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Humphrey Carpenter's angry young men. (Reviews).

The Angry Young Men: A Literary Comedy of the 1950s. Humphrey Carpenter. Allen Lane Penguin Pres. [pounds sterling]18.99. 256 pages. ISBN 0-713-99532-7.

Did the 'Angry Young Men' actually exist? This is the question on which Humphrey Carpenter overtly hangs his book. It has been, and still is, a matter of grave doubt, not least among the artists themselves--Kingsley Amis, John Osborne, John Wain, John Braine and Colin Wilson--to name some of the more obvious figures. But the hostility with which most of this 'movement' regarded each other surely proves its status a non-entity. They were simply, as John Osborne calls them, 'poor successful freaks'; but their works, once so controversial, have now joined the canon of English literature as established classics. Each 'Outsider', as Wilson's first novel was titled, has become a mainstream figure. Audiences, though, are mercurial beings and Humphrey Carpenter's biography records the greatly fluctuating thermometer of public approval: not all the ugly ducklings are metamorphosed into swans, and of those that are, many enjoy an ephemeral beauty only. Genius, it seems, is fleeting.

Irreverence forms the common bond here. An irreverence which paved the way for the sixties' satirists who, as the author records, symbolised for Sir Edward Health 'the death of deference'. Whether there was ever any more formal link than this shared arrogance and acute cynicism, Mr Carpenter doubts, but he emphasises that, like any cult, it was the belief that mattered, not the reality.

The portraits differ hugely, from the brilliant evocations of the Amis and Larkin relationship at Oxford, chiefly construed through their wonderfully entertaining correspondence, to the balder, and lesser, descriptions of such authors as John Braine. Given the huge scope of the book, it is hard for its author really to engage with any of his subjects, save perhaps Amis - and the potted histories, though a requirement for contextual background, clutter rather than clarify the work. Despite his occasional clumsiness, Mr Carpenter plays off text against text, text against author, and even author against author well. We can appreciate the greatness of each work of literature through Humphrey Carpenter's lovingly constructed literary editions, which serve to illuminate, not obfuscate the text for the lay reader.

The crux of the book, though, is voiced by Colin Wilson: 'What are the angry young men angry about?' Here, Mr Carpenter's study triumphs. He paints the strait-jacketed literary scene, the 'Establishment', and the drabness of post-war Britain in grey hues - it is this, a sort of ubiquitous London smog, clammy and stifling, against which each author struggles. Not only that, but we are convinced of the justification of their vehement attacks. These rebels did have causes.
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Author:Ansell, Venetia
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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