The Biographer’s Moustache by Kingsley Amis (1995)

‘She told me she saw something in one of the papers about somebody called something Scott-Thompson writing something about JRP Fane…’ (p.96)

Not particularly successful forty-something literary journalist, Gordon Scott-Thompson, pitches the idea of writing a ‘critical biography’ of 68-year-old, very posh and very out-of-date novelist Jimmie Fane, to his reluctant publisher.

There follows a series of lunches and dinners with Jimmie and his pukka mates (Tommie, Bobbie), at his house, at nice restaurants, at Jimmie’s club (Grays), and entanglements with old friends and lovers of the great man, which Gordon experiences with varying levels of Amisian alienation and bewilderment.

Characteristically for an Amis ‘hero’, Gordon also struggles to maintain a relationship with his live-out lover Louise, and to manage the attentions of Jimmie’s (fourth) wife, Joanna, after she sets out – successfully – to seduce him.

Complications are introduced in the form of an ancient lover of Jimmie’s – Madge Walker – who he jilted way back during the war and is now living in genteel poverty with her deaf, ex-Navy husband; and in a prolonged visit to the phenomenally posh Duke of Dunwich in his country house at Hungerstream, which is chock-full of Lucky Jim-style comic embarrassments.

This long country house sequence is very funny. There’s no real necessity for it in the plot. It’s simply one of the many country weekends Jimmie is constantly angling to get himself invited to, and his wife Joanna suggests that his ‘biographer’ comes along and also that he brings his girlfriend Louise. In the event Gordon travels there by train, sees a bunch of other, genuinely posh guests at Hungerstream station who ignore him, a chauffeur-driven car takes them all to the enormous house and then a whole series of comic episodes ensue: from first meeting the dodgy Duke himself, to the ordeal of a formal dinner during which Gordon gets catastrophically drunk, as well as embarrassing scenes with Louise and, indeed, his adulterous lover, Joanna, and so on.

This long sequence fits the theme of the novel, which is the English class system, but mostly it is an opportunity for Amis to relentlessly takes the piss out of the really upper, British upper classes, their braying inability to speak, their permanent drunkenness, their outrageous rudeness – which all around tolerate and put up with because all around are themselves such awful social climbers and snobs.

That said, at the heart of the section is a long and curiously touching scene where Jimmie takes Gordon for a wintry morning walk in the countryside and confesses a teenage attachment to Tennyson and In Memoriam which long inspired him to write his (unpublishable) poetry.

It is also during this long country house interlude that Joanna explains to Gordon that Jimmie is planning to return to his second wife – Lady Rowena – who’s come into some money – and so to ditch her, Joanna. Which is why she began the affair, felt free to begin the affair, with him, Gordon. Gordon’s not sure how he feels about this but tells her he loves her, just in case. Lucky Jim-style, Gordon drinks himself insensible at the big evening meal at Hungerstream and so misses some kind of showdown which takes place between Joanna and Jimmie. All the cast members return to London next day in various stages of hungoverness and high dudgeon.

Quite separate from all this is a sub-plot in which Gordon wangles some money out of Joanna to pass on to Madge Walker, Jimmie’s former lover, now fallen on hard times, to help support her bed-bound former Navy captain husband. But soon enough the novel hurtles towards its denouements. In the end:

  1. Jimmie gets cold feet about returning to wife number two, after she actually shows up at the Duke of Dunwich’s, thereby forcibly reminding him how ghastly she is. So he abandons his plan, explaining it all calmly enough to Joanna.
  2. So Joanna in turn dumps Gordon and returns to the old bugger – ‘I love you darling but… let’s never talk about it again.’ Gordon takes it badly. Now he has lost both women, Joanna and Louise, and stays up watching crap TV in his rubbish flat drinking himself insensible on whisky.
  3. Gordon’s publisher doesn’t surprise him very much by telling him that the publisher has been taken over by some vast conglomerate who’ve taken a look at the books and are cutting down on anything which isn’t a copper-bottomed bestseller – starting with weedy lit crit books like Gordon’s. He, the publisher, is himself being made redundant soon. Sign of the times.
  4. And Louise, the girlfriend he dumped to have the affair with Joanna, but who Joanna asked him to nonetheless take along to the Duke of Dunwich’s as ‘cover’ for their affair? She takes the Duke’s fancy and the novel ends a month or so later with Gordon attending their outrageously posh wedding.

This is Amis’s last published novel. Its immediate predecessor, You Can’t Have Both, was lengthy and divided into just four long parts or ‘acts’. This made it a little challenging for the reader to orientate herself within what presented themselves as long continuous floods of prose.

By contrast The Biographer’s Moustache is divided into 30 short chapters. This has the effect of making each chapter address one ‘scene’ only, and encourages them to be more clipped and focused. As a result, the book is both easier to read and gives a stronger impression of pace and focus.

The style

Vague That said, Amis’s style is as weird as ever. It revels in vagueness and inconsequentiality so that none of the characters ever thinks or says anything plain and logical. To pick up an Amis novel is to enter a maze of equivocation and diffusion, with the anti-hero – like this one – likely to be stuck in an ‘everyday condition of puzzlement and unsatisfied curiosity’ (p.97), amid a wreck of bewildering and unpredictable other characters. Our man rarely understand what’s going on, what other people are doing or thinking, or what he’s meant to do next.

Or Hence, partly, the addiction to giving multiple variant interpretations of even the simplest activities, linked by ‘or’. Hardly anything is said or happens which isn’t given at least two possible interpretations:

  • The number was or seemed to be permanently engaged. (p.105)
  • When he left her after the rissole lunch she had talked without pause till they were on the doorstep, then said something hurried and unemphatic that he remembered or had interpreted as a directive to get in touch or keep in touch with her… (p.98)

There are so many usages of ‘or’ that you could sub-categorise them. Some of them are dismissive, conveying an irritable, short-tempered attitude in the author or character:

  • Jimmie explained to Gordon as they sat in an otherwise empty corner of the lounge, or whatever it might have been called. (p.68)
  • ‘He’s in Cambridge, having lunch with the Master or the Warden of somewhere…’ (p.73)

At moments like this the narrator (or characters – the same tone is interchangeable between them) seems to be saying ‘Listen, I’m just in too much of a bloody hurry to worry with the details, alright?’

At that moment she got out of the green chair and strolled towards a window or a picture or a bookcase… (p.75)

A different type of ‘ors’ seem to be trying to capture subtle differences in human behaviour, where the narrator is recording characters’ equivocation or uncertainty about their own motives.

  • This too he did, or started to. (p.103)
  • Perhaps he was in love, or was going to be. (p.179)

These give the appearance of a keen scholar of human motivation striving to find just the right definition or phrase in the way ‘the novel’ is traditionally meant to:

  • He most have been responding without knowing it, or more likely without admitting it to himself. (p.74)

So is the proliferation of ‘or’ sentences – and there are three or four on every page – the sign of a clever investigation of human nature – or just an irritating mannerism?

  • In fact he arrived at the building a few seconds before the agreed hour, just when a neurotically precise or something-like-that person would have got there. (p.107)
  • In one way or perhaps in more than one he had welcomed this. (p.118)

Whatever the precise intention of individual ‘or’ sentences, the overall impact of all of them all is to weaken and undermine the main statement. More than one creates a diminuendo effect: the more there are the more they make the power or certainty of a statement deflate like a punctured balloon. Like a lot of Amis’s mannerisms it can be funny or serious or irritating or all three at once; one thing is sure, this stylistic tic occurs numerous times on every page and is a dominant feature of his style.

  • Joanna’s voice slackened. She had the look of somebody who has said more than enough, or perhaps less than enough… (p.127)
  • She gave a long sigh, as if resigning something or the hope of something. (p.152)

Some of that Being in a state of permanent bewilderment means that Mr Confused and Puzzled is at a loss for how to handle, think about or cope with other people. When they talk to him he perceives it as being talked at and gives the impression of just sitting nodding waiting for ‘it’ to end. He – and the other characters, since all the characters share the narrator’s frame of mind and turn of phrase – use a set of frequently repeated phrases to convey this sense of having to sit through the unbearable twaddle other people are spouting: having to endure bits of ‘stuff’ or ‘that lot’ of piffle or ‘more of the same’, or ‘this section’ of whatever they’re on about, as though it’s all incomprehensible.

  • Gordon could not think of any useful reply to make to this last lot… (p.139)
  • This phase was soon ended… (p.165)
  • Cooper arrived with the tea in time to hear this last bit. (p.256)

Quite regularly the protagonist thinks he’s being assailed with a foreign language or just gobbledygook. Even regular conversation feels like a burden he has to sit through, miming appropriate expressions of happiness or understanding or interest as best he can.

Dialogue To some extent Amis’s dialogue – and there’s lots of it – makes an admirable effort to capture real people’s hesitations and evasions, repetitions and stumbles. The downside is that nobody in Amis ever seems able to get to the point, if indeed there is a point. Amis’s dialogue must be the vaguest and most obtuse of any published author.

  • ‘Of course I’m not sure that’s what he said. People aren’t, you don’t, people can’t expect to be sure of what he said any time, can they?’ (p.173)
  • ‘On consideration, something I don’t go in for much these days, I should say that the best part of me, or the least bad part of me, or the least bad part of what there is of me, or was of me… is in verse form.’ (p.178)

His characters don’t discuss something to establish its nature and come to logical decisions; their conversations are masterpieces of mutual incomprehension, games of obfuscation which the narrator or protagonist observes with bemused detachment.

  • Gordon had no chance of either improving or throwing doubt on this reading of motives in what followed. (p.189)
  • Gordon was conscious of having put his point with something less than unimprovable clarity and force. Jimmie shared this general view, or affected to. (p.265)

Abandon all hope of crisp, pithy, pointed dialogue. Relax and enjoy this world of confusion, uncertainty, vagueness and misunderstanding.

The absent protagonist The net effect of all these peculiarities is that quite often the hero seems to be only barely present in his own life.

  • He soon found himself quite unable to decide whether he had started an affair or received the equivalent of a very friendly pat on the head. (p.76)
  • ‘You aren’t one of those characters?’ he found he had said. (p.191)
  • To visit a part [of the house] he had at least seen before gave him a feeling, however illusory, of being in touch with events, even perhaps of having some influence over them. (p.197)

Mostly the effect is played for laughs but sometimes can be quite unnerving and is so consistent across the whole book that this feeling of detachment from other people even himself – of watching everything from a bubble – is one of the book’s strongest flavours.

Acting Sometimes the sense of detachment is so intense you almost think you’re in the mind of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, someone who can’t read or puzzle out other people at all. And if you can’t read other people – if you are incapable of deducing their intentions even when they’re talking directly to you – then you have to guess what they’re on about from any available sources, maybe from how you’ve seen people behave in films or TV; and you yourself attempt to reply by adopting similar play-acting and mime, by imitating people of who do know how to respond, or at least look like they know how to respond.

Jimmie’s face took on an expression of overdone and also somehow proletarian dismay. Gordon was emboldened to drop into his efficient television-cockney. (p.83)

Adrift in a world of play-acting you come to think that everyone else is also acting a role and this seeing other people as actors is a consistent aspect of Amis’s worldview and style.

  • He peered in the direction he had been going and saw Jimmie  just started on a very life-like imitation of a man unself-consciously opening the front door of his house and presently shutting it after him. (p.106)
  • Doing his best not to impersonate a schoolboy taken out for a special treat in a grown-up restaurant… (p.126)
  • Gordon sipped with pretended relish. (p.130)

Time The need to act instead of directly experience the world, is related to Amis’s odd perception of Time. Time doesn’t flow in Amis’s novels, but is always broken up into sections, chunks, bits and pieces, and the protagonist experiences his life as an endless negotiation and navigation through ‘the next bit’ or the stuff which happens ‘quite soon afterwards’, through ‘the next section’, and so on, as if incapable of experiencing the flow of time without dividing it up into units which have to be managed and coped with.

  • Just before or just after saying that… (p.48)
  • The ensuing pause was quite brief, but it was long enough for several thoughts… (p.74)
  • By way of completing this section, Gordon laughed loudly… (p.91)
  • He said the last part as he left the bedroom… (p.170)
  • Eventually the whole party had gathered in the library… and that went on for some time without detectable damage to anyone present. (p.186)
  • … but then perhaps he had slept through that part. (p.196)
  • Later, more than at any time, but not only later, Gordon thought about the duke… (p.201)
  • When the time came, or when he could put it off no longer… (p.237)
  • Without anything that could be called a delay he was taken to a room… (p.243)
  • For the moment, in fact any moment, he would have to stand up to arriving in the place. (p.276)

His relationship to Time is so odd I wonder if some kind of paper or article could be written about it, which would refer to 20th century philosophies of Time as well as psychological knowledge about the human perception of Time, in order to clarify the different tactics Amis adopts towards it, in order to investigate the problem of ‘duration’ and the fundamental challenge of understanding human experience. Although mostly played for laughs, this problem with Time and experience seems to me to be the issue underlying all his novels.

Transparent The protagonist of You Can’t Have It Both, Robin Davies, gives the impression of being fairly canny and calculating right up to the end of the book, when he’s exposed as being childishly transparent – a hopelessly selfish womaniser, who his mum and dad and wife and girlfriends can all read like an open book.

Useless Similarly in this one, Gordon is hopelessly out of his depth when it comes to dealing with the suave Jimmie, his snobbish pals, his seducing wife, his sly publisher or his own capable girlfriend. You get the sense that everyone is ‘playing’ the hapless hero. In a funny moment, after their first kiss, Jimmie’s wife asks if he wants to proceed and, in that half moment, Gordon realises that he’s toppling into having an affair because he can’t think quickly enough of any way to politely say No. He is, like so many other Amis men, completely useless.

Funny Sometimes Amis escapes all his mannerisms to be just funny about the world we live in, sometimes very funny.

Wishing he had been drunk, Gordon got on a bus apparently reserved for winners and runners-up in some pan-European repulsiveness contest. (p.70)

After a short while there presumably sounded some buzzer or kindred device inaudible to Gordon and all at once Lady Rowena withdrew her attention from him so totally that he felt like glancing down at himself to make sure he was still there. (p.190)

Moments like this are like spending hours trying to tune a radio and suddenly stumbling across a clear audible signal, or hacking your way through a jungle and suddenly stumbling into a clearing and strolling across it nice and easy.

