a novel by Colin Wilson
50th Anniversary Edition, with a new Introduction by Colin Stanley.
Reviewed by Chris Nelson
There is something rather mysterious about a good Colin Wilson novel. I recently picked up Necessary Doubt again, and within a paragraph or two of deceptively simple prose I was drawn into an entirely complete world of London in the early fifties. A light snow is falling on Christmas Eve. Professor and “existentialist theologian” Karl Zweig has just left a television studio where he was on a program called Ask the Experts, and is listening to the amiable chatter of his taxi driver. As they stop at a traffic light, he notices someone vaguely familiar climbing into a cab outside of a hotel. Before long he is embroiled in a search for his former student, Gustav Neumann, who years ago aspired to become a master criminal.
The plot of the book is not as tightly wound as some of Wilson’s other novels. In fact, I seem to recall Wilson himself writing somewhere that the book is too long by a third. This was probably my fourth read and I was still compelled to turn the pages; overall it is an excellent, well-paced read. But one could argue there is occasionally something a little static about some of the passages; there is a lot of driving around, pausing, drinking, talking, driving around . . .
But that’s just on the surface. What sets the novel ablaze are the ideas, and the dilemma of Karl Zweig. The conflict arises when he is confronted with Neumann’s goals to achieve expanded consciousness, perhaps at the cost of a certain callous disregard for the lives of his “clients” — older men whom Gustav is suspected of killing for their fortunes.
As Nicolas Tredell points out in Novels to Some Purpose: the Fiction of Colin Wilson, although Zweig is close to seventy, the novel fits into the category of bildungsroman because it tells the story of a kind of coming-of-age for its central character. In this case, Zweig’s quest is to come back to himself, to get back on the track of the philosophical, existential investigation he has sidelined himself from for many years. Precisely how his quest for Neumann accomplishes this is best left to readers of the novel.
Necessary Doubt is an unconventional detective novel. Wilson adopted the genre structure as a vehicle for his philosophical ideas, and he does this convincingly here, without overwhelming the narrative or getting too didactic. At core is the evolutionary quest for expanded consciousness, which is based on the recognition that our “everyday” consciousness is a poor substitute for what we are really capable of. We are like creatures locked in tiny rooms in our minds. We don’t realize we live in mansions. What’s more, we are capable not just of exploring our mansion, but of unlocking the front door, stepping outside into a rich wilderness, and experiencing life in a whole new way. The trick is to understand the mechanisms of consciousness — how our minds get so narrowly focused, and how to open them up again. Understanding this becomes the key to unlocking the doors of a wider reality.
This is the real mystery that Necessary Doubt explores, in the guise of an old-school detective story and hunt for a murderer. But Wilson gives us a clue as to how to do it in the first few pages of the novel. It’s worth looking at this moment briefly, not just from the philosophical angle, but also from a technical, writerly point of view.
Here are the opening paragraphs:
“As the taxi turned the corner at Shepherd’s Bush, the first flakes of snow drifted against the window. Before they were halfway to Notting Hill, it was snowing so heavily that visibility was limited to a few yards. The driver said,
‘I thought so. Been expectin’ this all day. Either that or rain.’
Professor Karl Zweig did not reply — not because he disliked the driver’s familiarity, but because he could think of nothing to say. The man seemed to understand that this silence was not intended as a snub; he went on:
‘I said to the missus this mornin’ — if we have a snowy Christmas it’ll be the first one since 1948.’
Zweig managed to say, ‘Really?’
‘Not that I care. It’s just a bloomin’ nuisance for me. Still, it’s nice for the kids.’
Notting Hill Gate looked strange and bare with half its buildings demolished; it brought back to Zweig a memory of Hamburg as he had seen it in 1945, and a feeling of chill. He thought of the snow falling into the black waters of the Aussen Alster and the smell of rotting bodies that blew from over the lake. The tax driver’s voice dissipated this feeling of nostalgia and disgust.
‘Don’t mind my askin’, but ‘aven’t I seen you some time on TV?’ ”
The trick with this second-to-last paragraph, in which we share Zweig’s flash of memory, is that it immediately expands the “space” of the narrative and the sense of who Zweig is. It is as if we are traveling with Zweig in the warm taxi, safe from the cold, heavy snowfall outside — and are then abruptly transported through time and space back to Hamburg in 1945, near the end of World War II. And then a moment later we are back in the taxi; the narrative space contracts again. Soon Zweig glimpses Neumann, and the chase begins.
Our minds expand and contract in an instant; we are aware not just of other times and places, but of the mind’s ability to travel to those other times and places at the drop of a hat. Here Wilson gifts us with an experiential insight into the novel’s philosophical obsession — and our own underutilized capacities. It is a reminder that he was not concerned with philosophy in an abstract way but rather as a vital, living tool with which can transform our experience of reality.
We might do well to follow his example. A fine place to start — or to continue our own quest — can be found within the pages of Necessary Doubt.
Necessary Doubt has been republished by Valancourt Books and is available on Amazon.com here:
Chris Nelson, an editor and freelance writer, can be reached here: