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New Left Review I/12, November-December 1961


Graham Martin

Fable for Our Times

The Old Men At The Zoo,

by Angus Wilson: Seeker &Warburg. 18s.

this is Angus Wilson’s fourth novel, and an acceptable review ought, I’m sure, to trace something of its relation with earlier ones, and possibly to question the recurring view (see for example John Mander’s recent book) that these novels recapitulate and dilute old material (i.e. better dealt with by the collections of stories), or at best, dress up old themes in scanty contemporary garments. Time however is short, (and the earlier novels aren’t), so one comparatively minor point will have to stand for the whole comparison. Unlike its predecessors, this novel is carefully designed as a tract for the times, and there are even a few signs (“The Old Men at the Zoo”) that there’s a special application to our rulers. By “message”, however, the more sensitive fiction-addict needn’t expect to be too grossly belaboured because any satirical intention is contained within an intricate and universal formed structure. The author has drawn on three conventions: namely, on the kind of novel which uses a first-person narrative to dramatise a single character’s complete moral condition by a kind of self-exposure; on the kind which relies on a strong, almost separable “plot” —here a Snow-like tale of political intrigue, decision and responsibility told with un-Snow-like speed and economy; (one has a contrasting vision of old Lewis Eliot shovelling steadily through Strangers And Brothers); and the kind of novel-parable about the future whose main business is to alarm the present. From the first two formulas, the novel gets its complexity, and from the third its contemporary point. Slighter than the others (slimmer too than their not wholly rewarding girth), it foregoes any real extension of themes already begun. What it gains will I hope become clear.

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