But clarity of intention and phrasing like this is rare in his work. Most of the time we are subjected to the wandering divagations the easily-distracted prose. Instead of writing the thing itself, Amis can’t stop himself writing nugatory elaborations: almost as if he’s bored of writing and has to give sentences an unexpected twirl just to keep his interest alive.

The telephone was ringing when he got back home, which circumstance made that place seem much less bleak and comfortless. (p.56)

And sometimes the combination of all Amis’s mannerism brings the prose perilously close to gibberish.

  • At the moment it was very likely not needful to say that he would have had no corresponding bias in favour of the latter. (p.25)
  • Gordon was just opening his mouth to give another and firmer refusal when he caught the sound as of a heavy body falling somewhere upstairs, faint at this distance but no doubt substantial on the spot, not perhaps an unmistakable advertisement of the duke’s presence near at hand but not mistakable enough for Gordon, who forthwith told Jimmie to lead on. (p.171)

On every page Amis bends and distorts the language but not towards the crisp expressiveness of Americans like Martin Cruz Smith – not towards clarity or modernity – but clotting together an array of old-fashioned English phrases and idioms with experiments in seeing just how convoluted a sentence can be twisted to become. If you’re in a hurry to read the plot it can be very irritating but in this novel, because of its shorter chapters and more focused presentation of character and scene, I mostly found it stimulating and amusing.

Class

‘A hundred years ago, even up to 1939, the thing really had some teeth in it. There was an empire to run and a comparatively barbaric peasantry and proletariat to be kept down. What’s left of either of them today? The, the remnants of the class system operate in the other direction. Dukes and what-not complain that their titles hold them back, get in the way of their careers in banking or photography or whatever it may be. The British class system, as you quaintly call it, is…’
‘I know, it’s dead.’ (p.22)

I’m not generally interested in a book’s ‘themes’ since these are often so obvious and so obviously designed to be written about, analysed and discussed in book clubs or GCSE classes. But mention should be made of the way this novel very conspicuously ‘investigates’, ‘uses’, ‘explores’ etc the English class system. Specifically, the hapless hero Gordon is continuously aware of being at a disadvantage whenever he’s with Jimmie or his nobby friends at the club or with his pukka wife in bed, let alone among the posh guests of the impossibly upper-class Duke of Dunwich.

On the surface this gives rise to:

a) actual experiences of upper class snobbery, as when Gordon is blanked at Hungerstream train station when the Duke’s other posh guests realise he’s nobody significant, or is insulted by Jimmie’s pals at the club, or is intimidated by the Duke’s butler or chauffeur
b) discussions of the class system with Jimmie himself, with Joanna, with Louise, with the publisher and so on, who all give their take on whether there still is a class system in England, how important it might be, and so on

We can say on the evidence of the text that Jimmie is quite open about being a social climber and loves being invited to the houses of the aristocracy and enjoys teasing Gordon about his middle-class origins – in a running joke he’s always trying to catch Gordon out in non-U pronunciations of words like ‘often’  and ’tissue – but has an uneasy relationship with Bobbie and Tommie at the club who may be a little above him in social class – and is nowhere as lofty as the permanently drunk Duke of Dunwich – whereas his wife Joanna, although she has inherited money, isn’t as posh as Jimmie – and all this leaves Gordon’s quondam girlfriend Louise as his ally in non-poshness, although he is outflanked by his publisher who takes up with a society lady during the course of the novel and so disconcerts Gordon with reports of his goings-on with the Fane family based on Society gossip. And so on.

Money is inextricably linked with all these definitions of position in society and with the pairings or bondings between males and females – known as ‘marriage’. Joanna is aware that her family money was part of the reason Jimmie married her – and that fact that wife number two – Lady Rowena – has recently come into a lot of money is the main reason Jimmie seriously considers dumping Joanna and remarrying Rowena – until he actually meets her and remembers how ghastly she is.

So you could analyse the entire story in terms of the complex web of social class and money it creates, and declare it ‘a study of contemporary society and social customs’ etc, as if it was a piece of anthropological research.

Or do a structuralist or narratological interpretation which saw the characters as blocks or units whose overlappings and intersections create nexuses of energy and rest to which make up the dynamic patterns across the text.

Or you could inject some morality into the analysis e.g. Gordon’s contempt for Jimmie is ‘right’ and justified by Jimmie’s incurable snobbery, or is itself flawed by his own ‘immoral’ behaviour in having an affair with Jimmy’s wife, etc.

But I prefer to stick to a more stylistic analysis of the actual words on the page, of the deformations or innovations or habits or oddities of language of which the text is actually made up. From this more limited point of view the emphasis on the theme of social class has two results:

  1. It taps into a rich tradition of English comic writers taking the mickey out of the English class system going back through Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse to Dickens, and back further to the earliest comic novels of Henry Fielding. Dim, drunk, huntin’-shootin’-and-fishin’ types are the stockest of stock characters in English comic writing.
  2. For Amis’s more particular purposes, being a class outsider is just another (time-honoured) way of achieving the aim of most of his novels, which is to present the hapless hero as hopelessly isolated, confused and discombobulated.

The main conclusion I’d draw from the presence of the ‘class theme’ is that the return to such a time-honoured comic topic results in a novel which is noticeably more straightforward and funny than a lot of its predecessors.

Conclusion

I really enjoyed this book. The focused story and the use of short chapters make this a more enjoyable read than its immediate predecessors. And whereas Robin Davies really was a selfish bastard leaving an unpleasant aftertaste at the conclusion of its predecessor, in this one the central figure, Gordon, is more sinned against than sinning, more the kind of hapless nincompoop that Lucky Jim Dixon was in Amis’s first novel.

And, against all expectations, I found myself warming to Jimmie the snobbish old writer. And the long excursion to Hungerstream, the vast country pile of the Duke of Dunwich, was a refreshing change of scene for an Amis novel, so many of which take usually place in rooms in suburban houses where people get drunk or are miserably unfaithful to each other. The change of scene seemed to revive his writing making it both more funny and more moving than in recent books.

For all Amis’s weirdnesses of style and worldview, or maybe because I’m so used to them now that I positively enjoy them, I really liked this book and look forward to rereading it sometime.


Credit

The Biographer’s Moustache by Kingsley Amis was published by Hutchinson in 1995. All quotes and references are to the 1996 Flamingo paperback edition.

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 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.

You Can’t Do Both by Kingsley Amis (1994)

‘This makes all the difference. Well, quite a lot of difference.’ (p.142)
Robin tried to make it clear, but not too clear… (p.128)

Amis was born in 1922, so he started secondary school just as Herr Hitler took power in Germany (1933) and reached manhood during the Battle of Britain (1940). He grew up in a middle-class, South London household and went to the local grammar school.

Maybe writing his Memoirs (published in 1991) brought a lot of his teenage years back. Whatever the cause, You Can’t Have Both is, for most of its length, an easy-going third-person narrative about an Amis-like boy, then young man, named Robin Davies, which is surprisingly mellow and forgiving about his parents, his chums at school and Oxford, and about the hapless young ladies he clumsily tries to seduce.

The use of a throwaway everyday phrase for the title is characteristic (I Like It HereI Want It Now) and highly symptomatic of the casual, half-baked thought processes and style of the narrator and all the characters – they sort of, kind of, in a way, vaguely, maybe did something, or not – or something, at any rate.

From his earliest novels, Amis’s prose style, and the attitude it’s built on, have always struck me as oddly detached and alienated – a style which regards everyone around the narrator as creatures from another planet whose behaviour is unfathomably mysterious and unpredictable. There are glaring examples of his bewildered attitude on every page. That said, from time to time the prose reads like the work of someone who is actually trying to be funny, and fairly regularly – in among the strange attitude and clotted prose style – succeeds.

It’s divided into four chapters:

Chapter 1

Robin is 14 or 15, at Grammar school, good at Latin, with the usual small circle of school chums. He lives with his extravagantly normal dad, who insists on having manly heart-to-heart conversations and referring to him as ‘old boy’, as well as his mum, who likes to prepare the sitting room so they can have one of their ‘chats’. When neither of them are around the teenage Robin’s acts of assertiveness or rebellion are very much of their time (around 1936?) – plugging in and listening to the radiogram without his father’s permission; smoking a cigarette till it makes him feel sick and giddy; listening to Louis Armstrong at a friend’s house (reminding me of one of the few true-feeling scenes in The Crime of the Century, where the detective and the boy hero discuss just what it is that’s so exciting about Armstrong-era jazz).

Into this stiflingly boring world comes the 20-year-old son of one of his mum’s friends, Jeremy Carpenter, who is at Cambridge, knows about jazz and smoking and poetry, and is generally a god-like idol.

In the second half of this act, Robin is packed off to stay with his father’s relatives in Wales, who are made out to be yokel gargoyles. His one clumsy attempt to kiss his much older cousin, Dilys, who had led him on a bit, ends in disaster. But then, to Robin’s astonishment, Jeremy turns up in Wales, saying he was staying with friends in nearby Shropshire anyway. Jeremy takes him out for the day, treats him to a slap-up lunch with wine, then a drive out to a sunny hillside. Here it all comes to grief when Jeremy asks young Robin whether he has any experience of ‘the other’ i.e. of boys i.e of homosexuality. Robin blushes and says no, Jeremy quickly asserts that he hasn’t either, they repair to the car, and Jeremy drives him back to his Welsh relatives’ house, before reversing the car and disappearing. Robin trudges up the lane to the cottage blind with tears, his idol-worship smashed (one of the few times I can remember any Amis character revealing a weakness or expressing any emotion apart from bewilderment).

Chapter 2

Jump forward a few years to Robin now at Oxford studying classics. Expecting some local colour or  history? Forget it. We learn almost nothing about the university, his particular college, the wider city or the period it’s set in. Instead, the text claustrophobically focuses on Robin’s consuming need to seduce a fellow student, Barbara Bates. He eventually gets her into bed where – it’s difficult to make out through the evasions and euphemisms to which the 70 year-old Amis is still prey – but it seems he performs badly, or his post-coital attitude is maladroit, and so she ends up avoiding him.

No problem, though, because in the rooms of his best mate, Embleton, at another Oxford college, he meets young Nancy Bennett, just 17 and not at the university. She works at a record shop in the High Street and they go on a few dates before he is invited to meet her parents (her dad standing behind the bar in his lounge and delivering politely menacing threats). Then Nancy is invited to spend a weekend at his parents’ house, in London.

Here they take advantage of his parents being out unexpectedly long one day, to go to bed and have full intercourse. There follows an excruciatingly embarrassing scene, when the parents return, of his dad asking Robin on his honour whether anything untoward took place when they were out. Robin lies but Nancy goes bright red with shame and then the secret comes tumbling out.

The book describes in horrible detail the embarrassed way Robin’s dad, a decent bloke really, himself doesn’t really know what to do and, after consulting his wife, decides they must ask Nancy to leave. This causes upset for all the people concerned – Robin, his dad, his mum, and Nancy – effectively blamed and humiliated – which takes some time to simmer down.

Chapter 3

The timeline jumps again to After the War (1946?). Robin had been called up, managed to secure officer rank, won a medal and, in its final stages, was taken prisoner and saw the war out in a German POW camp. In this long third section there are two important storylines:

1. His father is diagnosed with cancer and the book describes Robin and his older brother George’s efforts to deal with it, to visit the visibly failing old man in hospital, and then to organise the cremation at a dreary suburban crematorium.

2. But by far the bigger amount of time is devoted to the fact that – on returning from hearing his father’s diagnosis – Robin has fierce life-affirming sex with Nancy (who, surprisingly, he’s still going out with, years and years after the initial embarrassments recorded in the previous chapter) but – oops – she gets pregnant, a disaster at a time when abortion was illegal and being an unmarried mother carried a crippling stigma.

These is a long sequence which describes their stuttering immature attempts to think through all the solutions, given Robin’s extreme reluctance to get married, her reluctance to become an unmarried mother, and the impossibility of getting an abortion.

Eventually, via their shady landlady, they are put in touch with an abortion clinic in Wales (always Wales in Amis’s books), Robin borrows the necessary £100 from his older brother, George, and he and Nancy catch a train down to Cardiff, there to stay at a boarding house which is part of the package.

The accretion of detail – albeit filtered through Amis’s tortured prose – slowly and effectively creates an air of suspense and expectation and muted horror, both Robin and Nancy behaving and talking ‘normally’ while their unconscious minds are obviously screaming. It all builds to the climactic scene where Robin takes her to the clinic, leaves her in the room where she is to prepare for the operation – then hears her burst into tears and goes back into the bedroom to find her flung on the bed and absolutely distraught. In more or less the only decent act of his life, Robin realises he is being a selfish bastard. He packs her stuff for her, whisks her away and, in the train waiting room at Cardiff, proposes to her. Wow. Quite a turnaround.

There is then a sub-plot where Nancy’s staid mother and father refuse to attend the hurried registry office wedding which Robin has organised within just a few days, until Robin’s own mother insists on going to a face-to-face meeting with them and, surprisingly, gets them to change their minds.

In parallel to all this are several scenes where Robin visits his brother George and is witness to the appalling hell of having a child – in his brother’s case his little girl, Marian – who screams and bawls and throws food everywhere and is generally a monster all day long. Some of this is very funny but mostly it confirms Robin in his horror of fatherhood, marriage, commitment – the whole shebang.

And so to the title of the book. As he discusses in one of the many long-winded and obtuse conversations which dominate the text, this one down the boozer with brother George, you can’t have both: you can’t have commitment and marriage – and at the same time remain a footloose bachelor, free to screw around. Why? Why can’t you have both? Because you have to bloody well grow up!

After his dad’s funeral Robin and his mother have one of their chats in which he is disconcerted to realise how transparent his character is to other people – how self-centred all around realise he is, how unreliable and shifty and duplicitous. God, is it really that obvious? He’s not even a shallow character. For all his endless calculating and his smart-arse pedantry about the Classics (his own private name for Xenophon’s Anabasis being How To Fuck Up A Good Story, ho ho p.212) – when it comes to relations with other people, he is barely human.

