Difficulties With Girls by Kingsley Amis (1988)

‘You selfish pig.’ (p.210)

Difficulties With Girls is Kingsley Amis’s 19th novel and a sequel to his fourth, Take A Girl Like You, published nearly 30 years earlier, in 1960. In that book we met twenty-year-old Jenny Bunn, a northern lass come down south to be an infant school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets and, eventually, after a lot of bad behaviour on his part, more or less resigns herself to marrying the lecherous, amoral public school teacher Patrick Standish.

On page 3 of Difficulties With Girls we learn that Jenny is now 28, ie it is set in 1968, not the 1988 when it was published. Jenny and Patrick had married partly because she was pregnant, but we learn in this book that she had a miscarriage in her fifth month and has since stopped ovulating. Meanwhile, Patrick, significantly older than her, at 35, was talked into leaving teaching and joining a ‘young go-ahead’ publishing company by its MD, Simon Giles.

As the novel opens Patrick and Jenny are settling into a new flat, one of a row in what sounds like a modernist concrete block on the South Bank near Waterloo. The ‘plot’, such as it is, will be largely about Patrick’s affairs and their eccentric neighbours.

We discover that the ‘glamour’ of publishing has long ago worn off, Patrick hates reading manuscripts at home and is waspishly critical of his dandruffy, dim, all-male colleagues at the little publishing house, while Jenny is haunted by not having a child and continually reminded of the fact since she took a job teaching mornings-only at a children’s hospital.

But none of this conveys the main points of the book which are:

  • the repeated theme that women are mad and unpredictable
  • Patrick’s fondness for pretty girls and porn mags (Titter 2Twosome 3) and adulterous affairs
  • Amis’s depressing philistinism: all poets are wankers, novelists are full of cack, writers are awful, artists are ghastly, publishers are frauds, agents are crooks, and on and on it goes, a relentless undermining and lowering of all creative endeavour. What a depressing old fart. It started out as a young man being wittily anti-cant and arty bollocks in the 1940s and by the late 1980s had hardened into a cult of blundering, boozy insensitivity, deliberate, wilful contempt for everything and everyone.

Shocking prose

Dominating all other aspects of the book is Amis’s bloody odd prose style. What began as funny voices and cheeky insubordination in the early novels has congealed into a really idiosyncratic way with English prose, rendering Amis almost incapable of writing a straightforward sentence without the addition of slangy tags and afterthoughts – ‘in a manner of speaking’, ‘well, not really’, ‘to be fair’, ‘so to speak’, ‘all the same’, ‘in so many words’, ‘not to mention’, ‘sort of thing’, ‘not really’, ‘in any case’, ‘at any rate’, ‘if indeed’, ‘worse really’, ‘let it be said’, ‘quite honestly’, ‘to some extent’, ‘and much else’ – the addition of these otiose tags and redundant qualifiers giving a completely spurious impression of precision of thought or observation when the actual effect is the opposite, a weakening, a diffusing, an unending watering-down, sometimes into complete obscurity, of whatever he’s trying to say.

For example, Patrick is sitting in a park, calculating how many acts of sex it would require the average couple to conceive the average 2.5 children over the average 12.5 years of active sex life assuming a 10 to one ration of sex to fertilisation. It works out at a fuck a month. So far so offensive. Then:

Patrick rather abruptly changed his position on the public bench where he now sat. Only then did it strike him that his train of thought had been fanciful in a special sense, in the unfortunate sense that Jenny and he were not normally fertile people, had not been since her miscarriage nearly seven years before, no great direct grief to him, but he shared in hers. It was something that, perhaps excusably, he tried to forget when he could. All the same, it had surely been unfeeling of him to forget it just then. Well, not really, not in any way that mattered. What was unfeeling, and much else, and what did matter, his reflections ran on without pause, was tolerating for a single instant that demented little bitch Barbara’s proposal to come and live on his doorstep, and in no spirit of chummy neighbourliness either. (p.34)

‘Well, not really, not in any way that mattered’ could be the motto of the whole text. Paragraph after paragraph is padded out with pointless equivocations, the addition of unnecessary alternatives (or this, or that, or the other) and automatic and pointless qualifications of the main clauses. Thought after thought is watered down and mucked about with until it is mush. In Amis’s hands the English language is like one of those cardboard boxes full of empty wine bottles left out in the rain all night after a house party, which you see in the morning by the front door gone all soggy, its colours run, its shape and structure collapsing, a forlorn wreck.

Patrick was in first class shape one morning the following week as he walked across the square to his office. There had been more days of rain, but the trees in the central garden, far from being discouraged, had responded with a rather showy outburst of foliage, both in quantity and in concentration of greenness. He liked trees. They reminded him of sex in a way, or at any rate were a distinguished form of life, and he made a point of being on the side of life, though he would have done so with an easier mind had it not been for all the terrible craps who volunteered the information that that was what they were. (p.111)

The anthropomorphising of the trees starts out fresh and inventive and then something dreadful happens to the train of thought as it becomes, firstly a bit repetitive, hits a couple of typical tags – ‘in a way’, ‘or at any rate’ – then goes off-piste with the introduction of sex until it is careering downhill into a grumpy and not immediately intelligible diatribe against ‘craps’ ie everyone he doesn’t like. Which is everyone.

Wherever you look Amis is addicted to very odd turns of phrase, reflecting a permanently odd frame of mind – popping with jarring or peripheral observations which run on into verbosely long sentences, topped with unexpected afterthoughts, larded with his trademark tags (‘after all’) and pointless alternatives (‘or this, or that, or something’).

She had said enough to remind him in full of her unpleasant accent, which differed so radically from his own. But she had not said enough to let him decide whether she was somebody who had never liked or approved of him and now had sensational cause to do even less of either, or somebody who had never liked or approved of him. She had sounded exactly like both. (p.166)

Takes a moment to work out what the jokey middle sentence is doing, and then a moment or two more to realise you don’t care. It doesn’t advance the ‘story’ one iota. It’s padding made out of not very funny playing with words and phrases. There’s a hell of a lot of it in Amis’s later novels which is why they’re so long.

After a board meeting at the publishers, his boss, Simon, says his wife Barbara is going to be in the neighbourhood, visiting the Young Vic theatre, so would it be OK if she pops in? He explains they’re thinking about buying the vacant flat along the row from Patrick and Jenny’s.

Patrick was nearly sure he stipulated a phone call in advance. He was even closer to being sure that there had been some unbearable theatrical or dramaturgical thing in Barbara’s earlier life that he was supposed to know about. He had still not finished trying to make up his mind to bother to try to remember what it was when Simon left. (p.179)

Is it a genuine attempt to capture the fleeting nature of human thought? Or is it meant to tell us about Patrick’s contorted mental processes? Is it meant to be funny?

One of the eccentric neighbours introduces himself as Tim Valentine, 36, dresses posh, has independent means, is a prison visitor in his spare time, has bad allergies and sneezes a lot. He and Patrick go to the pub where Tim reveals some of his ‘difficulties with girls’ ie he loses interest after the initial seduction and can’t perform when it comes to the act of love. Patrick is amused and waits for the ‘big unburdening’ to come and, predictably enough, Tim goes on to say he’s now seeing a psychiatrist who thinks Tim’s problem is his ‘suppressed homosexuality’. Patrick stifles his laughter.

Of course anybody could have seen it coming, but not from all that far off, and in any case a hundred miles away would have been too close for it to have arrived without some kind of shock. (p.78)

Is this funny? If not, what is it doing? Later in the novel Patrick is disconcerted when Tim barges in on Patrick’s uneasy reunion with his old teaching colleague, Graham McClintock (who we met in Take A Girl Like You).

Patrick introduced them in three and a half words apiece and rather wearily poured drinks. In silence, the two almost bowed almost stiffly to each other, behaving rather like two – well, two somethings-or-other, thought Patrick. Two climatological dendrologists or career torturers, pre-eminent in their respective domains but divided on some technical points. There seemed nothing to be done. Perhaps if he waited for a minute one or other of them would fall down dead. (p.197)

I can see that this is meant to be funny and it does raise a smile, but at rather a cost and the drop down dead punchline is just cold. But in many other places Amis’s compulsion to tinker, adjust, qualify and add waffle onto the basic proposition makes his sentences almost incomprehensible. The notion that Amis was ever considered some kind of guide to ‘good English’ prose style beggars belief.

