Setting the World on Fire

by Angus Wilson

Viking, $11.95

This new book by one of England’s foremost novelists is a little like the seventeenth-century opera that is among its central incidents. Mannered, formal, and full of parallels and references, it paces steadily on toward the usual tragic conclusions, pausing only for explanatory passages and dramatic displays of various sorts. It does not reveal Wilson at his best.
The trouble lies in the overwhelming dominance of the setting, a carefully constructed mansion in central London that is meant to explain as well as shelter its aristocratic inhabitants. Designed in the classical style but completed by a baroque architect, Tothill House is home to two brothers, Tom and Piers, who from earliest childhood are distinguished respectively by restraint and exuberance, pragmatism and creativity, stolidity and emotionalism. The story, such as it is, concerns Piers’s rise to triumph as a theatrical director, but it is overshadowed by hints of the larger story of class, wealth, privilege, and tradition offered by Tothill House itself.
As usual, Wilson here conveys with a light touch both the moving absurdity of the hereditary rich and his own immense erudition, and he has included a lovely aria on the theme of acrophobia. Setting the World on Fire is undoubtedly a brave attempt to transform the grandiose arts of the past into modern prose; sadly, it is an unsuccessful one.