Chapter 4

A short, 15-page epilogue, in which our hero is revealed, nine or so years later, to have becomes a Reader in Classics at a Midland University and we think we are just going to be shown his boring after-life as a respectable middle-class, middle-aged paterfamilias. And certainly we see him motoring home at lunchtime to kiss his wife, the very same Nancy, and his two rambunctious daughters, Margaret and Matilda.

But there’s a sting in the tail. For quite quickly we realise that Robin, despite being respectably married, is still having extra-marital flings. In fact he’s off to one in London now, making up a cock-and-bull story about having to go do academic work or attend a conference. And so he takes the train to the Smoke, the tube to Fulham and checks into the quiet boarding house where he commits his deeds of darkness there to await… none other than the now rather stout Dilys, his cousin, older than him and who flirted with him in Wales when he was a pimply adolescent.

They have barely finished an aggressive act of congress before the phone rings in the rented room and, when Robin absent-mindedly picks it up, it is Nancy on the other end. She is downstairs. She has followed him. In fact she’s had him tailed by a private detective. She knows everything. Has done for months.

Robin creeps downstairs like a naughty schoolboy and there has to put up with a massive harangue about what a self-centred little shit he is, Nancy alternately shouting in his face or bursting into tears. She says she’ll take him back for one last chance but if anything like this happens again, she’ll leave him and take the girls and he’ll never see them again. Then she lands him a colossal punch in the face.

This might seem like a come-uppance, and almost like some kind of moral reckoning, but it isn’t. It feels exactly like the end of Take A Girl Like You from 26 years earlier, in which northern lass Jenny Bunn ends up marrying the caddish Patrick Standish despite knowing that he’ll never change; or like That Uncertain Feeling where we watch John Lewis lured into an adulterous affair which really, deeply hurts his loving wife, and so upsets the reader. Men who have the strength of character of a goldfish.

Similarly, the worldview behind this novel hasn’t shifted a jot in Amis’s 30-year-long career. If he thinks painting a warts-n-all, brutally self-flagellating portrait of this kind of man and this kind of character somehow redeems or justifies the behaviour, it doesn’t. Some readers have found the book moving, but I found the overall affect depressing and lowering. There is no joy to this compulsive coupling: just a brainless addiction, shallow deceptions and an aftertaste of ashes.


Amis’s sort of vague & diffuse style or something

It’s a real oddity that Amis wrote many essays and at least one book about English usage, and yet his own style is so contorted and obscure as to be sometimes almost unreadable.

His central tactic is to include in the narrative prose and dialogue the kind of throwaway, ‘whatever’ phrasing that many people use in everyday life (or used – the exact diction is, of course, very dated throughout). But in his hands it has become a mannerism with half a dozen specific elements or aspects, all contributing to make the characters and narrator sound infuriatingly vague, so casual in what they’re describing that it often becomes difficult to follow, so persistently offhand as to become wilfully obscure.

The tactics include:

The pointless qualification

Adding an extra clause at the end of a sentence, ‘or something’, to any previously firm statement, in order to make it feel weaker and vaguer.

  • ‘This makes all the difference. Well, quite a lot of difference.’ (p.142)
  • ‘I see all that, some of it anyway.’ (p.145)
  • At other times, or even at the same time… (p.149)
  • He thought he’d make me like it by being around too much when I was a nipper, or not being around enough or something.’ (p.158)
  • He assured himself, with some truth, that in wartime such arrangements, or non-arrangements, were common, or not uncommon, (p.162)
  • Actually a different accent might have done his cause some good or at any rate less harm. (p.169)
  • The temple or secular chapel or whatever it was they entered… (p.204)
  • ‘What did you make of that extract or oration or whatever it was that your brother read out?’ (p.207)

Deliberate vagueness

Almost all the perceptions and thoughts which occur to any character are deliberately vague. There is a willed blurriness about what or who people or things are.

  • If anything the last bit was a faint surprise to Robin who had vaguely supposed…
  • Robin was mildly disconcerted by this approach, or lack of it…
  • And it is my business a bit, after all…
  • He’s always been one for speaking his mind, that’s to say some of his mind…
  • Oh he’ll be as nice as pie to you, or he’ll do his best to be…
  • Robin tried to make it clear, but not too clear, that he spoke largely in jest…
  • They sort of have to fall back on being very fed up…
  • ‘I see all that, some of it anyway…’ (p.145)

The passive voice

I hadn’t previously noticed Amis’s use of the passive voice in oddly inappropriate settings. I’m sure it’s a new tactic in his campaign of undermining the English language’s ability to state facts and convey information.

  • The half-dozen little glassed-in cubicles, known to some as audition booths… (p.99)
  • He switched the wireless on and music from a brass band was to be heard. It was not a very agreeable noise… (p.119)
  • Food was visible, but dishing-up time went on being not yet. (p.168)
  • An indifferent recording of some archaic quasi-religious piece of music made itself heard for a minute or so… (p.204)
  • No actual detritus of food or make-up was to be seen… (p.232)
  • A solitary flash of gold was to be seen among his teeth. (p.239)
  • A man’s voice was soon to be heard… (p.242)

Amis’s laboured jokes

It’s meant to be a comic novel, but Amis was never simply funny in the way Tom Sharpe or Howard Jacobson or even David Lodge are funny. Right from the start there was always a substantial amount of knotty, difficult or ambiguous ‘real life’ in his books. Since his novels mostly tell of unappealing characters, from another era, conveyed in his peculiarly convoluted prose, these grapplings with serious issues or unpleasant experiences aren’t necessarily the good or enjoyable bits.

Sometimes his perceptions are just funny, no effort required.

She wore a dark garment that resembled, and perhaps in former days had actually been, a page’s tabard in some historical pageant. (p.89)

He, Robin, could on his own accord have wished for nothing better in its line than the absence of Mr and Mrs B from his wedding, except naturally for their absence from his life for a trial period of say fifty years. (p.273)

But sometimes his long-winded style makes you work considerably harder before you get to the punchline, at which point you ask, Well, was it worth it?

Robin’s bedroom, even when not given over to Nancy, boasted a gas-fire of curious three-dimensional design, with gnarled black burners instead of the more familiar straight white ones, a legacy of some previous owner of the house. It probably threw out no more heat at no greater cost than more conventional appliances, but its unusual horizontalised appearance made it not a thing to be trifled with, in other words not a thing to be used except at times of imminent glaciation. (p.130)

The punchline made me smile, but note the deliberate tone of vagueness and so-whattery – some previous owner, probably more heat. The narrator – well, Amis – just isn’t very interested in the world about him, except for girls and sex, a monomaniac compulsion which becomes very boring. As Robin himself confesses to brother George:

‘As long as I can remember I’ve thought about almost nothing but getting my end away…’ (p.147)

His older brother invites Robin and Nancy to accompany him and his girlfriend to the cinema. What an opportunity that could have been for adding in the detail of the films people went to see in the 1940s, with a snappy one-liner about Cagney or Bogart, a phrase encapsulating George or Robin’s character, a flash which would make the text come alive.

Instead George throws away the remark that the movie they’re planning to see is ‘some gangster thing’. A small example of the way none of the characters nor the narrator really notice or care very much about the world around them.

Amis’s acting

Everyone is acting and performing and hyper-aware of it, timing their performances of such business as laughing, smiling, frowning, shouting, hesitating, putting on a show. These performances come in blocks and chunks; instead of a flow of time the reader gets disconnected excerpts, sections, bits of stuff, sequences of performance by one or other character.

  • After doing a certain amount of laughing about something or other…
  • The tea was made, with hot water standing by but no fanciful extras like slices of lemon. Robin managed not to grin at the very unwatchful way Nancy watched for consumer reaction to what she had prepared. To be on the safe side he limited his show of approval to minor noises and faces. (p.146)
  • He tried to get reliability and and unplumbed experience into the way he tilted his head forward and over to one side. (p.178)
  • This section lasted only a short time. (p.239)
  • Silence and pretended shame seemed called for… (p.219)
  • [George got] to his feet with caricatured haste. ‘Right on cue. I’ll have to go and do some welcoming home.’ (p.221)
  • [Marian attacked her tea] in the spirit of someone registering appetite in a silent film. (p.223) (p.231)
  • ‘Beck,’ he announced, stooped over Nancy’s hand and vigorously shook Robin’s, then did some more chuckling and went on with a good imitation of ferocity. (p.238)
  • When he answered he tried not to overdo his appreciation of the justice of her diagnosis. (p.259)
  • There followed a sort of silent film couple of moments in which Mr Bennett laid his hand on his wife’s arm and she went through a hurried series of reactions, from a start or jump of sheer physical surprise through mild indignation to acceptance and gratitude. When this reached completion, he said to Robin’s mother… (p.274)
  • Jeremy showed himself in good form as entertainer, as old friend, as affectionate and attentive son but not too much of either. (p.288)
  • He had tried bewilderment shading into muddled protest just now and had cut no ice at all. (p.301)

Sometimes these descriptions of the characters’ permanent acting for each other is funny.

‘Oh yes, Mum, you did quite right to tell me,’ said Robin, hanging out situation-well-in-hand signals as he spoke. (p.152)

This is the kind of thing you read about the young Amis keeping his mates in stitches with at Oxford, and which the early books like Lucky Jim are stuffed to the brim with. But equally as much of the time it feels oddly alienated and detached, almost robotic. It feels weird.

  • Either she was doing a marvellous imitation of a girl quite uninterested in the impression she was making, or she was such a girl. The latter, he thought, and good for her. He knew it was bad luck on her to have got tied up with a chap who hardly knew what it was not to care how he seemed to other people. (p.165)
  • It was one of those rare times when he forgot to care how he seemed to other people. (p.166)

And in fact at some moments, it feels almost panic-stricken. The comedy is so close to panic fear, to a Kafka-esque level of alienation from other people, from the world and from himself, that it’s impossible to even smile, let alone laugh. In the climactic scene when Nancy confronts him with his stupid, selfish promiscuousness and threatens to leave:

A great fear of being altogether alone swept over him, as if she might take from him not only herself and their life together but everything familiar to him, all his reference points, whatever made it possible to steer through the hours between waking up and falling asleep. (p.302)

It’s ironic that Amis once or twice is quoted as taking the mickey out of continental philosophy, especially the Sartrean existentialism which was fashionable as Amis came to notice – because all of his novels, for me, far more than the superficial comedy, bespeak a really powerful terror of existence, a nausea in the face of other people and great yawning chasms of Time which cannot be faced or handled without a multitude of tricks, pulling faces, negotiating bits of time, manipulating other people, drinking and a pointless pursuit of sex. In  his way, Amis is the great English existentialist novelist.

Sections of time and bits of stuff

There’s a particular mannerism which bugs me, which is when a character gets cross or happy or delivers a speech or something – and then the narrator or protagonist or some characters refer to what we’ve just heard as a performance or, even more vaguely and demotically, as ‘a bit’, or ‘that lot’, or some ‘stuff’.

Instead of characters responding to each others’ dialogue, they just sit through it, regarding it all as ‘stuff’ that has to be endured. After Mr Davies very mildly criticises them for being indecent in his house, Nancy retreats to the bedroom to recover and Robin goes to ask if she’s alright.

‘I’m fine. I just sort of wanted to rest for a moment before the next lot.’
‘Oh, there won’t be a next lot for quite a time.’ (p.116)

  • Robin had had time to prepare some of that…. He would probably not had the cheek to blurt out the last bit… (p.154)

Time itself is broken down into sections which have to be defined and then navigated. Absolutely nothing flows naturally. Here he is in bed with Nancy and failing – I think – to get an erection.

  • The particular kind of embrace that should have come next seemed no less firmly indicated, but that was only to start with. After a minute or so he found he had nothing much to go on with, not enough, in fact. Such a thing had not happened to him since the time before he met Nancy and he was put out, though not as much as much as he might have been in the absence of anything else to claim his attention. (p.243)

Time gets tied up in knots in Amis’s prose. It is the one issue – even more than sex – which his characters are always fretting about.

  • ‘If we go along there now we can set about filling in the time to some purpose.’ (p.277)

Beady-eyed

Above all, the protagonist has a permanent, beady-eyed air of calculation, calculating the impression he’s making on people, manipulating and manoeuvring everyone around him in order to give himself the easiest ride and, above all – obsessed with getting women into bed. Even if it’s to a disappointing experience, even if it involves unhappiness and regret, it doesn’t matter – women women women, bed bed bed sex sex sex. The real world barely exists.

For the next couple of minutes, Robin’s attention was not on the shops and such about him as he walked, which surely must have changed since he last saw them but in no way that interested him or caught his eye. (p.153)

As a typical example, it emerges that – surprisingly – while on active service during the war, Robin won a medal. His friend Jeremy asks him about it.

‘Does that thing above your pocket mean you were very brave about something?’
‘No, just that I was somewhere in particular at a particular time.’ (p.157)

Everything is downplayed, underplayed, dismissed, not taken seriously, it’s just stuff to sit through and be endured while you act whatever part the tedious old shags around you require, till you can get free to have a smoke, better still a couple of jars with a mate, best of all a bunk-up with some dolly bird in a rented room.

Between then and the time fixed for Robin’s departure for Oxford the next morning nothing of great significance happened. (p.184)

Most of life apparently consisted of being in a minority of one, a status worth going to some lengths to alleviate at events like your father’s funeral. And old Emble had intrinsic merits too, seeming older than Robin, actually being richer and posher, also staid of demeanour, just the sort of fellow whom luck or good judgement could turn into a means of mitigating or even removing some minor disagreeableness like having to chat to an uncle or find an erstwhile business colleague a seat. (p.202)

In other words, his best ‘friend’ is in fact merely a convenient tool for assuaging the protagonist’s inescapable solipsism.

Feeling and meaning

Surprisingly, the text rises to a handful of moments of something like real emotion – for example, when the narrator describes the scenes around his father dying or at the climax of the abortion plotline. But I couldn’t make out whether the feeling was really in the text, or just me supplying it because I knew it was appropriate.

Certainly, most of the time, the reader has to add their own feelings to animate scenes which seem to lack any emotion on the part of the calculating protagonist. For example, to the later scenes when his mother tells him what his dead father really thought of him, or when his gay friend Jeremy lets loose a stream of 1940s prejudices about queers and women.

