That Uncertain Feeling by Kingsley Amis (1955)

We moved together towards the entrance-hall. I felt I was walking in an absurdly unnatural way, like a school-boy on the stage for the first time in his life. Did I always swing my arms as if I were carrying a pair of empty buckets? (p.21)

Amis’s second novel (he was 33), told in the first-person by John Aneurin Lewis, a frustrated, poor young married librarian in (the fictional town of) Aberdarcy, south Wales; this is the comic tale of how he is seduced by the sophisticated wife of a local businessman, but learns his lesson!

Self-consciousness

As in Lucky Jim, a lot of the comedy stems from the narrator’s hyper self-awareness. He is continually onstage to himself, playing a part or, more accurately, numerous parts copied from an amusingly wide range of sources, to alleviate the boredom of his job and his endlessly roving self-consciousness. That Uncertain Feeling is a good summary of the book’s worldview; Lewis’s consciousness is awash with feelings but he is never very certain what they mean or what he should be doing about them.

A huge bewilderment settled upon me (82)…

I had just started to tremble a little bit and to feel, on the whole, like a new boy at a large and prosperous school. (p.115)

Bolshie

As in Lucky Jim the protagonist mutinies against stifling provincialism – albeit in an essentially innocent overgrown schoolboy sort of way. He sticks his tongue out at a painting of the founder in the library, he confuses a local woman seeking to renew her library ticket, like Jim he makes funny faces behind people’s backs, and odd noises of triumph or despair when he thinks he’s alone.

When nothing’s going on or likely to start going on, which is a lot of the time, I start practising certain poses and tones and phrases, for no very clear reason. (p.10)

He thinks of himself as a bit of a rebel. When he’s invited to a posh party at the big house of Mrs Elizabeth Gruffydd-Williams he is determined to stand up to ‘those people’ – her well-to-do friends – and not be talked down to. He’s not going to be impressed by Schubert and other craps or by so-called art probably laid on the canvas with a trowel or by the ‘reproduction of some rotten old tapestry’ in a pub, and he only reads books if he hasn’t got a new copy of Astounding Science Fiction magazine available.

He spends a lot of time wondering who to be rude to and how much. He describes the prolonged campaign he’s been waging against the downstairs neighbours who won’t let him or his wife go through their kitchen door so as to use the garden to hang out their washing: in response John refuses to take mail when they’re out, misdirects callers, leaves rubbish on their doorstep and so on.  Angry with Elizabeth, he fantasises about shouting abuse at her down the phone. He fantasises about bursting into one of her posh dinner parties and cartwheeling round the room dressed in traditional Welsh outfit with SOD THE LOT OF YOU sewn on the back. A life full of fantasies.

Because, like Jim Dixon’s, John Lewis’s (generally well-hidden) rage against the world is actually the reaction of a man who is deeply afraid of other people. Instead of standing up for himself and ‘the workers’ at Elizabeth’s posh party, he quickly retreats to the safety of the loo, happier to be hiding from clever, articulate upper-middle-class people. Chapter Four opens with a character- defining sentence:

It was wonderful in the lavatory. (p.48)

‘Panic’, ‘unmanning’, ‘afraid’, all occur within a few pages. Several times he envies people their ‘whole-heartedness’, obviously afflicted with the self-conscious sense of somehow being a fake. At a dance, when Elizabeth is more or less man-handled away from him by some toughs and he tries to intervene, John is in danger of getting pummeled, and is only saved by the intervention of his downstairs neighbour’s son, a genuine hard case. When he is caught snogging Elizabeth at her house by the unexpected return of her husband and friends, he ends up making a sharp exit from the bedroom window. He is a confirmed runner-away.

‘Don’t you feel you’re running away, though?’
‘Yes, I do, thank God.’ (p.245)

In other words, Lewis comes across – despite his marriage and two small children – as an overgrown schoolboy and is therefore a pushover for the sophisticated Mrs G-W who takes him to a dance, takes him to a ghastly modern play, kisses him, then drives him back to her place where there is some partial stripping off, in order to, as she explains, get him hooked. She is more amused by toying with this naive fool than by having an actual ‘affair’.

But all this is not cost-free for Lewis or his wife, Jean. The book is leavened by the real hurt and pain this rather pointless affair causes her. She can see right through him, see the look of lust on his face at Elizabeth’s party, is hurt when he comes home after the pubs have shut the night of the play: it is all too obvious and she despises him for his feeble excuses.

