by John Wain.
St. Martin’s Press. 265 pp. $5.00.
When I read this slice of Mr. Wain’s autobiography in England a while ago, I was overwhelmed by the quite unexpected way in which my own experience and outlook coincided with his. Of an older generation, a somewhat different class, and from an entirely different geographical region (all things that count desperately in England), writing novels quite unlike in tone and invention, I yet found that in many of the basic apprehensions and expectations that my temperament had given me I could have been his twin. His book inevitably excited me. It seemed to me that in it what I had often felt and thought was clearly and sensitively expressed. But standing so unpreparedly close to it, I could not be quite sure that the shock of self-recognition had not temporarily somewhat dislocated my critical judgment. Rereading Sprightly Running, I am certain that I was right. If the chapter on Russia (excellent and justifiable journalism but out of place here) could be removed, and perhaps also the decently reticent, yet too compressed chapter on the failure of his first marriage, then I believe Mr. Wain’s book could stand comparison with any British autobiography of the last two decades. It has not the lush evocation of Laurie Lee’s autobiography, but is says a great deal more about what England does to a boy with creative gifts; and, going beyond the provincial, it is the most completely honest and revealing self-analysis of the pervasively depressed temperament common to all good creative critics that I have read. It would not take much to make it a classic of temperamental confession; perhaps even now the excision of what is only excellent journalism from later editions may give it a deserved survival.
Sprightly Running, if we omit the impressions of the Soviet Union, divides into three parts: childhood and school; Oxford during the last war; on being a free-lance writer in contemporary England. Yet, almost against the grain of this planned composition, Mr. Wain reveals the connective thread of his life. The boy is treated separately from the learned youth, the learned youth from the uncertain, edgy young littérateur, but in essentials the boy becomes the man, the man contains the youth. We are more familiar with this human continuity in the novel where art is at work to underline the organic quality of life. In autobiography as a rule a vivid impressionism fragments the whole, and the only continuity is stated by the author rather than felt by the reader. Mr. Wain (not always to his own advantage in his life) is, however, not only very self-conscious; he also maintains an extraordinary tightrope balance between apprehensive pessimism always toppling at the edge of bitterness and a self-esteem that doggedly defies disappointment and bad luck. This balance between insecurity and conviction of talent has led him in life into an assertiveness which only an ordinary reading between the lines of his book shows to have been a great hindrance to him in human relationships. In his novels, too, I think, a hovering between the loosely picaresque and the too schematized has so far stood in the way of his talents. But in autobiography to be able to feel each moment of self-doubt again and yet to have no doubt of the shape which all these uncertainties add up to makes an unusually free but perfect form.
Of the three sections the first involves me as reader most, yet for an American public it may well be that its twin horrors of class isolation and school bullying will seem remote. American children, on the whole, are protected from their parents’ anxieties. Quite the reverse is the case in England. John Wain, a boy of lower-middle-class family in a working-class Midlands district, prosperous amid the desperate poverty of the 1930’s industrial depression, suffered vicariously for the social status, the economic security, and above all, the superior refinement and sensibility of his parents. That they never knew this, that he could never tell them is a mark of English childhoods so constant over the last century and a half that for the greater number of English people, it is the natural state of childhood. Only my reading and my further acquaintance in recent years with people from other countries persuade me that this is not so—that in countries other than England children can be and are preserved from adult apprehensions. In England the little, white-faced old heads on young shoulders familiar in Victorian novels still survive. Mr. Wain shows us one such in himself with patient detail, and shows us, too, how such a child-scapegoat developed a nostalgic sense of life’s transience, a love for the vanishing countryside and wildlife, a stoic pessimism that in other countries might seem odd in a child. More bitterly (and here I know his experience all too well) he complains of the way in which the constant emotional strain befogged his vision so that his natural talents remained almost undeveloped in his school years.
This pessimism he brought, through the good luck of his father’s income and generosity, to Oxford—Oxford, home of lost causes, preserver of hopeless dreams, custodian of the past, and jealous, witty, wrongheaded guardian against the future. Mr. Wain came to it ten years after I had been there. In my day all was hot-headed progressivism, popular-front radicalism, and hysterical pacifism among the undergraduates beneath the disapproving, quizzical eyes of the dons. In 1940, when Mr. Wain arrived, there were few undergraduates, the dons had their day. Under the rule of his tutor C. S. Lewis, a monarchist, extreme Tory High Church Anglicanism ruled supreme. The mental temper was conservative, classical, and critical. It was made to receive the cautious pessimism that his childhood had given John Wain. That he was so suddenly superbly happy, that his talents flowered does not prevent him from seeing that he was only confirmed in a sort of stoic pessimism which, as he says, was fitting for Dr. Johnson in his last years but not for a young man on the brink of life. This Oxford section of his book contains a superb study of the failed, paranoid, dilettante scholar Meyerstein, which in its implied criticism of the cruelties and littlenesses of the Oxford Establishment, runs as counterpoint to the author’s recall of his own idyllically happy university days.
In the last section we see how this premature old man’s attitude served him as university don and as absurdly young husband. With such subtly, yet exactly depicted outline of his life given to us, it is less a surprise to the reader than it was to his friends when the author in 1955 gave up his assured university reading post to become a full-time writer. What he has shown us of his life prepares us for the courage of such a step. What has emerged from the undertones tells us that he had to start again in order to be free of his precocious adult melancholy. But breaks do not change a man’s life and Mr. Wain ends as he began—a stoic pessimist.