But for the most part I felt little or no emotional involvement with any of the characters, since I was repelled in almost every sentence by Amis’s weird prose style and his deliberately vague and alienated worldview.

Towards the end, it dawned on me that the frequent use of the passive voice has a moral dimension, too. It typifies the protagonist’s sense that he isn’t responsible for events. Things just keep on happening to him, damn it, and his only concern is how to negotiate ‘this bit’ and live through ‘the next section’ and handle the ‘stuff’ that keeps on coming his way, and do some ‘welcoming’ or ‘laughing’ or making polite small-talk, or whatever guff it takes to appease the irritating old duffers who seem to populate the world around him.

He could think of no other way of passing the next hour or so, and concluded that this was one of those times when you had little choice in what you were to do. (p.183)

Objects are seen; voices are heard; people are said to appear; houses come into view; expressions are registered. The passive voice not only indicates the strange alienation from the world of the protagonist and narrator, it also points towards his continuing evasion of responsibility. His brother George surprises Robin by saying that for most of his life his father had a nickname for him – O.O. Davies – standing for Options Open (p.220) – describing the way he can’t get anywhere near committing to anyone or anything because he is always calculating and gambling on something better coming along.

Thus Robin has a reasonable amount of self-knowledge: he knows he is self-centred, only after one thing, casually hurtful – he knows he is ‘selfish, self-indulgent, lazy, arrogant and above all inextinguishably promiscuous by nature’ (p.245) –  and the narrator doesn’t spare him, just as he didn’t soft pedal the unpleasantness of so many previous protagonists, like adulterous John Lewis in That Uncertain Feeling or Patrick Standish, the compulsive fornicator in Take A Girl Like You.

This unflinching honesty may be admirable, up to a point, but it doesn’t really compensate the reader for having to wade through what is, more or less, the same kind of story about the same kind of unpleasant, selfish and, above all, unimaginative – in fact aggressively anti-imaginative – character.

The streets [of London] were not crowded, but there were enough people in them, moving rapidly enough, for Robin to become aware of his small and shallow experience of the city he had been born in, not because he had been brought up near its distant edge but inevitably, not at all exceptionally. He would live and die without having found out anything much about it, anything personal to him, perhaps nothing worth remembering about anything. (p.229)

The casual sexism and homophobia will presumably outrage the politically correct, or even averagely decent, modern reader. What upsets me far more is the deliberately and insultingly vague and obtuse vision of the world and the people in it, a wilfully unobservant, ignorant and uninterested view of life which is lamentably narrow, dull and self-blinkered, and which becomes extremely wearing far before the book reaches its end.


Credit

You Can’t Do Both by Kingsley Amis was published by Hutchinson in 1994. All quotes and references are to the 1996 Flamingo paperback edition.

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 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 with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, 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 in which Amis dramatises his feelings that society has become rotten with 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. But instead of being starkly punished Clive finds himself being exonerated and forgiven by everyone which leaves him boiling with rage and frustration.
1992 The Russian Girl – Middle-aged, London-based 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. Was it worth it?
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 all the time, and completely failes to live up to his responsibilities as a supposed adult, continuing to have affairs behind his loyal wife’s back.
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

The Russian Girl by Kingsley Amis (1992)

Richard had reached a kind of steady state of indecision. Everything that had happened seemed to make it harder to know what to do about anything. (p.179)

Richard Vaisey’s circle

Another novel set among the professional middle classes in London, this time focusing on Dr Richard Vaisey, lecturer in Russian Literature at the (fictional) London Institute of Slavonic Studies. He is married to the stunningly beautiful if odd, the mannered but reassuringly rich, Cordelia. It’s Cordelia’s second marriage; previously she was married to theatrical set-designer Godfrey Radetsky. Richard has been surprised to find himself becoming quite friendly with Godfrey’s plummy brother, Crispin Radetsky, QC, i.e. top lawyer, less so with his bitchy wife, Freddie, who cordially dislikes Cordelia. Nonetheless, Richard goes by himself to a dinner party at their house, where there’s an unexpected third party, Sandy, a middle-aged woman friend of theirs who’s always fancied Richard.

Richard is flattered but also worried to realise that, during the dinner, Crispin is trying to steer the pair together. After dinner Richard finds himself giving in to Sandy’s invitation to accompany her to a party somewhere in north London. In the cab he is suddenly having a kiss and a grope with her but then, when the cab arrives, manages to find the resolve not to get out and accompany her into the house party and to further fleshly entanglements. Instead, he decides to go take up an alternative invitation and go to a dowdy, mouldy house lived in by various agéd Russian émigrés and exiles. Here he meets Anna Danilova, a young Russian woman poet on a fleeting visit to London – and this becomes the nub of the plot.

Anna Danilova

It is 1991, Russia is in turmoil following the fall of the Soviet Union. Anna’s brother has been arrested and held illegally for a year. She wants Richard to help get her poetry published, so that she can get well known enough for her to be able to rally top British literary figures into her campaign to get her brother released from prison. Unfortunately, Richard finds her poetry unspeakably appalling. Problem.

Eventually Anna wears him down, they have sex, and Richard realises he is having an affair. It is blindingly obvious to his wife and all those around him, as he spends every day arranging things to forward Anna’s campaign, taking calls from her and so on. Cordelia is unnervingly urbane about it all: ‘Just tell me when you want the divorce, darling.’

Richard plucks up the courage to ask Crispin to help and the plot, I think, crosses over into implausibility when this urbane and very worldly man improbably agrees, and starts using his impressive contacts book to arrange for Anna to do readings, have her book published, and so on.

He takes them on a memorable set-piece visit to an eminent old architect, Sir Stephen something or other, a leader of London’s artistic circles, who he hopes to recruit for The Petition. Alas, they find the eccentric old buffer kept under tight guard by his sister and an unnamed other woman in an odd household in Hampstead; browbeaten by his women, Sir S refuses to sign up, causing Crispin to politely leave and then walk up and down the elegant streets outside, swearing profusely.

Kotolynov

There’s another set piece when Richard motors Anna out to the country (‘full of fields and such’) to meet a well-known and successful Russian émigré, one Kotolynov. He turns out to live in a picture book thatched cottage and to have acquired a perfect American accent while in the States. He refuses to sign Anna’s petition and gives several pages of reasons why not, which might be a sort of Author’s Message, namely that Literature all over the world is being murdered by politics; Russian literature was more or less liquidated by the Bolsheviks and is everywhere else forced into the service of repressive regimes or strangled. Therefore, he refuses to put his name to yet another project entwining literature and politics i.e. bolstering Anna’s poetic reputation for the sole, worldly aim of discomfiting the Russian authorities.

Ippolitov

Richard drinks a lot at Kotolynov’s house, then more at the pub lunch in the village, then drives squiffily back to London where he is doorstepped by a heavily-built Russian who’s been trying to reach him by phone him for days.

Realising that his doorstep is not a good place to chat about life, Richard drives this man, Ippolitov, to a nearby hotel bar. Here Ippolitov claims to be from Russian domestic police on a mission to the UK to collaborate with our police about war crimes, but also with the time to pick up small side issues. One of them is that he has been instructed to strongly request Richard to call off The Petition. He explains that Anna’s brother is a genuine criminal who defrauded small investors of money, and throws in obscure references to child abuse as well. Richard is left confused (as so often) – not helped by the fact that he is by now pretty drunk.

Richard gets back into his sports car and drives, by now very drunk, blacking out large sections of the journey, back to his house. Here he senses there is no-one in and, on impulse, drives over to Crispin’s very grand mansion. He’s let in by Sandy (from the taxi, in the opening scene) who, realising how drunk he is, takes him off to a side room and begins molesting him again. Unfortunately, at this moment Crispin’s wife, Freddie, herself drunk, barges in, followed by Crispin himself. He explains he’s in the middle of hosting a loud party in the main rooms of the house, having won a small fortune on a racehorse bet. However, Richard delays him long enough to describe the whole Ippolitov incident and they speculate whether he truly can be a Russian copper, or is some kind of stooge. But why approach Richard in that way, and why care that much about The Petition?

Still very drunk, Richard drives home, and enters an empty abandoned house, for Cordelia is gone. Next morning there is a very funny, if rather obvious, description of his appalling hangover, from the depths of which he can’t remember where he left his car keys and, after going out to the car and not finding them, realises he’s closed the front door and doesn’t have his house keys, so has locked himself out.

He is forced, half-dressed and with hardly any money, to take a bus to the Institute, something he hasn’t done for years. A humiliation which is compounded when he finds himself sitting next to one of the trendy, left-wing lecturers who we had met in one of the opening scenes of the novel (which was set in a typically campus novel faculty meeting). Humiliatingly, this man, Duncan, offers Richard a handkerchief for the razor cuts on his chin, then a fag, then some money.

Criss-crossing London

Around about this point the wanderings of Richard get quite confusing, as the ‘plot’ becomes more a tangle of his hungover peregrinations around London. He takes a taxi to Crispin’s but has barely got £20 out of Sandy, who opens the door, before he jumps back into the cab to go to Anna’s lodging house. Here he confronts her with what Ippolitov told him and she admits that, yes, her brother is a crook, but that doesn’t stop The Petition being valid. He asks to borrow the phone and arranges to meet a man from the garage at his house, to let him into the car. He and Anna take a taxi there and, sure enough, the man has spare keys for the car. Then, when Richard is reluctant to do it, Anna uses a stone to smash a window and break into his house, where he’s now sober enough to finally remember where he left his house and car keys.

The next scene opens with Richard having driven Anna out of London to stay the night in a country hotel. Next morning he answers a phone call to find it is Godfrey, Cordelia’s first husband, strongly asking that Richard return home, so he jumps in his car and motors back to the London house. Here he finds an odd atmosphere, one of Cordelia’s female friends downstairs, while Godfrey and a complete stranger are upstairs in Cordelia’s bedroom. Here Cordelia delivers a long rambling speech less about his infidelity than about her childhood speech defect and how much effort she took to overcome it and how she knows it still sounds odd but how she still knows what’s going on around her, oh yes.

Godfrey and Richard against Cordelia

Downstairs, shaken, Richard agrees to accompany Godfrey to Crispin’s. Here Godfrey, for the first time, candidly describes his own marriage to Cordelia, and the two men agree how awful and manipulative she is. They both express one of Amis’s recurring accusations against women – that they communicate in a different way, that they don’t say what they mean, that you have to work damn hard to excavate the real meaning of their conversation from the snowstorm of distractions and emotions.

Cordelia’s two husbands then go on, over sandwiches and a rather fine bottle of red wine etc, to discuss the progress of The Petition, which Crispin now has an assistant in his office working on full time. Crispin is urbanely interested to learn that a) Ippolitov has cautioned Richard against the Petition b) Kotolynov himself refused to sign it – but Crispin is not deterred. He now shows Richard The Petition itself, on formal paper and with an empty slot at the top for his signature!

Tristram Hallett and the Institute

Richard gets a taxi back to what used to be his home, and sneaks into his car without even going in the house. He drives to the flat of one of his colleagues from The Slavonic Institute, Tristram Hallett. The opening scene of the novel had been set in a faculty meeting at the Institute which had made the novel seem, for 10 or 15 pages, as if it might turn out to be a classic ‘campus novel‘ – for the Institute where Richard teaches is described, like all its fictional kindred, as being a hotbed of professional jealousy, scene of pointlessly bureaucratic meetings, stricken by perpetual financial crisis, and whose tutors have a cheerfully contemptuous attitude to the students.

Amis adds the comic, and ‘modern’, twist that the embattled older tutors feel they need to speak and dress rougher than they actually are in order to fit in with the younger, politically correct, faculty members. It’s sort of funny that, whenever one of these approaches in a corridor, Richard and Hallett instantly drop their aitches and lard their sentences with ‘sort of’ and ‘like’. Hallett is described as leaving all his new clothes on his wife’s washing line for three weeks before wearing them, so they look suitably rumpled and proletarian, ho ho.

But all this was before the book turned into an ‘adultery-among-London’s-professional-upper-middle-classes’ novel and, for the most part, left the campus behind.

Among all his other phone calls during this confusing period, Richard had had one from the faculty secretary saying his closest friend on the staff, Tristram Hallett, had been off work ill. Now Richard has come to visit Tristram in his rather shabby flat. He finds him looking pale and ill, having shaved off his beard, an act which suddenly reveals his age. Tristram has had a heart ‘incident’ and it looks like his working career is over. Richard commiserates for a while and then they go on to discuss Anna, since Tristram had helped organise her early readings and events and so has met her. They both sadly agree that Anna’s poetry is worthless ‘shit’ – the precise word they use. Richard leaves, wondering more than ever what he is doing with his life.

Richard’s dilemma

For Cordelia is not only his wife, she is very rich. By leaving her he will abandon his nice lifestyle, not least the sports car he loves cruising round in, drunk or otherwise. And how has he got mixed up in this Petition nonsense which, in Crispin’s capable hands, is escalating far beyond his original intentions? And just how much trouble might he get into if he ignores the warnings of Comrade Ippolitov? And all for a ‘poetess’ whose poetry, everyone agrees, is not just bad, but monstrously bad.

Richard phones Ippolitov’s number, hoping for some kind of second opinion, to discover he’s in London. So he phones the posh Piccadilly hotel number he’s been given, and pops round for a drink. Here Ippolitov is big, bearish and disconcertingly American in his manners and gets straight to the point: Richard’s professional self-esteem is all he has, right? Especially if he leaves his wife,in which eventuality he will be poor. So is he willing to destroy his professional self-esteem in his own eyes and that of all his colleagues’ by signing the petition on behalf of a worthless poet? No. He must keep his professional self-respect even if it means hurting the young woman he says he loves. There are plenty more fish in the sea. OK?

Dazed by this lecture, Richard drives home, only to find one of Cordelia’s friends, Pat, who’s been a peripheral presence throughout the book, in the kitchen, in tears. Tears of frustration at being bossed around and used, told to fetch this and go for that, and just took up a lovely breakfast in bed to Cordelia who did nothing but criticise.

However, her role in this scene is not to highlight what a bitch Cordelia is (though she is, she is) it is to sharpen Richard’s dilemma even more: for when Richard explains that he’s NOT going to sign the Petition in order to maintain his professional self-respect, Pat more or less laughs in his face, saying – ‘So you love this Anna enough to sleep with her, enough to abandon your wife for her, enough to drive your wife into a collapse for her, but… not enough to tell a little white lie for? You will, in fact, end up screwing up your whole life, losing rich wife and sexy lover… and for what?’