Anybody could have told that that day he was not going anywhere he ought not to be going. (p.143)

Uncomfortable prose for an uncomfortable pose

Linked to the ever-equivocating, tag-happy prose is the detached and alienated point of view of the narrator and all the characters. Amis was famous as a student for his hilarious impersonations, funny voices and gurning faces. The habit hardened into an attitude of seeing everything everyone does or says as a racket, a turn, a routine, something to be summed up and dismissed in a witty definition, or a performance or rigmarole which – oh God – you just have to go through. Maybe once witty, this also has become tiresome.

Thus, in the extended scene in chapter nine where he seduces Wendy Porter-King in a friend’s house he’s borrowed expressly for the purpose, Patrick – as a jaded roué – interprets every single thing she says as elements of her ‘routine’, the standard stuff you have to put up with from women before you can screw them. He charmingly christens it ‘cock tax’. Yaddah yaddah yaddah, she goes, and we are meant to be amused at the running commentary the narrator gives us on Patrick’s ‘hilarious’ attempts to match her mood, agree with her girlish whimsy, refrain from kicking her in the teeth when she says something stupid, and generally manipulate her into getting her pants down. Ha ha ha.

People are always doing a bit of business with their eyes or going through a routine with their cigarettes or performing a part in a conversation or playing a role at a party or in a meeting or down the pub. On page 147 Tim’s sister turns up out of the blue on Jenny’s doorstep:

‘I’m his sister.’
Jenny’s first thought was that a true sister of Tim’s would have been more likely to say she was the Shah of Persia, only the Shah of Persia would not have been claiming to be Tim’s sister. Or something. In other words she was confused. But she successfully said, ‘How nice to see you,’ blocking off the dreaded pleased-to-meet-you formula without turning a hair.
‘Is he all right, old Tim?’
Jenny mentioned his telephone call that morning, and reminded herself he had not asked her not to say anything or anything.

Leaving aside the classic Amis pointless afterthought – ‘Or something’ – how about “She successfully said, ‘How nice to see you'”? As if this achievement required wit or sharp intellect on the part of either character or author. Time after time even the most mundane exchanges are treated to the Amis routine of placing them in inverted commas and having the characters ‘go through’ the ‘hello how are you bit’ or deliver the ‘oh so sorry to hear that’ performance. The overall effect is of someone who finds almost all conversation or contact with other people tiresome and inconvenient, and it shows, it really shows, throughout the novel, helping to make it a tiresome read.

When Patrick finally brings himself to confess his affair to Jenny, she is dreading it because it will all be so predictable:

She would have given a lot to have been able to stop the whole thing cold… He went into a swallowing routine, pushing his chin down and opening his lips… She bent forward in her chair, waiting for him to get on to the next bit… Jenny watched the pleased relieved expression drain away from Patrick’s face as he got himself ready for the last serious part that would round the whole business off. (pp.208-212)

At the end of chapter thirteen Patrick has a panic attack (a ‘spell of sudden extreme fear’, p.200). I’ve noticed in some of Amis’s other novels that the narrator or protagonist’s rather desperate and unfunny humour, their turning of everything into a joke, a game, a patter, a routine, stems from a deep-seated fear of just being, of existence, of simply doing and saying thing like normal people do. Seen in this light the novels dramatise, both in their characters and in their restless fidgety language, Amis’s inability to just watch and observe and describe. To be content.

The plot

Despite all his promises to Jenny to the contrary, Patrick has a cold-hearted affair with Wendy Porter-King, the female half of the couple who have moved into a flat along the way. Tall, creepy Tim Valentine reveals to Patrick that the therapist he’s been seeing thinks he’s gay, and so Tim tries out mincing and lisping in a couple of hard London pubs to Patrick’s horror. (From that point onwards there are quite a few references to how stupid and dangerous psychiatrists can be.) Patrick meets Eric, one of the pair of gay neighbours, in a dingy club in Soho and tries to persuade him to have a word with Tim and convince him he is not gay. There’s a party at Eric’s where they all meet Stevie, his gay partner, once a well-known actor and now given to throwing tremendous hissy fits.

