Author made famous by his first book, ‘The Outsider’
Colin Wilson: June 26th, 1931-December 5th, 2013
For a few months in the 1950s, Colin Wilson, who has died aged 82, was taken at his own valuation as “the major literary genius of our century”.
The phenomenal reviews and sales of his first book, The Outsider (1956), led him to be seen as a saviour of the human spirit, a thinker who might find a way through the spiritual emptiness of the postwar years.
The book remains extraordinary, if more for its reach than its grasp. In it, Wilson traced a path through the careers of thinkers, artists and men of action including Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, Hemingway, Nijinsky, van Gogh, Hesse and Lawrence of Arabia. He condensed them into a single type, “the Outsider”, a questing spirit caught between devastating experiences of nothingness and moments of the highest insight.
“Our life in modern society is a repetition of Van Gogh’s problem,” Wilson said, “the day-to-day struggle for intensity that disappears overnight, interrupted by human triviality and endless pettiness.”
The book was excitingly written. Its main failing, which took longer to emerge, was that it oversimplified and deformed some case studies to make them fit a thesis.
A review in the London Evening News was headlined “A major writer – and he’s 24”. Philip Toynbee of the Observer called The Outsider “exhaustive, luminously intelligent”. Other critics followed suit.
The book gave Wilson a celebrity and a status close to that of a prophet, even in tabloid newspapers. That was in 1956 – “how extraordinary my fame should coincide with Elvis Presley’s”, Wilson noted. The Outsider sold more than 20,000 copies in its first two months.
His passionate inquiry into his chosen themes continued but after his first great success the critics deserted him.
Though he published more than 100 works, he survived financially only because many of those dealt with murder or the occult as pathways to the insights that fascinated him.
Wilson’s defects included an imperfect analytical ability and a protective conceit that left him virtually impervious to the arguments of others.
He was born in Leicester to Arthur, a shoemaker, and his wife, Hattie, who passed on her love of reading.
He went to a local technical school and left at 16 to work in a wool factory. This was followed by spells as a laboratory assistant, clerk, labourer and hospital porter.
Eventually he moved to London where, to save money on rent, he spent the spring nights of 1954 in a sleeping bag on Hampstead Heath, while trying to write a novel in the British Museum reading room.
The Outsider came out in May 1956, in the same month as the premiere of John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger. Wilson and Osborne were the first to be characterised by the media “angry young men” hyped, then harassed, by the press.
Wilson, who later documented the era in The Angry Years: The Rise and Fall of the Angry Young Men (2007), talked readily to journalists and tended to hyperbole. “For 99 per cent of their lives, most human beings are in a state not too far from that of lobotomised pigeons,” he wrote.
Though he was in fact a Labour voter, the critic Kenneth Tynan and others spread word that he was a crypto-fascist.
The climax to an increasingly acrid press campaign came when the father of the woman who was to become his second wife, Joy Stewart, found his notes for a novel.
Mistaking these for a diary, he burst into a dinner party with a horse-whip shouting: “You’re a homosexual with six mistresses.” The incident made the papers, and Wilson passed on his actual diary to the Daily Mail – which published his claims to be “the major literary genius of our century”.
Wilson summarised The Outsider and its sequels in his 1966 book Introduction to the New Existentialism. He was Britain’s first, and so far last, existentialist star.
His later books tended more and more to go to niche readerships, though he said The Occult (1971) earned him £100,000. Dreaming to Some Purpose, a memoir, appeared in 2004.
He is survived by his wife, Joy, their sons Damon and Rowan, and daughter Sally, and Roderick, his son from his first marriage to Dorothy.