God. Who’s right? Ippolitov or Pat? What should he do?

The lie

In a repeat of earlier scenes Richard is alarmed by yet another phone call from Freddie, over at Crispin’s house, saying he’d better come over quickly, like NOW, because Anna is here in a complete state.

Richard drives over, kisses Anna and they go into Crispin’s garden. Here Anna explains that she’s got wind of Richard not liking her poetry: he’s never referred to it, never mentioned the edition of her latest work she gave him: she thinks he doesn’t like her poetry and, for her, being a poet is as important as being an academic, as his professional self-esteem, is for Richard. Therefore, last night she got drunk and burned all her poems, all her manuscripts and notebooks, and ceased to be a poet, carried on drinking vodka, rode round on the Tube, passed out and was brought home by the police.

With little or no description of his feelings or motivations, but aware of all the preceding conversations he has had, we see Richard rush to contradict her, to assert that her poems are the best he’s read in a long time, they stand out from the crowd, they are of the highest value, and he tells her they taped her readings so many of the new poems are preserved. Anna cries tears of joy and embraces him.

The ‘happy’ couple return to the house where Richard tells Crispin what he’s just told Anna. Crispin raises his eyebrows, but declares that champagne is called for, and hadn’t Richard better now sign The Petition?

Richard drives back to his house to see Cordelia. She is upstairs sitting before her dressing table. Richard begins a speech about how sorry he is, but… but Cordelia interrupts him. If he thinks she is going to sit through a sentimental scene in which he declares his heart is torn in two but, alas, he has fallen in love with the most beautiful etc etc, then he’s sorely mistaken. ‘You have been unfaithful. You want to leave me? There is nothing more to say. No. Nothing. Now please leave. I have things to do.’ (pp.264-65)

Cordelia’s revenge

The novel has many funny moments. Little things like descriptions of the roaring London traffic or the malign menace of one of Richard’s many taxi drivers, moments of exasperation or exaggeration, comic similes, the comic over-acting of many of the characters, Richard’s perpetual expectation of hearing a remote control rocket land on him – a lot of this is very funny.

But I found the final thirty pages or so consistently laugh-out-loud funny, because in them Cordelia, who has been so comprehensively trashed by the male characters, gets a sweeping and exhilirating revenge, confirming that she is either a) the monster the men make out or b) a strong independent woman taking justified revenge, according to your taste.

Cordelia’s revenge is thorough and systematic: Richard drives to a hotel to phone Anna and tell her he’s officially left Cordelia but when he goes outside he finds policemen standing around his sports car, who proceed to ask to see proof of his identity. They were rung and told the car was stolen 39 minutes ago. Aha. About the time Cordelia sent him packing…

The police insist on accompanying Richard to his house to confirm his identity but where, to his acute embarrassment, he finds the locks have been changed and his front door key no longer works (p.268). When he explains that he’s having a little difficulty with his wife, the police sympathise and simply ask him to attend the local police station with his driving license in the next three days.

A few hours later, fortified by lunch and with Anna he returns to the house (p.269). The key still doesn’t work and Anna is about to break in (as she did several scenes earlier) when merely touching the window she smashed last time prompts an enormous uproar (p.270). Richard thinks must be the sound of an airliner crashing into the garden, but turns out to be that every window and entrance is now booby-trapped to trigger loudspeakers playing the amplified howling of wild dogs. Probably also triggering an alarm at the local police station. Cordelia has been hard at work. Richard realises this is War.

Richard decides next to try the émigré house, owned by one Professor Léon. As they drive up to it they see it thronged by police and police cars. Richard parks a few streets away and walks back to find someone has given the police an anonymous tip-off that the house is used by drug dealers and contains stashes of illegal drugs. Also, it’s the same police sergeant as asked Richard about his sports car outside the hotel and watched him unable to get into his own house. Fortunately, the police have come to the conclusion it’s a false alarm and Richard is able to reassure the terrified old Russians there will be no further consequences. But wherever he turns, Cordelia is one step ahead.

Thoroughly rattled, Richard and Anna check into an obscure hotel in Bayswater and the next morning Richard makes a few phone calls to organise a subterfuge, namely to ask Pat, Cordelia’s hard-done-by ‘friend’, to open the door when another of his allies phones Cordelia to distract her attention. All goes exactly to plan, the phone rings, Pat opens the door and Richard slips inside his house and mounts the stairs to his study (p.274).

What he finds there amazes and horrifies him. His study has been stripped bare. All furniture, bookcases, desk, chair, all notes, folders and files, tax and VAT returns, driver’s license, his NHS records – all gone! At that moment Cordelia’s voice wakes him from his trance. She is standing in the doorway and confirms that all his clothes are on the way to charity shops which are thrilled with his generosity. All his notes and working papers have been shredded and burnt. Begone. (p.275)

Richard staggers back to the car and back to the hotel where he’d left Anna. Here he goes to pay the waitress for the coffees he and Anna have been drinking, but she returns a few moments later: his credit card is not accepted, does he have other means of payment? (p.276) Richard stalls and goes to visit a local branch of his bank. He isn’t surprised to find all money has been emptied from his account; he is officially penniless.

At that moment Harry, Pat’s husband calls, and in an upset phone conversation tells him that Pat has been arrested for shoplifting. Obviously she’s innocent, and he is angry and upset that Richard’s bloody wife is obviously behind it (p.277).

Richard phones Crispin to ask for a loan but when Crispin refers casually to the Institute, Richard’s eyes widen as he realises that this is another aspect of his life Cordelia might be sabotaging even as they speak. He drops the phone and runs for his car. Drives like a maniac to the central London location of the Institute of Slavonic Studies, parks, bounds up the stairs to his office to say hello to his secretary, Mrs Pearson. Yes, she confirms, he’s only just missed the nice gentleman who called to collect his stuff; they had a hand-written note from him and she rang his wife to check, just to be on the safe side, and she confirmed that Richard was leaving the Institute and could all his stuff be packed up and sent round, please?. Sure enough, when he walks into it, Richard finds his office has been gutted. A career’s worth of lecture notes, students’ work, as well as his ongoing notes for a study of Lermontov – all gone. Cordelia’s revenge is complete. (p.279)

He returns to collect Anna. As they drive off from the hotel and Richard updates her on all the bad news, she says, well, at least she can’t do any more damage. At that moment they both become aware of a horrible grinding noise, and as Richard brakes the car a little …. the front offside wheel goes trundling off ahead of them as the sports car, minus front wheel, comes grinding to a screeching halt. They both watch the wheel cross to the other side of the road and hit a motorbike, whose rider gets off lightly with only a broken collarbone, cuts and bruises. (p.280)

Aftermath

It may not sound it, but this is really a very funny sequence of disasters, beautifully paced with a mounting sense of hysteria. The final chapter cuts to days later, with Richard and Anna mercifully ensconced in a pleasant country cottage courtesy, of course, of Crispin’s contacts. Crispin, Freddie and Godfrey drop in to take them for lunch. Already Anna and Freddie are close friends. Godfrey and Richard swap notes about Cordelia and for the first time Richard learns that when Godfrey left her, she burnt down the theatre where his new stage production was opening. Wow. All this is presumably meant to bolster Richard’s side of the argument, that Cordelia is incontrovertibly mad. Kind of impressive, though.

A letter from Tristram has told Richard that the new head of the Institute is downgrading Russian studies; he’d better start looking for a new job. Luckily, Crispin has been asking around and a friend of a friend has a vacancy for a Russian translator at the EU in Brussels. Probably hard work, not the same kudos as being a literature prof, but the pay is significantly better, free flat, all the perks. Richard gratefully accepts. What it is to have wealthy and well-connected friends.

Anna writes Richard a love poem and it is rubbish. Richard tells her so and she accepts it but says it reflects her true feelings and hopes one day she will write something worthy of him, and they embrace. Once again, despite the strange plot and the unnerving style, I find myself moved at the end of an Amis novel.


Characters as puppets

Amis is (presumably) aiming to describe contemporary life and contemporary people, and I think he is admired by his fans for his precise recordings of the behaviour and thought processes of a certain type of professional middle-class, middle-aged Londoner – the emphasis generally being on the male protagonist although almost as much time is spent delineating female characters.

But it shouldn’t be overlooked that a big part of his style, of the way he gets his effects, is to describe everyone as performing ‘routines’, schticks, delivering lines and generally acting, or over-acting. From his first novel onwards it has been his consistent fictional position that people are almost incomprehensible, women doubly so: both first person and third person narrators have, through successive novels, observed the characters like an anthropologist among a rare tribe, or even a zoologist recording the peculiar behaviour of primates in the jungle. Amis can never get over the bizarreness of how people look and behave.

A human shape had passed the window and a sound was heard at the front door, soon identifiable as that of a key being inserted into a lock. Cordelia sat upright and went into a fast pantomime of eyes first dilated then close-shut, shaken head, brandished forefinger, shoulders raised to ear level, though anything less than a bellow would have been quite secure and perhaps more informative. Pat watched, vainly striving for detachment, for close observation only, as always at one of these shows. There came a final wrap-up gesture from Cordelia and her husband entered the room with a kind of skirmisher’s gait, quite unlike his familiar rather resolute stride… (p.82)

Nothing ever just happens; people are always doing jobs and ‘bits’ and performing.

This latest in a famous series – jewels of Cordelian taste and intellect – might not have been so noteworthy without the accompaniment of dilated Apache-type eyes and the gruff staccato bass-baritone delivery… (p.84)

In the theatre actors and directors talk about the need to be doing this or that piece of business, required to fill a gap or pad out a speech or bring out a character. Amis’s characters are always engaged in these kinds of bits of business:

‘If I can just break in there,’ said Godfrey, giving a brisk nod and doing something emphatic with his glasses like taking them off or putting them on. (p.97)

Not quite swinging her shoulders to and fro and not putting her head on one side exactly, just sort of round the corner… (p.103)

She listened closely with a slightly fixed smile, watched him closely too, with her eyes shooting out to the sides every now and again, as if he had been telling her how he was going to be collected presently by a flying saucer. (p.117)

As this was being handed to him, Sir Stephen started to put on a pair of spectacles. He did this in a furtive, shoulder-hunching way, like a man putting in or taking out false teeth. Then, like a stage actor now, he read through the list reacting visibly in one way or another to every name on it. (p.130)

After a moment 2nd woman interlaced her fingers pointing downwards, in the manner of somebody about to give another a leg-up on to a tree or high wall. (p.131)

Cordelia did her standard precision job on refilling the teapot… While this was going on… she went into a bit of muttering about time getting on, examining her watch etc.

Sometimes the purpose is plain and obvious comic exaggeration, like the comparisons of someone’s behaviour to a character in a B-movie or war movie or similar. But other times it is obviously not comic, the external point of view seems more bewildered, alienated, estranged.

And all the way through people are described, especially in their dialogue, as doing bits of this or bits of that, an aggressive bit, there was bit more of that before… he could see a bit more coming… there was no answer to that… after some more of the same he…. ‘after a bit more Good-Godding…'(p.279) and so on, throughout. The narrative is made out of umpteen bits of people bitting.

This approach, this worldview, of seeing people as puppets, automata, unknowable, unpredictable, opaque, their dialogue never really communicating, made up of performances, women especially never expressing themselves through words but through eccentric physical signs and signals – this observing people from the outside like clockwork dolls, is striking and peculiar.

At moments it is so alienated that it makes Amis, a notoriously grumpy anti-intellectual and anti-Modernist, end up seeming as Modernist as Samuel Beckett, and his novels – generally marketed as easy-going comedy classics – sometimes really difficult to read.


Moral questions

If this was a GCSE English Literature set text, then teachers and examiners would be asking: ‘Was Richard right to leave Cordelia?’ ‘Should poetry and politics mix?’ ‘Is infidelity ever justified?’ or some such puzzlers.

More than most Amis novels, The Russian Girl contains A Decision – Richard’s decision to leave his wife Cordelia and throw in his lot with Anna – and the chapters leading up to his declaration in Crispin’s garden are packed with characters giving him conflicting advice, so that the reader has loads of ammunition to interpret the characters’ behaviour (and the author’s attitude towards them) from multiple viewpoints, and prepare long essays about it.

For what it’s worth I think Richard was a fool, a man old enough to realise that a comfortable lifestyle (and well-provided-for old age) are worth hugely more than a short-term fling with a younger model, especially a talentless one who, deep down, he doesn’t believe in…

But I’m not very interested in the supposed ‘morality’ of fiction or the ‘moral’ questions it throws up or dramatises – in the ‘moralising’ approach which characterised literary criticism from the mid-twentieth century for several generations. Nor in judging the behaviour of characters as if they’re people I know through work or my children’s school.

For me, a fiction either ‘works’ or it doesn’t, it engages or it doesn’t, and this traction is created at the level of language. My interest is in the use of language to create the illusion of plot, characters and the ‘world’ in which they ‘move’. The basically white, middle-class, generally London-based world of Amis’s characters I find boring and predictable, if admittedly done with a mannered hyper-precision which does take you right into their lives.

For me the interest is in the acuteness of his perceptions and the slightly bonkers phraseology in which he articulates them, in the oddness of his worldview and the bizarre mannerism of the style he has created to express it. Long, and not necessarily very believable, The Russian Girl is still one of the funnier Amis novels, where his obviously humorous intentions outweigh the oddity of his style. I’d put it in the top three or four.


Credit

The Russian Girl by Kingsley Amis was published by Hutchinson in 1992. All quotes are from the 1993 Penguin paperback edition.

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 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 with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, 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 in which Amis dramatises his feelings that society has become rotten with 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. But instead of being starkly punished Clive finds himself being exonerated and forgiven by everyone which leaves him boiling with rage and frustration.
1992 The Russian Girl – Middle-aged, London-based 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. Was it worth it?
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

How to build a Kingsley Amis sentence

I find it mind boggling that the blurbs on the Penguin paperbacks routinely describe Amis as the premier serious novelist in Britain (in the late 1980s, early 1990s). Surely not for the originality of his subject matter (middle-aged white people having dinner parties in north London). Nor for his attitude (a perceptive but consistently grumpy old so-and-so). And emphatically not for his style, which is one of the weirdest I know. It seems normal at first, and many paragraphs start perfectly normally, but then regularly twist and contort themselves into his peculiar attitude and phraseology. Having read nearly all his novels, I think I have a good feel for what constitutes the Kingsley Amis style, a good understanding of How To Build A Kingsley Amis Sentence.