A few days later the Porter-Kings hold a horrible, crowded party full of ghastly people talking about their gurus (it is 1968) and Jenny glimpses Patrick and Wendy exchanging, just for a few seconds, a look which unmistakably signals that they’ve had sex. Disgusted and mortified, she walks out of the party, packs her travel bag and moves out of the flat to stay with her friend Elsie in Enfield.

(There’s a sub-plot at Patrick’s work where his hard-faced boss wants to squeeze out an older employee, Jack, and uses the bidding and fussing around the new novel by a 70-something Irish author, Deirdre, to do it. Amis gives Patrick a presumably ‘hilarious’ set-piece dinner with Deirdre – or, as he charmlessly describes her, ‘the old mick’ (p.171) – who turns out to be every bit as calculating and cynical as Pat himself, and together they come up with an elaborate scheme to shaft his boss and save Jack’s job.)

Patrick calls Elsie and leaves messages for Jenny but when she doesn’t return his calls, after a few days Patrick begins to realise that Jenny has twigged his adultery with Wendy. Jenny returns a few days later and has to go through the excruciating ‘performance’ of Patrick’s a) finding something else to apologise about (the cat’s gone missing) in order to screw his nerve up to b) confessing everything to Jenny, who then has to decide just how angry/upset/indifferent to pretend to be before c) the whole routine ends up with them in bed for forgiveness sex. Again, as usual, as always. There is an overwhelming sense of the deadeningness of this routine. We know Amis was a serial adulterer to his wives. It all feels too familiar, too true, too painful and too bleak to be at all funny.

Later Patrick takes Jenny to another party (it is London in the 60s) at a big impressive house with a conservatory and garden and big Victorian kitchen. Here, among ha ha descriptions of children’s writers, literary agents, historians and reviewers getting sloshed and behaving badly, Patrick introduces Jenny to his old friend Oswald Hart, back from being a correspondent in Washington and they go for a walk in the gardens where Oswald tells her about his ‘difficulties with girls’, well, his wife, from whom he’s separated.

In a scene which changes the tone of the novel, back at their flat, Jenny rounds on Patrick in a sustained diatribe. Not only is he a selfish, lecherous pig, but he was trying to fix Jenny up with Oswald, virtually egging them on to have an affair, so that would make it alright for Patrick to continue being adulterous. As he shrinks into his chair, Jenny says not only is that disgusting but reveals just how little he knows her or understands her or women in general, and reaches the conclusion that there really is nowhere for their relationship to go because she is not putting up with this kind of behaviour any more.

The gay stabbing

At which point Tim knocks on the door, interrupting the climax of Jenny’s tirade and inviting himself in for a nightcap. Patrick suddenly remembers this was the night the gay couple next door, Eric and Stevie, were scheduled to take Tim on a tour of gay clubs. So they ask Tim what it was like and it is now that he gives the earth-shattering news about what homosexual men ‘do’. During his horror-stricken explanation, they all hear mounting talking, then shouting, from Errc and Stevie next door.

Now, up to this point the whole strand of Tim Valentine being a quite tall but stooping, shy, sneezing loser who preposterously thinks he’s gay, and the linked thread of the genuinely gay couple next door – Eric and Stevie – had been very much a side issue in a novel predominantly about Patrick and Jenny.

But in these few pages this changes dramatically. 1. Tim gives Patrick and Jenny a preposterous account of going to some gay clubs. He can barely bring himself to describe what he’s discovered which is, apparently, that one person does it to another person and that person receives it and what kind of person does that make him, or even worse that the other person does it to the first person and they even like it and what kind of person does that make that person?? — (It is difficult to take this muddled twaddle, and hence the novel, seriously.) 2. In their previous scenes Patrick’s main reason for trying to talk Tim out of his ludicrous delusion that he’s gay, was Patrick’s assertion that the queer scene was so violent – ‘They’ll kick your head in,’ he’d warned Tim. — This, at the time, had seemed so preposterous I didn’t take it seriously.

