Ending Up by Kingsley Amis (1974)

Another mistaken forecast of his had been that, knowing what he knew, he would come to prize the things outside himself, like the scene before him; yet another, that he would have been able to look back on his life and – not find a meaning in it, which he had never hoped for, but see it as a whole. That might have been some compensation for having had to be Bernard Bastaple, for having had to live. (p.164)

This is the first of Amis’s novels I felt to be deliberately and calculatingly offensive to the reader. Mercifully short (176 pages), powerfully imagined and well-written – in Amis’s eccentric, rather clotted manner – it has some funny bits in the middle but then rattles on to a bleak and heartless conclusion.

Mise en scène

In an isolated, mock eighteenth-century, timber-framed, cold, damp, cramped cottage named Tuppenny-hapenny, seven miles from Newbury, live five elderly people, none with very much money, lumped together and forced to put up with each other’s company.

Adela, never married, has devoted her life to others and loves being the main organiser, shopper, bills-payer. Her brother, Bernard Bastaple, is bad-tempered, sometimes mean, verging on cruel. 40 years earlier he was kicked out of the Army, in which he was an officer, when it was discovered he was having a gay affair with his batman, one Derrick Shortell, now living in the cottage under the monicker ‘Shorty’, still acting the batman and servant, given to doing funny voices, drunk by lunchtime, dead drunk by teatime.

The fourth inhabitant is the superior and posh Marigold Pyke, formerly an actress, given to lofty pronouncements and the habit of making nouns into girlish diminutives (eg ‘drinky-winky’) which drives the others nuts. Fifth is a former European historian, George Zeyer, who has suffered a major stroke, paralysing his right side and also giving him nominal aphasia, preventing his brain deploying common nouns, making his speech long, periphrastic and confusing. He’s the brother of Vera, the woman Bernard married as a respectable front to conceal his homosexuality who, when the affair was revealed and Bernard cashiered, left him. Bernard continued on friendly terms with George and when the latter had his disastrous stroke, well, it seemed the charitable thing… And so here they all are, packed into a damp uncomfortable little cottage, getting on each other’s nerves.

Stuff happens

As in most Amis novels, it’s misleading to talk of a plot, there is more a string of events or developments. We learn more about the characters as they argue and bicker and deteriorate. Bernard graduates from making unpleasant remarks to planning unpleasant practical jokes. He lets off a stink bomb whose odour he tries to waft under the loo door, to persuade Marigold her guts are rotting. He buys and practices in the woods with a water pistol in order to spray her cat when nobody’s looking. Once when Shorty gets dead drunk, Bernard pees in a can and pours it over Shorty’s groin to persuade him he’s becoming incontinent.

The main events come towards the end when Marigold’s married grandchildren and their small children come for a big Christmas lunch. There is lots of shopping and pottering and bickering among the gang before the big day. And on this bleakly ‘festive’ occasion, lots more happens (Shorty and Marigold’s antagonism reaches the extent of actual physical slapping; the incident mentioned above where Bernard pours his own pee over Shorty’s trousers etc). But a central thread is the two adult sons’ comments in quiet moments or in the loo together, about what an appalling household it is and how they can’t wait to escape – a chorus or commentary confirming for the reader that the cottage really is a hell-hole. One of them rigs up a game of Call My Bluff which is described for five or six pages.

In other threads, George, brought downstairs by Shorty and one of the visitors and propped up in a chair, finds himself so perked up by this change from his bed that he recovers the ability to find and utter nouns, a great relief, which gives rise to the comic idea that he won’t stop spouting nouns, the names of things, of everything related to whatever he’s talking about, and from that moment on has to be routinely talked across to shut him up. Dr Mainwaring, a regular visitor to the household, is pleased by this improvement but tells him he mustn’t overdo it.

Marigold realises she’s reading a letter she knows she’s read before, as if it’s all completely new. She notices she’s written full-length replies to some of her letters twice, unaware the second time that she’s already written one. When the young ones come for Christmas, a chance remark from her grandson makes her see she’s forgotten large chunks of her married life. For a while she thinks she will have to leave the cottage, go to some home, because – in her dignity – she doesn’t want the others to witness her losing her mind, so she starts taking greater and greater offence at Bernard’s japes and comments as a cover story, as the overt excuse, for her planned departure.

Meanwhile, Shorty, continuing drunk and chirpy as ever, is, in truth, having greater and greater problems with loose bowels combined with uncomfortable piles, his trips to the lavatory becoming ever more painful.

Denouement

In the last few pages we learn the reason for Bernard’s trip to Newbury a few months earlier, why he said he was allowed to drink again after fifteen years on the wagon, and why – for a few days at least – he was sweetness and light to everyone. The specialist in Newbury gave him three months to live. Bleakly, anti-romantically, this does not lead to a transformation in his character and an improvement in life at Tuppenny-Hapenny Cottage, the reverse: he glumly realises that only being hard and bitchy helps alleviate his despair, as well as cooking up malicious schemes and pranks. Oh. This really isn’t a feel-good novel about nice old people. The opposite.

Inspired by someone reading out a news item in the paper about vandals and hooligans, Bernard suddenly conceives his grandest plan yet, which is to trash the entire cottage and blame it on tearaways. In a separate development, Marigold has spotted her dog’s chewed-up tennis ball on the stairs, but decides to leave it there to teach Shorty or Bernard a lesson. And Shorty had asked Bernard if he has any medicine to force constipation, as his guts are playing up again. Bernard tells him about the the two bottles by his bed, the white liquid is the blocker, the clear is the laxative, so the former, old boy.

The climax of the novel draws all these strands together into an orgy of slapstick, as done by Samuel Beckett. I have always felt a level of unhappiness, sometimes despair, running under Amis’s narratives, and in this book it emerges into the light of day.

It is later in the afternoon and Adela has left in the car to go shopping in Newbury. As a preliminary to his trashing-the-cottage plan, Bernard leans a rickety ladder against the wall, climbs up and cuts the phone wire, does a little wriggle of delight, falls off the ladder and, when he comes round, realises something major is broken and there is lots of blood. Marigold climbing the stairs hears something and is distracted for the moment it takes to tread on the slippery old tennis ball which she’s forgotten all about, to slip and tumble down the stairs, banging her head hard on the brass-lined log basket in the hall. Shorty, drunk as ever, confusing Bernard’s potions, takes the clear laxative, takes a double helping to be on the safe side, and is in the outside toilet having a genuine medical emergency.

Hearing the bump of Marigold’s fall, bed-ridden George shouts, and shouts again, to no reply, so drags himself out of bed, sprawling onto the floor, where everything suddenly goes black. When he is conscious again, he cannot move at all, only his eyes can swivel. Presumably he has had another stroke leading to complete paralysis. A few hours later, Adela arrives back at the cottage (narrowly missing Bernard’s cooling corpse lying in the drive), discovers Shorty dead in a pool of bloody and liquid excrement in the outside loo, goes inside to see Marigold lying at a funny angle at the foot of the stairs, and then a great weight bursts in her chest and the world goes black. She has had a fatal heart attack.

Three days later, unexpected guests arrive at a long-silent cottage, Bernard and Vera’s son who (we were told earlier) long ago emigrated to Canada, but who has tracked the old man down and arrived with his wife and kids for a nice surprise. He certainly is going to have a surprise.

The uncertainty effect

Leaving aside all questions of morality and taste, what continues to interest me about Amis’s fictions is the prevailing air of uncertainty and anxiety among the protagonists:

1. Characters are routinely described as acting parts, or deliberately are acting a part, or find themselves to their surprise acting a part, or strongly suspect others are acting, all often in the same scene, or even in the same densely-described moment.

2. Linked to this is the dominating sense that everything can be interpreted in numerous ways, that nothing just is, that the protagonist or the narrator can immediately think of two or three reasons why something is like it is, or behaving like it is, in which case he has to generate two or three counter-strategies or behaviours to manage it, them. Thus large parts of the narrative are made up of an eventually exhausting array of multiple interpretations and tactics.

In the earlier novels this feature of Amis’s consciousness or worldview was played for laughs, but I’ve argued in my posts that I think it always indicated a deeper bewilderment or confusion with being alive, with being human, with being overwhelmed by the human condition, which both narrator and protagonist attempt to limit and ridicule in a number of ways.

3. One frequent tactic is by assuming – and making characters assume – schoolboy, B-movie and comic strip postures and voices – attempts which are often funny or at least bring a smile to the lips, but don’t conceal the fundamental unease which, in this novel (as in the bitter climax of its predecessor Girl, 20) sink to a depth of real despair.

Examples of uncertainty, multiple interpretation and role playing

It is a central strategy of Amis’s style never to leave something human, some attribute or behaviour, as it is, but always to add an additional interpretation. Sometimes the ‘real world’ concurs and supports this lack of certainty. Or lack of concern. Or whatever. Of George’s nominal aphasia:

Doctors, including Dr Mainwaring, had stated that the defect might clear up altogether in time, or might diminish to a greater or lesser extent in time, or might stay as it was, and that there was nothing to be done about it. (p.23)

So much for doctors, eh. Even one person, doing one thing, can be multiply interpreted, not least by the person themselves:

[Bernard] decided that, for one morning, he had put up with enough urging of what he was, or gave an appearance of being, already prepared to grant. (p.31)

Bernard did not answer at once. He looked, or pretended to look, more directly out of the window. (p.101)

In both these examples the narrator is drawing attention to the way first impressions are misleading. Or might be misleading. It is enough to undermine our opinion without replacing it with anything more certain. It creates an uncertainty effect which resonates throughout Amis’s fiction.

If they sometimes are playing roles to themselves, characters are also very aware of how they appear to others and so go to lengths to reinforce (or undercut) expectations:

Without much wanting to, simply, as always, anxious not to appear sullen or bored, he said… (p.105)

The above are examples of dual interpretations of one person doing one fairly simple thing. The more people you have together, the more complicated the possible permutations.

Before the doctor had finished, Shorty came in with coffee and biscuits on a bent silver tray. He stayed a little longer that was altogether necessary, constantly glancing at Marigold in a way the doctor saw as indicating concern and Marigold herself as pretended concern hiding utter indifference, but in fact amounted to pretended concern hiding hostile curiosity. (p.79)

The narrator enjoys stirring the pot, compounding the character’s interpretations with his, definitive, one. Or is it?

That was three people meshed in a matrix of interpretation. When you have a really large number of people, anything could be going on. The oldsters turn on the radio at the climax of New Year’s Eve, presumably tuning into a live BBC broadcast of a big party, maybe Trafalgar Square, who can say?

They heard sounds as of an immense assemblage that might have been a football crowd, an undisciplined but good-natured political congress, a drinks party or some other thing… (p.166)

You never can tell, can you?

Characters are always caught with multiple feelings, impulses or thoughts which it is an effort to manage, with the result that a lot of thought has to go into even the simplest gestures. Possibly this habit of Amis’s mind and style does capture the complexity of human reflection, but it makes the books, and even the simplest scenes, a surprisingly dense and tiring read. After Marigold is unusually candid with him,

Dr Mainwaring recognised his patient’s departure from her habitual style, but was just as good at hiding the pity the departure made him feel as he was at hiding the irritation the habitual style made him feel. (p.78)

Multiple feelings, concealed by play-acting.

In a comparable moment, one of the visiting grown-up sons, visiting on Christmas Day and fully alert to the depths of Bernard’s malice and bile, watches him unwrap his presents, so aware of the play-acting as to positively enjoy it:

Keith watched carefully what Bernard gave, half expecting a chestnut-coloured wig destined for Adela, or a lavishly-illustrated book on karate for George, but was disappointed, though he savoured Bernard’s impersonation of a man going all out to hide his despondency as he took the wrappings off present after useless, insultingly cheap, no doubt intended to be facetious, present. (p.134)

Related to this lack of authenticity, but off at a tangent, as it were, is the proclivity for making comic-strip comparisons. These control the multifarious realities the narrator and characters struggle with, reducing them to reassuring schoolboy stereotypes and, in their unexpected naivety, are often amusing.

Bernard knocks on Marigold’s door. Knowing who it is, Marigold’s tone is lofty and distant:

‘Yes, who is it?’ said a voice that might conceivably have come from a dedicated scientist in mid-experiment, or at least from such a character as shown in an old-fashioned film. (p.114)

Is that Bernard’s interpretation or the narrator’s? They are too close to call. A central strand of Shorty’s character, and connected to his being overtly the most lower-class character of the five, is his readiness to do silly voices and expressions, break into song, veer from one funny accent to another, almost continuously. He is the Lucky Jim principle, embodied:

After calling for silence in the manner first of someone imitating a sergeant-major quite well, and then of someone imitating an Oberstürmbannführer almost as well, Shorty introduced the idea of carols in a pan-American accent. (p.131)

Even when he’s not conscious, Shorty evokes in the narrator this tendency to ‘comic-book’ his characters:

Behind the screen in the bedroom, Shorty was asleep with such extravagant soundness as to suggest a drunken gaoler in a farce impersonated by someone given to play-acting much more than to acting: Shorty himself, for instance. (p.149)

Dr Mainwaring is particularly afflicted with the sense of acting a part. Or is described so:

He delivered a warning against over-exertion, trying to sound serious and yet not too sepulchral, trying conscientiously too to make it appear that he had never uttered any such warning in his life before, then took his leave… (p.161)

‘Goodbye, Mr Bastaple.’ Then, because it was every cinematic doctor’s exit line, the doctor added, ‘I’ll see myself out’ (p.163)

All of these features come together in this passage, where one of the visiting grandsons, upon hearing about George trapped in his bed, immediately volunteers to help Shorty carry him down to the living room where he can join the company.

At the foot of the stairs, Bernard stood and watched the descent of the trio [Trevor – the grandson – and Shorty, carrying the paralysed George]. He was there from a mixture of motives. First was the hope that Shorty might be drunk enough to drop George or even bring the three of them pitching down the stairs. That would go some way to compensate for his own failure just now to block the operation underway; it was no comfort to protest to himself that he had never had a fair chance, that George’s two helpers had reached their joint decision in a flash and gone to execute it with the speed of promotion-hungry firemen. Secondly, to watch so closely and obviously would embarrass George and might also, thirdly, be mistaken by Adela for sympathetic concern. But what of that? What if she saw her brother’s interest as it was? Habit must be at work, the habit of wanting to be mistaken for a man of ordinary decent human feeling. (p.48)

  • There is the trademark comic-book simile (‘promotion-hungry firemen’) but you can see how, in this context, it is drained of humour, or too disabled to raise a real laugh.
  • There are the usual multiple motives, as listed in the passage, and which bring out the sheer malice of Bernard’s baleful personality.
  • And then there is the awareness that he is being observed, and must play-act a role, demonstrating ‘sympathetic concern’.
  • And then there is his own interrogation of his motives: why does he want Adela to think he’s showing ‘sympathetic concern’? Not, alas from any consideration for her or her feelings, no, in his tired, nihilistic mind, he attributes it in a throwaway sentence to mere habit, to (it is implied) a pathetically doomed habit of wanting to appear ‘a man of ordinary decent human feeling’ – the strong implication being that he is, in fact, the opposite.

TV series

It was made into a TV series by Thames TV starring Dame Wendy Hiller, Lionel Jeffries, Googie Withers, Sir John Mills and Sir Michael Hordern. Must have been uncomfortable viewing.

Related links

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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1 Comment

  1. fiore

     /  December 4, 2016

    hi simon, i read your review on kingsley amis’ novel . i wrote my first thesis on ” lucky jim “, years ago ( 1980). i read everything i was able to put my hands on not only by him but also by many other british novel writers of that period. there are many things i find i can share in your personal views. there are many others i honestly cannot. maybe if you had left , i’m not suggesting any name, mind you , but at least some clues about yourself , your age, whatever , maybe those remarks would have sounded more honest and , allow me , more human. with regards . fiore marcoli .( i was born in 1956. in italy. i now live part of the year in an unidentified small village in south california .i enjoy going back to my old europe from time to time . i don’t recall in my interviews with mr kingsley amis ever feeling inhumanely judged. as a matter of fact judgment was never for a second floating in his mind when he was entertaining an unknown, insignificant, italian university student . )

    Reply

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