You start by taking an event, the simpler the better:

‘He had been waiting a long time’.

Well, Amis’s sentences are generally long, sometimes very long, so let’s make the verb into a noun phrase:

‘He had been waiting a long time and the waiting a long time…’

Too repetitive; let’s use one of Amis’s favourite words to describe an element of a performance or routine, that word being ‘bit’:

‘He had been waiting a long time and the waiting bit…’

Too clear, too declarative and certain; need to add in Amis’s characteristic uncertainty, the wobbling or wavering which is a crucial ingredient of his style:

‘He had been waiting a long time and maybe it was the waiting bit…’

Add a tag, one of those little sentence fillers which also water down the meaning and make it seem somehow doubtful:

‘He had been waiting a long time and maybe it was the waiting bit that, after all, was the cause…’

Well it needs an ending now, so let’s give the waiting man an irritated look:

‘He had been waiting a long time and maybe it was the waiting bit that, after all, was the cause of Richard’s expression of irritation…’

‘Expression of irritation’ is a little straightforward, isn’t it? A little obvious. We must add style, darlings ie some periphrasis, some circumlocution, particularly as if the thing – event, person, object, expression – is being observed by a knowing and long-winded old buffer:

‘He had been waiting a long time and maybe it was the waiting bit that, after all, was the cause of what those not unfamiliar with him would have known was Richard’s expression of irritation…’

I think we can pad that out a bit:

‘He had been waiting a long time and maybe it was the waiting bit that, after all, was the cause of what those not unfamiliar with him would have known to be almost Richard’s most characteristic expression of irritation…’

Except we mustn’t forget the other prime ingredient of an Amis sentence – already knocked about by a perhaps or maybe or possibly and the insertion of at least one colloquial tag – sort of, in a way, after all, in the end etc – that prime ingredient being the little word ‘OR’, which comes in so handy to add another interpretation, or two, or three, to absolutely anything. Thus:

‘He had been waiting a long time and maybe it was the waiting bit that, after all, was the cause of what those not unfamiliar with him would have known to be almost Richard’s most characteristic expression of irritation, or pique, or exasperation.’

And then, the cherry on the cake, the sprig of garnish which brings the whole thing to perfection – the follow-up sentence which undermines everything you’ve just said:

‘He had been waiting a long time and maybe it was the waiting bit that, after all, was the cause of what those not unfamiliar with him would have known to be almost Richard’s most characteristic expression of irritation, or pique, or exasperation. Or something.’

Serve piping hot, accompanied by several hundred others of the same vintage.

Examples of the real thing

All these quotes are from the 1993 Penguin paperback edition of Amis’s 1992 novel, The Russian Girl. 

Reflecting on Anna Danilova’s poetry, Richard thinks:

Without any abatement of its horribleness in memory it was more easily borne there, becoming at that distance the almost funny phenomenon it very much was not when seen from closer. (p.103)

Later he contemplates what will happen if his wife meets his mistress.

More important, when and if the dread confrontation took place, then if he was present, which he unquestionably would have to be, whatever he said or did or failed to do or say, Cordelia would only have to see him looking or not looking at Anna and something awful but unforeseeable, but still awful and uncontrollable, would happen and oh God. (p.104)

Here’s an example of taking a perfectly everyday phrase and turning it into the subject of the sentence (there must be technical term for this in linguistics):

For the rest of that day and for the whole of the next, Richard saw nothing of his wife.

This is innocuous enough. But with Amis, the innocuous is only there to lull you into a false sense of normality. The next sentence is:

None of the individual bits of seeing nothing of her meant anything much in itself.

The Amis touch! ‘Saw nothing’ is turned into a noun phrase – ‘seeing nothing of her’ – which can then be picked apart and played with: first it turns out to have ‘bits’ [as previously mentioned, favourite Amis word and concept] implying more complexity than is maybe justified; there’s an accidental but handy chime between ‘None’ and ‘nothing’, which introduces a momentary flicker of confusion, and there’s a characteristic dismissive ‘hedging’ phrase – ‘anything much’. From being clear and declarative, the paragraph has quickly become blurry, unfocused, dismissive, vague and woolly.

Afterwards Richard could not remember telling the chauffeur he could or must go, though obviously something of the kind must have occurred, nor was he at all sure where he had got the idea of telling him that, though he felt he knew he would never have done so without some sign coming or not coming from Anna. (p.137)

Is this fine style? I can’t believe so. But it is a striking and peculiar achievement, so consistently, over so many hundreds of pages, to keep cooking up from such plain English ingredients so many bewilderingly contorted, broken-backed, baffling and sometimes very funny sentences. Somewhere in Amis’s novels are plots and characters but, for me, their adventures are overshadowed and often obscured by the continual blind-siding of his convoluted and perplexing periods.

We Are All Guilty by Kingsley Amis (1991)

This is a very short novella, barely 80 pages long, written in a simple style and marketed as Puffin Teenage Fiction. I doubt it would appeal to many teenagers in 2015 and wonder how many read it in 1991. Despite its naturalistic setting, I think this is more a ‘novel of ideas’, a fictionalised pamphlet, a newspaper article with characters, because its main aim is to make a polemical point about contemporary society and culture and morality. First – the plot.

The set-up

Clive Rayner is a bored, white working class lad without a job or direction. He lives in an end-of-terrace house next to the approach road to a western motorway (maybe the Westway) with his mum and step-father, an angry man named Don MacIntyre. He hangs round with his mate Terry and two young trollopes, Marilyn and Paula who, despite their post-punk leather jackets and purple haircuts are not particularly sexually available, as he discovers when he gropes makes a pass at Paula and she smacks him in the mouth. He hangs round the house all day watching horror videos then spends the evenings at a cheap curry house with the gang. Once, hanging round the grass verge of the motorway, a police car stops and an intimidating plain clothes copper checks him over…

Clive nicks a tenner from his mum’s purse. When his step-dad gets home he gives Clive a bollocking, though his mum relents and tries to calm him down. That evening at the curry house Clive is wound up with anger and, having despatched the girls on their night bus, he suggests to Terry they break into a nearby warehouse belonging to Butterfield Brothers.

Terry is sceptical, all that’s in there is toasters and bulky electrical goods, but he goes along with it. They smash a window and clamber in, discovering a railed gantry or walkway which runs the length of the building, so they’re up and walking across that when the alarm goes off and an angry middle-aged man emerges from an office and runs towards them. He grabs Clive by the collar and they wrestle rather than fight, Clive pushing him away just where the gantry railing happens to be broken and the man falls to the warehouse floor with a sickening thud.

The scene cuts to Clive and Terry in custody. They ran into the police almost directly outside the warehouse, didn’t struggle and admitted everything. The warehouse security man, a Mr Harris, is now in hospital with a badly hurt back, possibly crippled for life.

The message

Clive now finds himself dealing with a series of adults and their various reactions to his crime or accident:

His step-dad is furious, as might have been expected.

Sergeant Parnell, the copper who checked him over from a passing police car, is the officer in charge of the case. There is a really powerful scene where he explains what will probably happen to Clive ie let off with a caution, but goes on to say, if he had his way, Clive and Terry would be sent down for five years, very hard labour. He delivers the central speech, from everything we know of crusty old Kingsley, presumably the author’s message:

‘I’d just like you to know that there are one or two people around who don’t feel sorry for you and do want to punish you and understand you already, from top to bottom. You’re scum, the pair of you, and you’ll never hear about it, except from me. I’m going to do everything in my power to see that you have a bad time. I don’t expect to succeed because this whole place, the whole system, the whole country’s rotten with so-called experts and social workers and psychiatrists and psychologists and what-not who’ve forgotten two little words – right and wrong.’ (p.37)

Parnell’s prediction comes true when Clive is allotted a social worker, a Miss (inevitably) Adams. She arrives with a whole set of preconceptions and interviews Clive in such a way as to get him to agree to her agenda, that he is the product of a broken home, his step-father is ‘abusive’, his school let him down. Eventually Clive realises how she is manipulating him to fit her stereotype of the ‘victim’, and begins to rebel. ‘I done it’, he shouts, no-one else, it was me, if I hadn’t broken in the old man would still be able to walk. But she is too well educated and too drilled in her fixed world view to listen to the boy she is ‘helping’, and goes on to make the counter-argument, the one we can be confident Amis is satirising:

‘In any meaningful sense… you, Clive Rayner, are not guilty of anything at all. Anything relevant, anything that really matters. It’s society that’s guilty, the system and the people who live off it and in it and around it. We all made it happen. We are all guilty.’ (p.60)

Confused, Clive is packed off by his mother to the local church, where he expects to take a further pasting. Here he discovers a bunch of hairy people setting up amps and speakers for a rock concert and then meets the trendy vicar, ‘call me Robin’ Foster. Robin takes Clive aside and explains that God doesn’t want him to feel full of shame and guilt, God wants human beings to be full of light and happiness, God wants him to overcome his guilt and forgive himself.

Before his case comes to court, Clive is again menaced by Sergeant Parnell who explains that the wife of the crippled night watchman will make a tearful witness to the terrible thing the boys have done. They’ll get five years if they’re lucky. In the event and to his amazement, the wife doesn’t appear, the social worker makes a good case for Clive’s ‘deprived’ background and he is let off with a year’s probation and £100 fine which, looking round, he sees Robin the vicar who signals that he’ll pay that (p.71). His family and friends mill around outside the court room, clapping and cheering and shaking hands as if it’s a great victory. Only Clive himself is distraught. He knows he did it. He knows he is guilty. Why can’t he get anyone to acknowledge it.

He sneaks off and goes to the hospital to visit the caretaker, Mr Harris (previously he had been forbidden, on legal advice). The old man stricken in bed is philosophical, says the accident won’t change him. And it turns out their solicitor warned the couple that emphasising Clive’s culpability would jeopardise the case they’re bringing against his employer for negligent maintenance of the gantry railing. Clive is appalled that even the man he crippled is pressurised by ‘the system’ to downplay his, Clive’s, guilt. And then Harris’s tearful wife, at his bed-side, starts crying and saying God would want her to forgive him, God ‘wants us to forgive people their sins. It’s our sacred duty.’ (p.83)

Sickened at the way everybody is falling over themselves to forgive him, Clive spends a sleepless night before getting up early and going back to the church. Here Robin the vicar repeats the message that God forgives him no matter what, and the book ends with Chris walking beside the roaring traffic, until a wall converges with the busy road and he finds himself pressing his face and hands against it, confused and distraught. For a moment I thought he would throw himself under a lorry in his despair, but another police car draws up and a copper, not Sergeant Parnell, asks if he’s alright, sonny. The policeman is genuinely concerned that he’s OK which, in a way, makes it all worse. Yes, yes, I’m fine Clive replies. The car pulls off. Clive turns and starts walking home. The End.

The need for punishment

Some of the characterisation was a bit weak, even for a fable: Clive’s parents aren’t very strong presences and the type of the social worker with a pre-determined agenda and the trendy vicar could be dismissed as Daily Mail clichés: except I recognised the do-gooding, naive social worker and her milieu from when I went out with a trainee social worker, and was sharing a house with three women psychologists, in the early 1990s when this book was published. And I recognised the trendy vicar from the several I met and got to know when I took my children to church kindergartens and creches in the 2000s.

Whether or not ‘the whole country’s rotten with so-called experts and social workers and psychiatrists and psychologists’ I have no idea, and am not sure how you could actually find out. It sounds like the kind of thing you read in the right-wing press with which Amis agreed (and who he often wrote for) but which might not stand up to a morning in an actual juvenile court.

But leaving aside the accuracy or inaccuracy of the social ‘analysis’ and editorialising, looking at it just as a piece of fiction, I found the character of Sergeant Parnell tremendously powerful, his speech about Clive and Terry being scum, as well as his other remarks and comments throughout, to be wonderfully virile and menacing.

Similarly, although the lead character of Clive is not a terribly persuasive teenager (no drugs, no drunkenness, no sex, not much about music or fashion, instead he routinely refers to people as ‘fellows’ ie uses Amis’s 1950s lingo), nonetheless his predicament is powerfully conveyed, as powerful and simple as Gregor Samsa waking up and finding he’s been turned into an insect.

The book makes a short sharp case that teenagers, all humans, just as much as children, need boundaries and rules, and to know they will be punished if they step over them. Without rules we can do anything, and if we can do anything our actions become weightless, meaningless. Complete freedom can itself be oppressive.

‘Why did you lie to me outside the courtroom, before the case,’ Clive asks Parnell, ‘why did you lead me on that the weeping wife’s testimony would get me five years?’ Because, replies Parnell:

‘I wanted to punish you. One, because criminals deserve to be punished. Two, for my own personal satisfaction. And three, because punishment’s good for the soul.’ (p.74)

Is punishment good for the soul? Who knows whether this is ‘true’? Or true at least for some people? But this slender novella, if you accept its conventions and its teenage audience, does a surprisingly powerful job of making you believe it, at least while you’re reading it. And what else is fiction for?

Credit

We Are All Guilty by Kingsley Amis, published by Reinhardt Books in association with Viking, in 1991. All quotes from the 1993 Puffin teenage fiction paperback edition.


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 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 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 sensitive 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 with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, 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 in which Amis dramatises his sense that society has become rotten with 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. But instead of being punished, as no-nonsense Sergeant Parnell wishes, Clive finds himself being exonerated and forgiven by everyone, which leaves him boiling with rage and frustration.
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

The Folks That Live on the Hill by Kingsley Amis (1990)

For more than just a moment Harry had the horrible feeling that he had finally lost all ability to understand why other people behaved as they did, and even to know what his own emotions or wishes were beyond a longing to be by himself indefinitely, unreachable by others, not necessarily in this room, just anywhere. (p.89)

I haven’t liked the last few Kingsley Amis novels I’ve read because of their sexist-verging-on-misogynist attitude and their convoluted, sometimes incomprehensible style. But this one I found funny and sympathetic. A lot of his stylistic and narratorial oddities are still in evidence but are outweighed by a sympathetic and quietly moving depiction of a pleasingly varied cast of characters.