But now all three hear the shouting next door rise in tone and then scuffling outside their door and then Tim opens it to have Stevie stumble inside, blood pouring from a stab wound to his neck. While Jenny immediately fetches tea towels to staunch the bleeding, Tim wrestles with Eric in the doorway and for a bad moment I thought Tim might get killed, but he manages to disarm Eric and wrestle him into the Standish’s living room ,where he sits in a daze while the others call an ambulance and try to keep Stevie alive till it arrives. Then the police arrive, question everyone, and arrest Eric.

Well. That was unexpected. Having upset women in most of his books, insulted artists and writers whenever he gets the chance, satirised the psychiatric profession in Jake’s Thing and Stanley and the Women, Amis appears to have set out to slander gay men with this ludicrously melodramatic plotline.

In the next chapter Patrick goes to visit Eric, who has been let out on bail and is staying with his tut-tutting sister. I forgot to mention that the night Jenny turned on Patrick and Eric and Stevie took Tim for a trawl of gay clubs and then Eric stabbed Stevie was also the night the House of Commons was voting on decriminalising homosexuality. Possibly homosexuality is meant to be an Important Theme in the book, if only it hadn’t been handled so monstrously.

Eric delivers some kind of author’s message about him and Patrick being two of a kind, they are hopelessly attracted to the Other, the non-man, the Feminine: in Patrick’s case to actual women, in Eric’s case, to feminine men. They seem to agree this is a fate and a destiny which can’t be avoided and in some obscure way it justifies Patrick (and maybe Amis’s) adulteries.

‘It’s the clash between male and non-male that causes all the trouble. They’re different from us. More like children. Crying when things go wrong. Making difficulties just so as to be a person.’ (p.256)

In the office Patrick is amazed when his boss, Simon, confesses he’s been having ‘difficulties’ with his girl ie wife, Barbara, who, since reading a book about women’s liberation has been demanding ‘fulfilment’ in bed, which Simon just isn’t up to giving her. In an extraordinary moment, he makes it clear he’d like Patrick to step into the breach and, er, give her fulfilment – hence their interest in acquiring the vacant flat in Patrick’s row, so he could pop round and service her on demand. Patrick needs no time at all to assert that this is a very bad idea, and would never work.

As he is motoring back to the flat, Jenny takes a phone call from Tim, who has decided he isn’t gay and has returned to live with his wife, Augusta. He confesses he is still having ‘difficulties’ ie he can’t get it up for the act of love, but he is determined to stick it out.

Now, Tim, we have learned, is supposed to be a barrister. All the barristers I’ve ever met are very clever and very canny. Tim is depicted as a moron who is completely ignorant about sex and devastated when he learns the reality of gay sex, which had, ludicrously, never occurred to him before. He is just one of the many elements which make this book almost unreadably obtuse, thick-headed and irrelevant.

Patrick arrives home just as Jenny is putting the phone down on Tim. She announces she is pregnant. They are going to have a baby. Patrick’s face is covered in tears as he embraces her. He says she has saved their marriage, and Jenny is happy, too.

She was going to have him all to herself for at least three years, probably more like five, and a part of him for ever, and now she could put it all out of her mind. (p.276)

In other words it ends very like the first novel, with the ill-matched pair forlornly committing to each other over a pregnancy, leaving the reader with the ominous feeling that it will all work out very badly, all over again.


There are many good reasons not to read Kingsley Amis – the tiresome misogyny, driven by alternating fear of women and hatred of women – the relentlessly pathetic, juvenile addiction to sex – the some-of-my-best-friends-are-Jews anti-semitism – the Stone Age attitude towards homosexuality. There’s the way the ‘plots’ are rarely worth making much effort to follow, since not much really changes or develops in them. There’s the way the whole world his characters inhabit is not like any world I’ve observed, a world in which behaviour and attitudes which are totally unacceptable here on planet earth are humorously encouraged.

But by far the biggest reason not to read Kingsley Amis is to avoid witnessing the peculiar deformations of the English language which his idiosyncratic style so routinely produces. He belongs to the no-nonsense generation of the 1950s who turned their backs on the modish experiments of the Modernism of the 1920s and 1930s but – in writing about modern people – he finds he needs some of its techniques, especially the near stream-of-consciousness which he uses when he is describing Jenny. Having spent his career denouncing the stuff and nonsense of experimental prose he finds himself, much to his embarrassment, regularly writing something close to it himself, but in a peculiarly ham-fisted, home-made fashion.

