Colin Wilson 1931- 2013: More than just an Outsider.

Colin Wilson has passed away. My hope is that, as sometimes happens with a writer’s passing, his body of work might enjoy some objective re-evaluation.

But don’t hold your breath.  While the obituary notices in the British press have been, for the most part, largely objective, very few get beyond trotting out the usual Colin Wilson cliches which largely concern his fame then infamy  in the 1950’s. All the key elements of the story have been duly noted: his self-proclaimed genius, the penchant for roll-neck jumpers, sleeping rough on Hampstead Heath, the critical superlatives lavished on his first book The Outsider,  the waspish critical backlash that followed and from which he never really recovered so far as the mainstream was concerned, and his move from London to Cornwall.

Of all the things to have been written about him so far, I think the fairest is here in The Guardian. Even this, however, does fall for the cliched summary of Wilson’s work, which says that he wrote The Outsider then quickly turned to potboilers on crime and the occult.

I’ve blogged elsewhere  that, for all its quirks and limitations, there is a value to Wilson’s best work. (The Occult, for instance, really is a reliable crash course in Western esoteric thought. If some might even dismiss this as a ‘potboiler’, at least Wilson has the sense to chuck in all of the key ingredients so nothing of note is missed, and to spice the lot with a few interesting thoughts and theories of his own.)Those of us who may have read him when younger, and then moved inevitably on to other authors, would do well to give him the credit he’s due. Not everything he wrote was great or original, but at his best he can be provocative and stimulating.  His writing acted as a galvanising force for so many.

If you are interested in Colin Wilson but don’t know where to begin amid the 100+ books, perhaps the best place to start is with the book that he himself intended to be a grand summing up of his life’s main work, his excellently readable autobiography Dreaming to Some Purpose (2004). Never one for understatement, Wilson said in The Guardian at the time that he hoped it would do for his oeuvre what the publication of The Essential William Faulkner did for the American’s career: that is to give an overview and shape to the work as a whole, and hopefully garner renewed interest. At the time Wilson’s book was met with the usual sniffy indifference from the British book critics. Don’t let that put you off, however. If you are interested in its core subject matter of the human mind, the paranormal, the generally esoteric, or even what it’s like to be a self-proclaimed important writer, then Dreaming… is well worth dipping into. As for Wilson’s description of his brush with fame in the 1950’s, it’ll give you some idea of how the incestuous and essentially conservative  British cultural establishment works, and of how keenly the British press love to build someone up and then bring them crashing down.

Book review: The Periodic Table by Primo Levi.

I first read Primo Levi when I was in my late teens, starting with his collection of newspaper essays Other People’s Trades, and moving soon on to his first and possibly most important book If This is a Man/ The Truce. 

It’s satisfying to know that The Periodic Table (which I should have read back then, but better late than never) is something of  an amalgam of the above two books. It consists of 21 chapters, each one named after a chemical element. No chapter is about any of the named elements per se. What Levi gives us instead is a sideways take on chemistry, revealing some of the myriad ways in which it influences lives. Each chapter stands alone to a certain degree, but taken together they add up to something like an autobiography, Levi describing a specific episode or aspect of his life through the way in which a given element featured in it.

Why read this book? I think the main reason is because it is a great work. In many ways it is very serious (how could it not be, given a large part of it deals with Levi’s war time experiences, including his time in the Death Camps?). However, the seriousness is balanced by moments of levity and humour, and also by Levi’s intense curiosity about life. He wrote, he said, partly to bear witness to the Holocaust, so that it never be forgotten. But I think in  a more general sense he also wrote because he basically loved life, he loved the world and he wanted to explore it more through his writing.

Being based on personal recollection, the book provides an insight into what pre-war Italian Jewry was like, and how things changed over time under Fascism. Likewise it affords some insight into civilian life in Europe during the Second World War and its aftermath, which is a subject I always find interesting.

Perhaps most importantly the book reveals some of the many ways in which chemistry can touch upon everyday life. Levi remained a working chemist for all of his professional life, and it’s fascinating for me as a non-scientist to see, thanks to this book, the world through the eyes  of a specialist.

The almost perfect comparison to this book is another one that I found in my local library when I was halfway through Levi’s work. The Periodic Table  published by Quercus Books is an illustrated element-by-element guide to the building blocks of life and their role in world around us. It’s a lovely book in it s own right, and it allowed me to see those elements in their raw form that Levi went on to transform on the page.