Mise en scène

In and around the fictional park of Shepherd’s Hill live a ménage of modern life people: retired librarian Harry Caldecott who lives with his sister Clare, both doting on their ineffectual brother Freddie who is married to the ‘ghastly’ Désirée. Harry is twice divorced, first from Gillian and then Daisy. He has several children, notably 40-year-old son Piers. Clare married a man named Arnold Morrison who played the flute until he dropped dead, having spent almost all their money. Thus Harry very kindly invites her to come and share his big house with him. Around the same time a lesbian, Bunty Streatfield, who had been married to nice Desmond Streatfield, moves in. Bunty has a rather aggressive lesbian lover, Popsy, who she is slightly scared of and who Harry cordially dislikes.

Nearby there’s a parade of typical London shops, wine bars and bistros etc, and we get to know the proprietors of these, including a couple of Asian brothers, a bistro owner who talks like a wing commander, Kenneth the landlord of the King’s (Head?) pub who asks Harry about his decor, the regulars at Harry’s drinking club, the Irving, and more.

What happens to these characters? Well, they meet for drinks, and chats, gossiping and bitching about each other behind their backs, and generally carry on like ordinary people – well, ordinary university-educated, white middle-class people who say ‘one does this’ or ‘one does that’; a certain class of person. Quite posh. For example, this is Freddie, encountered at the barber’s:

‘If you’re not in the most absolute tearing hurry for the next few minutes I should be terribly grateful for a quick word.’ (p.134)

I think what makes this Amis novel distinct from the previous four or five is that it isn’t dominated by the point of view of one clever, angry, reactionary, sexist character – as Jake and Stanley dominated the novels named after them and were quite unpleasant company. Instead the narration is spread across incidents involving quite a large cast: it feels more like a soap opera about this particular part of London and entering into the minds of so many different characters forces Amis to be more sympathetic to them all. And so there’s no opportunity for the angry rants, for the prolonged bitterness and misogyny, which disfigure previous books, and so the overall effect is lighter and therefore the humour (which was present but, for me, swamped in previous novels) comes more to the fore. It feels lighter and funnier.

Chapters

1 It opens with Bunty Streatfield making coffee and breakfast and chatting to Piers Caldecote who lives in a flat in the same shared house, before she heads down to the shops on Shepherds Hill, there encountering the two Asian brother shopkeepers (improbably named Howard and Charles), before catching the tube to Chelsea, and a posh house party. She’s barely been there a few minutes when her lover, Popsy, insists they leave. They go to a restaurant to eat, then back to Popsy’s flat to make love (always, in Amis, skirted over in silence).

2 Introducing Harry Caldecote, twice divorced and living with his sister Clare. Clare lost her husband, Arnold, a few years previously and discovered he had no money left, so her brother kindly took her in as, effectively, the housekeeper. Barking reminds them they have to look after Towser, a massive dog (a great Dane? wolfhound?) which slobbers and spills hair everywhere. Harry takes phone calls from Desmond, Bunty’s estranged husband, and Maureen, a friend who lives nearby.

3 Chris Markou, dodgy Greek from the Shepherds Hill Wine Centre, pops into the Asian shop and asks Howard and Charles if they can lend him a few hundred quid; that Harry Caldecote just came in and cashed a cheque and cleared him out. When he’s gone the brothers remark Chris is a crook, and then notice cheap, probably illegal, booze being offloaded into the wine centre. The narrator reveals it is knocked-off vodka.

4 Opens with the ghastly Désirée meeting with her dim husband Freddie and his brother Harry in the King’s. Over beers she loudly describes Freddie’s prostate operation, then goes on to explain that ever since he’s become an animal in the sack. Harry asks Freddie to get drinks and, in a comedy moment, has to explain to his idiot brother how to go about the process. He finds himself alone with Désirée for five horrible moments during which he realises she completely mistakenly thinks he has a crush on her, God how can the woman be so wrong? She starts to explain that, thanks to Harry’s encouragement, Freddie is thinking about writing poetry. Inspired, Harry insists that Freddie be given complete peace and quiet to do so and on no account must be interrupted or must he show or share or discuss his work in progress with Désirée. She reluctantly agrees. The phone rings and the landlord calls Harry over. It’s another landlord, of the Rifle Volunteer in Blackheath. There’s a Miss Fiona almost passed out on the floor, drunk, after causing a lot of havoc: he’s ready to call the police, but she claims Harry’s her father. Harry says he’ll be straight over. Back at the table he explains to Freddie and Désirée he has to leave, though the latter clarifies that Fiona is his first wife (Gillian’s) sister’s daughter ie his ex-wife’s niece, his niece by marriage. Nonetheless, for obscure reasons, Harry feels responsible for her.

5 Desmond meets is ex-wife Bunty in the Shepherds Crook bistro where, despite being distracted by the super posh owner and a string of noisy diners, Desmond says he still loves her and can’t they just, you know, somehow, does she want to come back to his? At which she very gently and meekly tries to withdraw, saying he knows it’ll end up with kissing and him trying to get her into bed and that just isn’t going to happen.

6 The huge dog Towser is pining and scratching at the front door when Piers arrives, Harry’s grown-up son. Clare lets him in and they chat until the purpose of the visit becomes clear and he asks if she can give him a loan, just to tide him over, like. She writes a cheque and he leaves and Clare is alone with her memories, her feelings about her dead husband. She goes to look at his collection of antique and valuable flutes, almost the only things he left which are worth hanging onto and which she has gathered into an alcove, a shrine to his memory.

7 Fiona Carr-Stewart, the posh alcoholic Harry went to rescue from the pub in Blackheath, surfaces in her manky council flat, hauls bags of rubbish to the bins under the disapproving eye of her 70-year-old neighbour and tries to establish order in the flat’s filthy interior when a young, surly man arrives to read the gas meter. I’m not sure but I think she then seduces him or performs a sexual act, after which he leaves promptly. She drinks more then makes her way to Linda’s house where a gang of other reprobates are, there’s more drinking then they’re at a pub, where there’s more drinks, the lights are spinning, the music is loud, her friends seem to have left, a taxi is called which refuses to take her, somehow she is home and someone is helping her up the steps to her flat, muttering at what a disgraceful state she’s in and it not even ten at night yet. This is a grim and persuasive description of someone getting completely, horribly hammered.

8 Harry gets out of a taxi and the Shepherd’s Hill Wine Centre where he has an unpleasant, insulting exchange with Popsy. Harry takes a taxi to Maureen’s house, she’s married to Leonard, who’s hardly ever there. They drink gin, flirt and then have sex on the sofa.

9 Harry takes a taxi home, arriving in time to help his sister Clare finalise preparations for dinner with their brother, Freddie, and wife Désirée. Things go well until Désirée returns to the theme of Freddie’s new-found sexual prowess after his recent prostate operation, at which Harry politely demurs prompting Désirée to become bitchy and sarcastic, ‘Oh is there anything else we are not allowed to discuss at your chaste table’ etc. At which point Clare intervenes, genuinely upset, asking her to shut up. The party winds up soon after and Harry is sorry if the whole subject upset Clare and made her think of her dead husband.

10 Explains the location and setup of the Cafe Cabana, the bistro owned by Desmond Streatfield, Bunty’s ex-husband. After she moved out he got Philippa, a bit more working class, to move in, but she turns out to be a limited cook and a nag. We see him supervising the 17-year-old black kitchen assistant Sandra and fobbing off the dodgy wine dealer, Clive, before the scene shifts to Desmond sharing a few drinks with Harry at the pub. Here they mull over trouble with girls and both agree that old Brahms had it sorted, seeing the same prostitute once a week for twenty five years, at which point he switched to her daughter. Women, eh! Tsk. Bunty turns up, the men had invited her, but she is instantly on edge and after a few innocuous comments from Desmond, rounds on him, asking why they are always trying to run her life for her. At this moment Popsy appears, drinks half the Campari Harry had bought for Bunty and says, ‘Right! Off we go Bunty’ and they leave the two men to prop up the bar wondering what it is that lesbians actually do.

11 Fiona. She doses herself with drinks as she delivers shopping to various customers in council flats, posh Rob, an old boy named Roger Greenhough in the flat next to her who has the temerity to suggest ways of helping get her off her ruinous alcoholism. Humiliated she stumbles back to her flat and toys with slashing her wrists with the bread knife.

12 Fiona meets Harry in the King’s and he is kind and concerned and listens to her explaining that she’s been on the wagon for six whole days. She tells the anecdote about her sister, Elspeth, the one who died when her car hit a wall, telling her she’d been looking through family albums and saw a great-aunt who was the spitting image of her, Fiona, and had died young of alcoholism: is it hereditary? Is Fiona doomed? Harry tries to cheer her up, and when they part she makes her way through London streets back to her flat where she starts on a bottle of White Nun, reminiscing about her father (or husband?) the Right Honourable Iain Menzies Carr-Stewart. She is a very posh alcoholic. The doorbell rings and it’s a taxi driver who she asks in for a moment. It’s not totally sure but I think she is servicing almost all men who call on her. Hence the references in the text to her reputation spreading far and wide…

13 Harry is getting his hair cut at Andy’s Hair Bar when he spots brother Freddie. They stroll along to a nasty greasy spoon where Freddie explains Désirée thinks he takes a cab to St James’s to get a trim at a super-classy salon, whereas he gets it cut round the corner, spends a happy hour eating fat food, and generally feels like he’s escaping the clutches of his all-controlling wife. Which he has also done by starting up a stamp collection. Désirée co-opted the last one, so he has found a stamp dealer tucked away in a side street and spends free time admiring, sorting and buying new stamps to add to the collection he proudly shows Harry.

14 Harry’s disreputable son, Piers, meets him at his club, the Irving (a parody of the Garrick, round the corner) where he is phenomenally posh, ordering all the right champagne, wine and port, before asking Harry to front him £50,000 for a cast-iron, copper-bottom, can’t-fail business venture. Harry demurs. As they’re walking out they bump into a publisher who amazes Harry by telling him he’s going to make Freddie an offer for the long poem of his which Harry showed him. Obviously it’s crap, but they can package it up in their European Political Testaments series and lots of earnest foreign intellectuals will snap it up.

15 Harry, Clare and Freddie take a taxi to their mother’s house, a rundown brick mansion in derelict grounds. This is sort of funny as Amis describes the knackered lawns, ruined greenhouse, then the musty smell inside, his mother’s affected tones, and then the ghastly lunch served with undrinkable plonk. Harry discovers Piers has been cosying up to Freddie, discussing money (obviously intending to dun him) and has also sent their mum a nice letter, brown-nosing and asking for an investment. After lunch Harry happens upon Clare and mother looking at photo albums and stumbles across the same photo of Great Aunt Anne which Elspeth had told Fiona about. Looks nothing like Fiona; Harry must tell her, to bolster her morale. While Freddie is tripping over a ladder in the hall, Harry rips the page with the photo out of the album and stuffs it in his pocket.

16 Harry is at the Irving listening to some fart of a Cabinet Secretary or other bore the other members into a coma when he’s called to the phone to have the old lady who lives in a flat in the same house as Bunty tell him that Bunty’s husband, Desmond, has turned up, very drunk and shouty and Bunty has barricaded herself into the bathroom. Harry takes a taxi to the house, in a dodgy area, and succeeds in talking Desmond down. He pathetically clings to the notion that Bunty can be talked out of her lesbianism. Harry says she really likes Desmond but he just happens to be the wrong sex for her, nothing anyone can do about it. He leaves Desmond to make up with Bunty and takes a taxi home where he finds his sister Clare distraught because she’s lost a valuable piece of chalcedony from the antique flute collected by her deceased husband. Aha, thinks Harry. Bet Piers nicked it.

17 Next morning Clare is still looking for her chalcedony while Harry has breakfast and opens a letter from the Adams Institute in north-west USA which is looking for an experienced librarian and has had him recommended by a colleague. This gives Amis an opportunity to sound off about how ghastly Americans are, before there’s a phone call and a prim nurse from some kind of private hospital informs him that Fiona has been taken into their care. She refuses to give more details, leaving Harry worried. After his lunchtime trip to the pub he returns to get a message from Clare saying Bunty had called asking for a spare bed for the night. Have she and Popsy split up? It’s all getting a bit fraught.

18 A short chapter in which the two Asian shopkeepers, Howard and Charles, natter about developments in the neighbourhood, namely Chris the conman disappearing with a load of money, the unnatural relationship of Bunty and Popsy coming to an end, and Harry such a ghastly snob floating through it all…

19 Harry ponders his life and his options before getting a taxi round to Maureen’s for another companionable afternoon screw. She obliges but he notices the carpet is up, all the pictures in the hall on the floor and other signs. She explains she’s moving back in with her husband, Leonard. She’s never really liked the sex they have, like many other women she only does it for the companionship and she doesn’t get much of that, to be honest, so she’s giving her marriage a second chance. Harry is flabbergasted and even more so when a few minutes later Leonard, the erring husband, himself arrives and invites Harry to a slap-up lunch, as an old friend of the family.

20 Freddie reflects, in his dim way, on the way his wife Désirée moved into his life and took it over twenty years ago, leading him almost immediately to start uselessly wishing ‘she could somehow be smaller, quieter, further away, less there all the time’ (p.208). This chapter describes his incredibly regimented life, the hand-knitted socks, the pills at precise times throughout the day, the set meal-times and organic wholemeal food, the fixed chairs in which to sit and read books he was long ago bored with, the dinner at fixed time and then, periodically, the compulsory and always-the-same sex.

21 Harry and Clare have dinner at Odile’s where they discuss whether he should take the job in the States. It is an odd, like all Amis, but at bottom very decent and affectionate evening. They walk back to their house and, in the drawing room, agree Harry is not going to take the job but stay with her and his little group of friends and dependents. At that moment the doorbell rings. It is Bunty, her dress torn, slapped, bleeding a little. Popsy beat her up and threw her out.