‘I love you,’ she said, and was honestly surprised when he came round the kitchen table and took her in his arms, and even more surprised (well, in a way) at what followed, which went on until a very short time before Tim came. In fact she brought up the question of what they would do if he turned up early like last time, and was glad she was the only one there to hear some of the things Patrick said to that. But there was no problem, and everything got eaten up and nobody quarrelled or went quiet. (p.222)

Related links

Reviews of Kingsley Amis’s books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with ghastly people – with his pompous boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, with his clingy neurotic girlfriend, with the shower of contemptuous colleagues he shares a cheap rooming house with. 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 his genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation and sex on a nearby beach, climax with the mistress’s mad driving home which leads to a sobering crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves with his wife to a small 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 infant school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public school teacher Patrick Standish, who is unforgivably harsh with her and 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 its scholarly meetings – but which, alas, 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, which will apparently have dire consequences for its officers. In particular the male lead, dashing James Churchill, who has a genuinely touching love affair with beautiful and damaged Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (under the pseudonym 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 actually 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 which 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 somehow symbolising the collapse of values in late-1960s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in the suburban Home Counties where the loss of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with a gruesome murder, both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – A short powerful novel showing five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down country cottage, 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 is 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 and implausible 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 selected for the great honour of being 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 – First person narrative told by muddling middle-aged advertising salesman Stanley Duke, whose son Steve suffers a severe mental breakdown, thus (somehow) leaving poor old Stan at the mercy of his wife, ex-wife, ex-mistress and the insufferable female psychiatrist who treats the boy. Long, windy, self-pitying, misogynistic.
1986 The Old Devils – A 400-page magnum opus describing the lives, tangled relationships, the endless bitching and phenomenally unhealthy drinking of a dozen or so elderly, grumpy Welsh men and women, the trigger of the meandering ‘plot’ being the arrival back in their South Wales community of professional Welshman and tireless philanderer, Alun Weaver. Long and gruelling until its surprisingly moving and uplifting conclusion.
1988 Difficulties with Girls – A sequel to Take A Girl Like You, revisiting lecherous Patrick Standish (35) and his northern wife (Jenny Bunn) as they settle into a new flat on London’s South Bank, encounter the eccentric neighbours and struggle with Patrick’s sex addiction.
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill – An amiable look at a cast of characters which rotate around retired librarian Harry Caldecote who lives in London with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, dodges his scheming son Piers and his alcoholic niece-by-marriage, posh Fiona. His most enjoyable novel for years.
1991 We Are All Guilty – A short polemical novella for teenagers in which Amis dramatises his feelings that society has become rotten with do-gooding social workers, psychiatrists and trendy vicars, via the story of Clive Rayner, a teenage tearaway who breaks into a warehouse for kicks but causes an accident in which the night watchman is crippled. Instead of being harshly punished, Clive finds himself being exonerated and forgiven by everyone, which leaves him boiling with rage and frustration.
1992 The Russian Girl – Middle-aged Russian literature expert, Dr Richard Vaisey, has an affair with a talentless young Russian woman poet who is visiting London, which results in his wealthy wife kicking him out of their house, destroying all his books and notes, cutting off his allowance and generally decimating his life. Brutally funny.
1994 You Can’t Do Both – The boyhood and young manhood of Robin Davies who, like Amis, is at secondary school during the 1930s, at Oxford during the war, obsessed with girls girls girls throughout, and completely fails to live up to his responsibilities as a supposed adult, continuing to have affairs behind his loyal wife’s back until his final, humiliating come-uppance.
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache – Literary hack, Gordon Scott-Thompson, is commissioned to write a ‘critical biography’ of super-annuated novelist and social climber Jimmie Fane, leading to a sequence of comic escapades, which include being seduced by his pukka wife and a prolonged visit to the surreally grand home of the Duke of Dunwich, before Gordon’s plans, inevitably, collapse around him. Very enjoyable.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: