictures of a range of people from this other time, and the way their social conditioning saw them interact. The family particularly keep popping in with some unavoidable crisis or another.

 

The Lodge link isnít so far off, although Wain doesnít have quite the same sting or humour. He does, however, give a real sense of time and place: I suspect you could learn more about life in 30s England here than in many a history text. For example, it was fascinating to have as a character an intelligent, empathetic committed socialist in a time where there was none of the stigma of Hitlerís National Socialism or Stalinís Socialist Republic Ė and also seeing her devastation in the face of these: socialism Ďfeltí a lot different for a while there. There is, perhaps, a caveat though: thereís something of Robert Cormierís prurient cynicism (I need to find a better term for the practise) in a more subtle way that has everyone seem to have some significant sexual misdemeanour in their past.

 

Characters arenít that complex either: once you get a handle on them, they stay true and will not surprise you.

 

November 2002