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Colin Wilson: The Outsider and other weirdness

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Colin Wilson: The Outsider and other weirdness Empty Colin Wilson: The Outsider and other weirdness

Post  eddie Thu Nov 03, 2011 8:27 am

Look back in wonder

Fifty years ago, critics turned The Outsider into an overnight sensation and hailed its author a genius - then they changed their minds. Harry Ritchie charts the rise and fall of Colin Wilson.

Harry Ritchie
The Guardian, Saturday 12 August 2006

Colin Wilson: The Outsider and other weirdness 4321

This year marks the golden anniversary of one of the most sensational debuts in English literary history. Not Osborne's Look Back in Anger, which was greeted on opening night with dutiful applause and ho-hummish reviews, but the work of an even younger writer, the 24-year-old Colin Wilson, whose first book, The Outsider, was an overnight sensation.

The Outsider hardly seemed to be the stuff of even modest success. It was a bizarre concoction of philosophy and literary criticism, purporting to be about existentialism, and packed full of quotes and references to Sartre, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Gurdjieff. Even garlanded with the dust-jacket praise of Edith Sitwell (whose 137-line blurb claimed that The Outsider was an "astonishing" book and that Colin Wilson would be "a truly great writer"), Gollancz's initial print run of 5,000 copies seemed wildly optimistic.

The first sign that something was up came two days before publication, when an excited article in the Evening News heralded Wilson as "A Major Writer". The next day he was acclaimed by the two most important critics in the country - Philip Toynbee in the Observer and Cyril Connolly in the Sunday Times. "Luminously intelligent," declared an overjoyed Toynbee of Wilson's book. Connolly pronounced it to be "extraordinary", "one of the most remarkable first books I have read for a long time". When it appeared in the bookshops on Monday, it sold out by the end of the afternoon.

Publication day also brought a follow-up feature in the Evening News, revealing that the startling prodigy had saved money by being homeless, writing in the British Museum by day and sleeping rough on Hampstead Heath. The Daily Mail and the Express took up the story - Wilson was a self-taught, working-class lad from Leicester who had left school at 16 and worked variously as a hospital porter, a lab assistant and a labourer in a plastics factory in Finchley before giving up his job to write full-time and sleep on the Heath - where he returned to pose obligingly, back in his sleeping bag, for Life magazine.

Fleet Street had found its very own intellectual genius, one who called himself an existentialist, with a turtle-neck and brainy specs to boot. Amazingly, the highbrow critics agreed. The Outsider was "really important", according to the New Statesman. "Masterly," said the Listener. "Brilliant," said Elizabeth Bowen. "Brilliant," echoed VS Pritchett on the BBC Home Service. Within a few months, The Outsider had sold 20,000 copies in hardback, translation rights had been sold to five territories and the American edition had been selected as a book of the month.

Inspired by Wilson's dramatic entrance into the literary world ("he walked into literature like a man walks into his own house" was the account in the New York Times Book Review), Daniel Farson, then a young freelance journalist and soon to be one of Britain's first TV stars, wrote a couple of articles for the Daily Mail, not only acclaiming the prodigy ("I have just met my first genius. His name is Colin Wilson") but also announcing that he was the leading light of a new postwar generation.

Farson's enthusiasm for Wilson had to carry his far less impressed opinion of the other writers he roped into membership of this supposed generation: Kingsley Amis; Michael Hastings, then 18, who was about to have his first play performed; and, in a desperate cast-around for any other at-all-visible talents at a lean time, John Osborne, whom Farson noted seemed to be "an angry young man". A fortnight later, the Daily Express replied with its own feature, taking the same four writers and turning the phrase into a plural - Wilson, Osborne, Amis and Hastings were, shouted the headline, "Today's Angry Young Men".

No matter that the label was nonsensical, that the writers had almost nothing in common and, indeed, that they thoroughly disliked each other's work and each other. Having discovered its own literary genius, Fleet Street now set out to promote its very own literary group. The catchphrase certainly helped the four to become rich as well as famous. Within a year The Outsider had earned Wilson £20,000, equivalent to £1m today, an especially noticeable sum in those straitened times when rationing was just coming to an end and Lady Docker's gold-plated Daimler was a subject of nationwide envy.

Then came the downfall. Wilson was the first to suffer, and the one who suffered most. The Sunday Times commissioned him to write a much-vaunted series of book reviews, but three strange pieces later, the series came to an abrupt end. Asked during an interview with Farson on ITV if he was a genius, Wilson agreed that he probably was. Writing in the Daily Express, Wilson mused that death could be avoided by those with sufficient intellectual oomph. "Why do people die? Out of laziness, lack of purpose, of direction." During a symposium at the Royal Court, he announced that Shakespeare was "absolutely second-rate", and wrote "the sort of things you find stuck on your calendars".

The tabloid backlash began with a story in the Sunday Pictorial in December 1956. Wilson had left his wife and five-year-old son. This touch of ignominy became full-blown farce when Wilson's girlfriend's father came across the author's journals. Horrified to read what he wrongly took to be pornographic fantasies (actually, explained Wilson, notes for the novel he was writing), the concerned parent resolved to rescue his daughter. He turned up with his wife at Wilson's Notting Hill flat, brandishing a horsewhip. Wilson's future mother-in-law set about the country's famous new philosopher with her handbag.

The incident was front-page news for several days. Pursued by the press, Wilson and his girlfriend fled to Devon, and there it would have ended had Wilson not done his best to keep the story alive. Having made a deal with the Mail for exclusive coverage of his imminent return to London, he then alerted the Express, reasoning that "I felt it only fair to let them know too". He also handed his journals over to the Daily Mail. Although they turned out not to be pornographic, Wilson's private thoughts made for juicy copy. "The day must come when I am hailed as a major prophet," was one quote. "I must live on, longer than anyone else has ever lived ... to be eventually Plato's ideal sage and king ..."

The literary establishment looked on in horror. Their wunderkind was a nincompoop. Philip Toynbee had already provided a throat-clearing apology in his books-of-the-year piece in December ("I doubt whether this interesting and extremely promising book quite deserved the furore which it seems to have caused ..."). If ever there was a book in for a critical hiding, it was the sequel to The Outsider, Religion and the Rebel, published in September 1957.

It was panned. "Half-baked Nietzsche" was the scornful dismissal of Raymond Mortimer in the Sunday Times, where Cyril Connolly and his wild praise were both conspicuous by their absence. "A vulgarising rubbish bin," considered the mightily embarrassed Toynbee, who now remembered The Outsider as "clumsily written and still more clumsily composed". Nor, as one might think, was Religion and the Rebel the luckless victim of Wilson's terrible publicity. It thoroughly deserved its panning. It is every bit as bad as The Outsider. Both books are dreadful. Appalling.

The whole sorry episode certainly shows up the two reviewers who were primarily responsible - Connolly, who was hopeless at anything that required abstract thought and who was a complete sucker for grand names and grand gestures, both of which The Outsider had aplenty, and poor Toynbee, who was always susceptible to grand-sounding ideas. (Interesting to see Toynbee not learning from his mistake and, 20 years later, acclaiming Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - The Outsider of the 1970s - as "a work of great, perhaps urgent importance" reaching "the very heart of our present psychological and spiritual anguish".)

Others in the literary establishment had proved themselves just as fallible. Sitwell, Bowen, John Lehmann, Stephen Spender - they had all praised Wilson to the skies or wooed him for their periodicals, before suddenly clamming up and hoping nobody had noticed the initial faux pas.

Significantly, Wilson's most prominent enthusiasts were all "Mandarins" - bellettrists who were younger members or descendants of the Bloomsbury group, upper-middle-class and upper-middle-aged, high priests of high art who worshipped at the altar of modernism and all things sophisticated and French. Wilson dropped all the right names - foreign, highbrow, impressively daunting on both counts - and, with his vague proclamations about the spiritual crisis in modern society and the alienation of his genius Outsiders, pressed all the right buttons.

His supporters also managed not to pick up on Wilson's offensive witterings about what he termed "the common mob" - 95 per cent of the population, by his estimation, although the real Outsiders comprised 0.005 per cent of the elite 5 per cent - being worthless "apes", "caged animals", "hogs", "flies", "ants", "insects", "human lice". Actually, the Mandarins clearly found that general line rather congenial, because it fitted only too well into their cherished Romanticist/modernist myth of the artistic genius set apart from and above society, and justified in that alienation by utter contempt for the masses. With his horrendous simplicities, Wilson proclaimed that intellectual misanthropy loud and clear. He recommended, for example, that the mentally ill should be shot. He also demanded that his artist-visionary Outsiders should "achieve political power from the hogs".

Indeed, Wilson toyed with the idea of doing just that in 1958, when he helped found a new literary-political movement, the Spartacans, to replace iniquitous democracy with the dictatorship of the "expert minority" of the spiritual elite. The Spartacan movement soon fizzled out, but not before attracting the eager support of Oswald Mosley.

With his loose talk of Übermensch, Outsiders and geniuses, and his happy acceptance that he himself was probably a genius and "a major prophet", he also offered an unwittingly comic, Hancockian version of the Great Writer the Mandarins desperately wanted to appear - preferably one who could lead them all out of the cul-de-sac that their beloved modernists seemed to have led them into, and definitely one who could single-handedly rescue a second-rate era of unambitious writing.

Alas, as it turned out, Colin Wilson wasn't even a flash in the pan so much as an accident in the kitchen sink, and his preposterous rise and ludicrous fall served only to humiliate an already embattled literary establishment and further discredit their devotion to modernism and all things European.

As for Wilson himself, his eviction to the literary wilderness in 1957 proved to be irrevocable. Despite his exile to a place beyond respectability, he has plugged away at an amazingly prolific career, producing more than 100 more books in the half-century since his heyday, many of them about the occult and the paranormal, and about allegedly Outsider criminals like Jack the Ripper. His extensive oeuvre has two virtues - his clear, simple, fluent style, and his ideas being just far too daft to be taken seriously.

Wilson disagrees. "I suspect that I am probably the greatest writer of the 20th century," he says. "In 500 years time, they'll say, 'Wilson was a genius', because I'm a turning-point in intellectual history.'

Well, no they won't, but yes he was, sort of.

·The Outsider is published by Phoenix (£8.99). Harry Ritchie's latest novel, The Third Party, is published by Hodder & Stoughton
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Colin Wilson: The Outsider and other weirdness Empty Re: Colin Wilson: The Outsider and other weirdness

Post  eddie Thu Nov 03, 2011 8:36 am

There's a very funny vignette somewhere in Kingsley Amis' autobiography describing poor Kingsley's desperate attempts to avoid CW's company at fashionable literary soirees because all his fellow "Angry Young Man" wanted to talk about was serial killers. alien
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