Now don’t stand there giving me that little-boy face, you’re getting too old for it. Try it on her, she’s not so particular. Go on, get out. (p.161)

Key events

The pace is slow and even and ‘realistic’. Entire chapters can be made out of a married couple chatting on the sofa or Dixon talking to the professor or a student. There is a lot of dialogue in Amis novels. With the result that there is only a handful of really memorable scenes:

  • Elizabeth Gruffydd-Williams invites John Lewis and his wife, Jean, to a party of posh upper-middle-class people at the mansion of her rich businessman husband, Vernon Gruffydd-Williams. It is to escape the smug superiority of the other guests that Lewis ends up hiding in the toilet.
  • Elizabeth invites Lewis to a dance at a club a little outside town. They dance and flirt. Lewis, instructed to turn on the lights in one of her posh friends’ cars, appears to let the brake off and it rolls backward into a ditch. While drunk revellers are pushing it out, Elizabeth first kisses Lewis and he realises he wants it to happen; he wants something to change in his life and this could be it.
  • Elizabeth invites Lewis to the performance of the ghastly play in blank verse, The Martyr, by pretentious playwright Probert. Half way through they sneak out and drive back to her place (her husband being out) and, after numerous drinks, progress from snogging on the sofa to lying on the bed in a state of undress, when a car crunches up the drive. Hubby’s home!
  • Probably the most obviously comic set-piece in the novel, Lewis stumbles into an enormous closet which he discovers to be full of fancy dress outfits. Stuck in it while he overhears husband talking to wife and walking up and down outside, in a typically motiveless whim, he puts on a traditional Welsh woman’s outfit, complete with red jacket and tall black bonnet. When the coast seems clear he sneaks out and down the stairs but then more revellers arrive and he is forced to hide in the pantry, and so on. Eventually he escapes out the bedroom window and walks the long road back into town but now, every attempt to sneak off into a dark field to take the costume off is foiled, and he ends up catching the last bus home dressed as a little old Welsh lady, keeping his head well down (especially when the conductor asks his fare), and is quite close to his house when he is molested by a drunk man.
  • When Lewis finally arrives home, Jean is sullen and sulky. She knows something is going on. Lewis is called for an interview for a more senior job at the library. Waiting outside the interview room with three other candidates merits an entire chapter of conversation as we get to know the other types. Then he is called in for the interview which is a comic shambles and merits another entire chapter.
  • He is invited to another ‘party’ by Elizabeth, this time out at their ‘place’ by the sea. A lot of her drunken crew are there, as the sun sets, becoming completely inebriated, passing out, throwing up, disappearing off with each other’s wives. Lewis tells himself he loathes these rich smug craps, but when Elizabeth takes him by the hand and invites him to go skinny-dipping he obediently strips off and goes. And then, once back out of the sea, they finally have sex among the sand dunes.

The post-sex conversation turns nasty when Elizabeth raises the matter of Lewis’s interview for the library job. She reveals that her husband, who was sitting on the interview board, had made his mind up before the process even began, to hire Lewis, purely to irritate the Head of the Library. Lewis is humiliated, and asks her if it is not also because he is her fancy man, was it some kind of posh fix-up between them? Is he just a pawn?

He ends up telling her to stuff her job and storming off. Elizabeth runs after to catch him up and offers to drive him back to town in her car. But on the way she has a kind of fit, becoming hysterical and as Lewis reaches across her to the wheel the car crashes. From one of the cars which was coming towards them emerges her husband, Vernon. Together they extract the unconscious and bleeding Elizabeth from her wreck, transfer her to Vernon’s car and he drives home, dropping Lewis at the edge of town, and tells him in no uncertain terms never to contact his wife again.

When he arrives home he is drunk and dirty and it is 2am and his wife has stayed up incongruously accompanied by the dire Welsh playwright, Proberts. When the latter leaves, the couple have a blazing row, Jean knowing, with feminine intuition, that Lewis has finally had sex with Elizabeth, and announcing that their marriage is completely over, but says what has made her absolutely furious is that he has the lack of morals to be unfaithful but then the misplaced scruples to turn down the job and extra money which his wife and two young children so desperately need to move to a place of their own.

In a strange sequence he goes out roaming the empty streets of Aberdarcy looking for something bad to happen and is heading towards the sea when he comes across the downstairs neighbour’s son, drunk and unconscious in the street with a bad head wound. He helps him home to the effusive thanks of the mother. He goes upstairs resolved to be a better man.

Themes and variations

Resentment Both Jim and Lewis are disgruntled lower-middle-class young men with a grudge against anyone and everyone more educated, arty, literate, richer or posher than them. In a very vague way this is supposed to be some kind of ‘up the workers’ attitude, but is really envy and resentment.

My familiar embarrassed defensiveness at talking to a member of the anglicised upper classes… (p.14)

I felt my role of proletarian spy slip away a little… (p.115)

Pusillanimity They are mice fantasising about being lions.

The last few weeks I’d been enjoying myself no end, practising the role of the truly strong man, the man superior to things like sex. (p.15)

I felt as if something had happened which had made me feel very frightened, and that I must do something which would make me feel even more frightened if I was ever to get rid of the first frightening thing. (p.231)

Plights Amis often makes brisk comparisons of his heroes to men in realistic but challenging situations. In their day they were probably hilarious comic exaggerations but now they read like homely metaphors from a more innocent age.

As I got nearer I felt more and more like a man going in to bat in his first Test Match with the score at nineteen for three. (p.198)

Close observation of others Part of Amis’s sometimes painful self-consciousness, is his acute other-consciousness, captured in hundreds of detailed descriptions of other people.

When she asked a question I noticed that she spoke with her teeth together but with her lips moving very freely. This gave her voice a harsh resonant quality which I thought suited her looks. (p.17)

A man in the late forties with a dark red face and thick lips came by degrees into the room. Every straight grey hair in his abundant crop seemed the same length as if it belonged to a little furry animal or shaving brush. (p.18)

His mouth, which had all the mobility of a partly-collapsed inner tube, was incompletely surrounded by a brownish grime of stubble; his greying hair came horizontally out of his scalp and projected in two stiff, inorganic shelves over  his ears. (p.38)

Funny voices His own which he puts on, and noticing other people’s.

‘Have I read this one?’ she began by asking – a popular query, this, and spoken in the tone of high-level business executive to confidential secretary. (p.23)

I went out on to the landing. ‘Is there someone calling?’ I asked in my special cultured accent, which I retained for the whole of the subsequent dialogue. (p.100)

My voice sounded oddly near at hand, as if I was muttering directly into my own ear. (p.118)

‘Hello dear people,’ I said, mimicking the generic accent of the Gruffydd-Williamses and their pals… He was now giving a strong, hairy-eyebrowed stare. He said in his film-Welshman’s voice… (p.221)

Funny faces Hardly any compared to the epidemic of them in Jim.

This would be a good time, I decided, to try out a new smile, featuring the lower lip and nostrils, which I had been practising that week. (p.53)

Showy philistinism You can’t fob me off with all that hoity-toity crap!

Earlier that day I’d been led by what must have been exceptional boredom to look into a book about Dr Johnson, of all people… (p.42)

Military metaphors It is a standard comic trick to apply advanced military terminology to humdrum domestic situations, a kind of comic exaggeration, but the terminology was also presumably very familiar to Amis’s generation who either served during the war or did National Service. Thus he is taking Elizabeth through the hall of his shared house, when the dire Mr and Mrs Jenkins emerge, and they back away:

A patrol encountering a vastly superior enemy force should avoid contact and retire at once before suffering any casualties. (p.18)

I went to the window again and saw her come out on to the pavement, glance quickly to and fro as if fearful of snipers, and hurry off across the road… (p.96)

The Davies incident this evening had been no more than patrol activity, successful from my point of view, but limited. the war had been begun by Mrs Davies… By a long and resolute campaign… she’d converted her kitchen door into an obstacle as impassable as an anti-tank ditch. (p.103)

Much of the garden was thickly planted with trees and shrubs, like a mimic jungle for infantry training. (p.114)

She at once got up with a fair show of decision and began a careful flanking approach to the door, securing her rear by sliding with her back to the tall box-like couch. (p.155)

Aggression and violence Jim and John, in their minds, are prone to sudden bursts of rage and hatred, triggered by almost anything other people say to them. The thing is, they are never expressed, remaining always bottled up internally, thus conveying the sense of comic frustration and impotence.

I had a rude word ready to say to her, but suppressed it.. (p.63)

Where she went just a wee bit wrong was in assuming, as she gave every sign of doing, that if she stayed another few minutes I might suddenly spring at her with a hatchet, or possibly not bother to fetch the hatchet and just sink my canines into her jugular. (p.153)

A condition of rage wasn’t perhaps a bad starting point… (p.163)

Conclusion

The last chapter makes a big jump in time and space to a completely new town, a mining town where John has taken up a post in the office at the mine. He and Jean are fully reconciled and they are seen walking across town to a party, nodding and helloing everyone they see, quite obviously more in touch with their Welshness and their lower class roots than in the falsely English and posh Aberdarcy. Comic novels should end happily, but I was puzzled whether this was meant to be some kind of morality tale. Are we to conclude that adultery in a ‘fast set’ is not only immoral but hurts the ones you love most, and always ends in tears as that kind of person is always damaged? Is that what the book was ‘about’?

I couldn’t believe it appeared to be as straightforward and tritely moralistic an ending as it appeared.

That said, I liked this more than Lucky Jim, maybe because it doesn’t carry the weight of its predecessor’s fame. It’s a jobbing novel from its era, humorous throughout with some very funny scenes, but also with the oddness of the married-woman affair and Lewis’s strangely passive acceptance of the situation, and the upsetting scenes with his wife. All a bit more unnerving and thought-provoking than Jim‘s more standard boy-gets-girl happy ending.

Related links

The movie

It was made into a film in 1962, renamed Only Two Can Play, directed by Sidney Gilliat and starring Peter Sellers and Mai Zetterling. This clip of the opening ten minutes keenly conveys the poverty, the crampedness, the narrowness of life in post-war Britain.

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with his boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, a clingy neurotic girlfriend, and amiably contemptuous colleagues at his cheap rooming house. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in south Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of the genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation, then sex, on a nearby beach, then the mistress’s mad car driving leading to a crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves to a mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infants school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets, not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes unforgivably harsh with her, sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending meetings which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, with dire consequences for its officers, in particular dashing James Churchill and his love affair with beautiful sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (pseud. Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts but finds himself falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess taken as symbolising the collapse of values in late-60s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in suburban Home Counties where the loss of of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with the murder of a neighbour both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – Five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, are shown getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending, in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic attempt on the Prime Minister’s life!
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as Christendom, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is so talented he is selected to be castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a hilarious journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women
1986 The Old Devils
1988 Difficulties with Girls
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

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