Monday 19 March 2018

Obituary: Colin Wilson

Author whose first book was feted by the critics, and who never swayed in his belief in his own genius

PROLIFIC OUTPUT: Colin Wilson, author of The Outsider
PROLIFIC OUTPUT: Colin Wilson, author of The Outsider

COLIN WILSON, the writer, who has died aged 82, suspected he was a genius; and there were some who agreed with him when in 1956, then 24, he published The Outsider, a somewhat portentous overview of existentialism and alienation.

Examining the role of outsiders in the arts, Wilson's attention roamed across a multitude of figures such as Camus, Nietzsche, Kafka, Sartre, Hesse and van Gogh. Few first books have been greeted with such unequivocal enthusiasm.

Wilson became a celebrity almost overnight and the book went on to be translated into 12 languages. It added to the excitement that he had written The Outsider in the Reading Room at the British Museum, while spending his nights in a sleeping bag on Hampstead Heath. On finding himself lionised, however, Wilson spent lavishly on wine, whisky and records; meanwhile, his frankly expressed opinion that he was "a genius" soon earned him the enmity of Fleet Street.

Wilson never replicated the stellar success of his debut publication, but his output as a writer was nothing less than prodigious -- well over 100 books of fiction and non-fiction, many of them about crime (in the context of an individual's alienation from society) and the occult.

He was regularly criticised for making sweeping generalisations and for his habit of quoting from memory without reference to his sources, but he remained unshakeably convinced of his own talent.

Colin Henry Wilson was born in Leicester on June 26, 1931, the eldest of four children. His father, Arthur, worked in a shoe factory and Wilson recalled that he was "a particular burden" to his parents, "forever demanding attention". At 11, he developed an interest in science ("I was reading Einstein by the age of 12") and spent his free time making "bomb mixture" with his chemistry set. This he sold to schoolmates. Despite this precocity, he left school at 16, having failed to achieve the required mathematics credit that would have gained him a place at university. Instead he started work, in the same shoe factory as his father, before returning to his old school as a lab assistant.

Colin was a melancholic youth who toyed with the idea of suicide. In 1947 he wrote in his diary that he had almost taken cyanide, but that he had had "a moment of vision" and decided "to devote all free time to the pursuit of excellence".

Called up for National Service, he was so bored by life as an RAF clerk that he feigned homosexuality and was dismissed from the service. Returning to his parents' home, Wilson spent his time "digging the garden, reading Rabelais, practising ballet steps" and formulating what he later described as his "theory of the new existentialism". Over the next few years he worked variously as a carnival ticket salesman, ditch digger, labourer and factory hand.

It was while he was employed in a steelyard that he met and married the company nurse, Betty Troop, 10 years his senior. The day after the wedding, Wilson moved to London, leaving his wife, who was expecting his child, behind in Leicester; although she later joined him, the marriage was not a happy one and lasted only 18 months.

Throughout this time, Wilson had been writing plays, stories and essays. Wilson's first play, written in 1951, was The Metal Flower Blossom. Although it was rejected for commercial performance, he later recycled it as the novel Adrift in Soho. His second play, The Death of God, was again rejected, because it contained "too much philosophy and not enough drama". Undiscouraged, Wilson continued to churn out dramas, few of which saw the stage.

By 1956 he had established himself as a modish eccentric, dressing in turtlenecks and open-toed sandals; and in May that year The Outsider hit the bookshops. The reviews were effusive. The admiration was, however, short-lived. Wilson's loud affirmations of his own talent led to regular descriptions of him in the press as "Colin (I am a genius) Wilson". At first he was undeterred, enjoying the financial rewards that came with his success and spending lavishly on entertaining his friends.

He was by now in a relationship with Joy Stewart, whose sister had read Wilson's notes for his novel Ritual in the Dark (about a sadistic sex murderer) and had mistakenly believed them to be his diary. She told her father, who attacked the writer with a horsewhip. Wilson and Joy Stewart decamped to Cornwall, married, and went on to have three children.

Following the success of The Outsider, Colin Wilson produced Religion and the Rebel (1958), which was savaged by the critics. He then embarked on a writing career remarkable for its scope and sheer prolificacy.

Although the author of many novels, including science fiction, Wilson was best known for his non-fiction works. As well as his interest in literary and philosophical studies, he published books on psychic phenomena and the occult; UFOs and Atlantis; Rasputin, poltergeists, sexology and astral travel. He also wrote two volumes of memoirs. At his home in Cornwall, he stored much of his collection of 30,000 books in garden sheds, each dedicated to a particular subject (including one to house his own works).

Irish Independent

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