22 Another nightmare episode for Fiona’s degradation. She invites the minicab driver in for a quick shag (so that is what she’s been doing to random men, and confirms the ‘reputation’ she’s described as having acquired), although he ends up telling her off for being such a degenerate. She stays in getting drunk, then Sean and Brendan are suddenly in the flat telling her she’s disgusting and saying this is the end. Then they’re gone and she’s drinking more and it feels as if her face is melting. And light through the window means it’s morning, so she drinks a bottle of sherry to help her cope and then feels really peculiar and rings Sean who tells her to lie still till he can be over. All told in blurred, rushing prose.

23 Harry is phoned by the Asian brothers who say he’d better come quick, Fiona’s had an accident. When he and Clare get to the shop they find a crowd gathered round Fiona who is on the ground, having a fit, lying in a pool of blood from a head wound. Charles explains a van drew up and she was thrown out the back without it really stopping. It was those Irish guys (presumably Sean and Brendan: why would they do that?) Explaining that the ambulances round here take forever, Charles and Howard very kindly volunteer to take Fiona, Harry and Clare to the nearest A&E in their cars, and do so. Harry holds Fiona’s hand in triage as a doctor pokes and prods her, then leaves. Harry finally gets to say his piece about Fiona not looking like her alcoholic great-aunt and has the photo to prove it. She is not doomed by alcoholic genes. She can change her life. All this seems human and kind, like the affection we saw between brother and sister in the previous chapter.

24 A week or so later and the new landlord of the King’s celebrates his first year there by having a little party, a handy way to bring together Harry, Clare and Fiona who is a) still alive b) proudly shows off that she’s drinking soft drinks. Bunty has a little chat with Clare who insists she moves in with them permanently. In a very funny moment Désirée gets Harry in a corner and horrifies him by suggesting the real reason he chose not to take the American job was because he’s in love with his sister. Really in love. Sexually in love. Harry is so outraged and bolts so fast he bangs the table and knocks over loads of drinks, but can see the bright side which is that, in future, he’ll be able to hate Désirée with a clear conscience! Desmond summons up the courage to tell Bunty he understands now, after Harry explained it to him, why she doesn’t want and will never want to sleep with him; but can they still be friends, can he meet her regularly and take her for dinner etc? She is relieved and pleased. Piers arrives with his newly announced fiancée, Priscilla, who it turns out Fiona was at school with. They are very posh together until Fiona takes Piers aside after they both spot the vile Popsy lurking at the other end of the bar. Piers wishes he could do something to remove the threat of Popsy and Fiona says she knows some unpleasant men who could put the frighteners on her if Piers has the money. They do a deal to arrange it… Then Piers saunters over to Uncle Freddie and we learn that Piers’ dodgy business deal, the one about illicit vodka which Harry refused to invest in, well it came off and not only is Piers suddenly affluent but he repaid his investors eg Uncle Freddie, who now has a tidy sum stashed away in the bank. And, Freddie tells an incredulous Piers, the local stamp collector company has given Freddie his own cubicle to take out and peruse his albums in. He is happy as a kid. And then it’s all back to Harry’s where Clare and Désirée and Bunty prepare a big salad lunch.

25 After the lunch party is dispersed, Clare is standing in the peace and quiet of the house looking out the window, remembering the special look Arnold used to have when nobody was looking at him, and knowing she had enjoyed real love, true love, which so many people never really know. And at that moment a ray of sunshine penetrates the clouds and she sees the gleam of the missing piece of chalcedony, tucked down by the wainscoting, where it fell out when the cleaner was dusting and accidentally dropped the ancient flute on the floor. Clare restores it to its place in the old flute, and the flute to the alcove which is her shrine to her beloved husband.

It is a luminous ending to a rich and satisfying (if oddly written) novel.

Amis’s style

The characters and narrator are never quite sure of anything. Or never quite finish anything. Amis is addicted to presenting alternatives to almost every description or fact. Things are something, or something else, or maybe something else. Amis uses ‘or’ a lot to present two or three or four ways of looking at any situation or bit of dialogue: is it intended to be a more precise rendition of quavering human thought; or in order to defocus and blur perceptions? Hard to tell, but no train of thought is ever clear or finished. More can always be added. Or appended. Or something (p.141). Or whatever it is (p.159). Or thereabouts (p.211). Or whatever it’s called (p.214)

With it she wore no jewellery or other ornamentation, not out of good taste or any of those but because everything she had ever had in that line had been sold or stolen or, most often, lost. Or as good as lost. (p.124)

‘I see,’ said Harry. He did too, or partly did, or might for the next five minutes or so. (p.154)

One of the things he came up with was that probable or possible or very short or only rather short (versions varied) affair that Harry and Désirée had had in the long ago. (p.210)

She gave him back a special glance or moue or wrinkling of the eyelids or all of the three that he knew he would see again whenever they met… (p.238)

Amis also deploys lots of conditional phrases, fillers, to hedge around and defocus perceptions and descriptions –

‘On the whole, maybe, in other words, on the off chance, in some way, perhaps, up to a point, so to speak, sort of, indeed, really, more or less, literally, as it were, after a fashion, at any rate, you know, in so many words, mind you, what do you call it, not to say, when you come to think about it, no doubt, such as it was, quite well enough, to put it mildly, for the most part, not by a long chalk, in a way, on the face of it, at all, actually, if you follow my meaning, and suchlike, and all that, and more besides’.

Any one example looks innocuous on its own, but there are two or three on every page and they have the effect of steadily, continuously chipping away at the clarity and conciseness of sentences, making them seem conditional, unsettled, blurry. I can’t decide whether Amis has his narrator and all his characters use them liberally as a satire on the bad useage of his day or because he’s keen to capture modern useage, in all its sort of, like, kind of casualness.

And he enjoys using words in unlikely combinations, especially phrases which take prepositions where he can butt them up against other prepositions and create odd jarring effects enjoying creating sentences which teeter on incomprehension or force you to read them twice.

Fiona spent most of her days and a lot of her nights looking forward to getting towards the end of whichever bit of either she happened to be in, but this was one she would have let go on as long as it liked. (p.125)

Clare put all she had, instead of being absolutely marvellous about the way she was putting all she had, into concealing the fact that she had given up hope that it would ever be found. (p.182)

Or just deliberately jar. Why?

Harry followed both these suggestions and when he came back found Clare looking nearly normal and sounding completely it. (p.221)

A long time ago this might have been funny. From one point of view it’s almost experimental – an anti-Modernist’s experiment with stream of consciousness, with getting inside people’s heads; or just for the fun of playing with the language.

On the table stood a bottle of White Nun with a glassful or so out of it and there was more, much more than enough more, where that had come from. The glassful or so was inside Fiona. (p.130)

But for a long time these three or four mannerisms, taken together, are Amis’s Late Style, ensuring you are continually stumbling over sentences which puzzle and perplex and give the text a sense of light-headedness, as if it is permanently tipsy, not quite making sense.

‘Of course, he’s very fond of you, you know,’ he said, trying not to make this sound like a good or any other sort of Harry’s marvellousnesses. (p.103)

If there could ever have been truly said to be more of something where something came from, the two at present conversing had run across it. (p.195)

Amis’s women

Amis’s misogyny is more restrained in this novel for the simple reason that he covers a wider range of characters and at least three lead characters – Clare, Bunty, Fiona – are not only women, but sympathetically portrayed. Nonetheless, given half a chance, his men start in on the same tiresome sexist comments about women being incomprehensible, mad etc which characterise most of his previous novels.

In the human or material sphere the nearest comparable disparity was between the number of words that women said and the number that would have to have been said about what they had said in order to produce a full or clear or straight account of any matter. (p.103)

But, as I’ve said a) there’s a lot less of it than before b) Harry is given several passages where he realises he is a trial to live with and that women, in fact, deep down, are the ones who end up cooking and cleaning and tidying and looking after the sick and generally making the world go round and c) regardless of these trivial views, held by some characters on a surface level, the novel itself shows the warmest empathy and compassion for its women characters, for dependable Clare, for nervous Bunty, for poor wrecked Fiona. Not perhaps for ghastly Désirée, but it isn’t a political tract, it’s a novel about all sorts, and it is Amis’s most balanced and enjoyable for years.

Amis’s humour

He became conscious that Désirée was sort of staring at him. He smiled encouragingly, instead of asking her what she bloody wanted. (p.84)

But in the midst of all this there are some really funny moments. The full description of the old fart boring members of the Irving is supplemented by the description of the hypnotically stealthy approach of one of the doddering old servants. Some of the dialogue escapes from Amis’s circumlocutionary style to have a real punch and sparkle. His dislike of rock music, London traffic, and greasy spoon cafes are all conveyed with a kind of brio that made me smile. Brother Freddie being so dim he has to have it explained to him twice how to buy a round in a pub made me laugh out loud, it is phrased with such energetic frustration. Lots to enjoy.

Credit

The Folks That Live On The Hill by Kingsley Amis, published by Hutchinson 1990. All quotes from the 1991 Penguin paperback edition.

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 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 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 sensitive 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 with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, his scheming son Piers and his alcoholic niece-by-marriage, posh Fiona. His most enjoyable novel for years.
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

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.

Conclusion

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

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 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 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 sensitive 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.
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
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis (1986)

The area had once been called Monmouthshire but because of a decision taken in London was now called Gwent, after an ancient Welsh kingdom or whatever it was that might have formerly existed there or thereabouts. Anyway, it was Wales all right. (p.60)

Overview

A long novel by Amis’s standards, at 384 pages, The Old Devils is set in South Wales and describes in gory detail the daily lives and routines of half a dozen, heavy-drinking old men (one is said to be aged 61, another implies they’re closer to 70) and their middle-aged, heavy-drinking wives. Booze, booze and more booze, in restaurants and bars, round each other’s houses, down the pub, knocking back the whisky or wine, lighting up another tab and endlessly moaning about each other.

Into this little pool of alcoholic mediocrity arrives one-time poet, media celebrity and professional Welshman, Alun Weaver and his wife Rhiannon. He’s had enough of being a B-lister in Hampstead and wants to storm back into his native country, look you. In fact there is little or no description or attention paid to writing, broadcasting or thinking of any kind in these long 400 pages (the one exception being Alun revising the manuscript of a novel he knows is rubbish for a bit from page 284, and showing it to Charlie who candidly tells him it’s garbage).

Instead, the return of boy bach prompts a flurry of inter-marital liaisons: Alun has barely unpacked before he is bedding one of his best friend’s wives, Sophie, and then moves on to shag Gwen. Rhiannon, for her part, has a moving reunion with her first love, Peter Thomas, now grotesquely and unrecognisably fat, before allowing herself to be taken for a drive out to a formerly romantic church down by the sea by the hopelessly boring old sod, Malcolm Cellan-Davies. The main players are:

  • Boring Malcolm Cellan-Davies, married to Gwen
  • Fat Peter Thomas, married to cold Muriel (grown-up son Robert)
  • Philandering Alun Weaver, married to the attractive Rhiannon (grown-up daughter Rosemary)
  • Scared of the dark alcoholic Charlie Norris, married to Sophie
  • Victor, Charlie’s gay brother
  • Tarc Jones, landlord of the Bible and Crown

Decrepitude

Plenty of time is spent on unflinching portrayals of the physical and mental weaknesses of age. The first section opens with Malcolm struggling to instal his dentures and battle against his failing body to get dressed. Later we start the day with Peter Thomas (‘a bloated, beaten-up old slob’ p.346), so fat he can’t bend over enough to cut his toenails, his wife refuses to do it, so they grow long and snaggy and tear his socks, the ones with the elastic to keep them up over his varicose veins (pp.157-58).

Another chapter opens with Charlie Norris in the single bed he’s been exiled to by his wife because he is a full-on alcoholic, woken by the nightmares and visions caused by delirium tremens, and only managing to heave himself out of bed after fortification with tea and whisky.

A sequence of scenes

The plot amounts to a sequence of scenes: Three old buddies getting pissed in Charlie’s gay brother’s restaurant (the ‘Owen Glendower Tavern and Grill’). Their regular daily piss-up session in the Bible and Crown, landlord Tarquin ‘Tarc’ Jones. Charlie drinking so much before breakfast he is completely pissed by the time he arrives at the unveiling of a statue to the great national bard ‘Brydan’ (a thinly disguised Dylan Thomas?).

There’s a party for oldies at the gold club where Gwen gets pissed enough to harangue Alan for being an adulterous shit. Charlie, Alun and Malcolm are getting pissed in a pub somewhere and talking loudly enough about how shit everything is to provoke three younger men to push their table over and punch harmless Malcolm on the nose. There’s quite a touching scene where all the blokes storm into Malcolm’s house and paw his priceless collection of 1930s 78 rpm jazz records, leading to moans about modern (ie anything after 1936) music; men drinking, smoking, playing their favourite records.

And so, pissedly, grumpily, on, just about this side of despair, though frank despair occasionally breaks through:

With a conviction undimmed by having survived countless run-offs he felt that everything he had was lost and everyone he knew was gone. (p.107)

Funny

Some of this is so grotesque it’s funny: Charlie tottering at the grand unveiling of the statue stands out for its dazed humour, for its Amis-like taking the piss out of a supposedly solemn occasion. Then again, quite a few moments make you shiver with horror at the prospect of getting old and bald, with varicose veins and bad-fitting dentures, subject to fierce pains in the side, all kinds of physical limits and ailments, unable to bend over or even stand up by yourself.

Offensive

Lots of it is deliberately offensive, what the reviewers call ‘Amis on the rampage’ ie Amis attacking the same old targets as in his previous novels: horribly modern pubs, all cheap mirrors, pointless old photos, disgusting beer and awful pumping rock music; modern roads rammed full of ghastly modern cars; young people, wandering round half-naked, speaking in their long-haired argot.

And of course, where not so long ago it had been hake and chips, bottled cockles, pork pies and pints of Troeth bitter, these days it was canneloni, paella, stifado, cans of Fosters, bottles of Rioja and – of course – large Courvoisiers and long panatellas, just like everywhere else. (p.79)

Misogynist

Women come in for scathing, bitter criticism throughout, by all the men, for being incomprehensible enemies liable to make emotionally wounding attacks at any moment.

Part of men’s earlier average age at death than women’s, perhaps a substantial part, might be traceable to wives driving husbands to coronaries single-handed by winding them up with anxiety and rage. (p.166)

Amis doesn’t make any pretences or excuses: the anger and resentment at women is nakedly connected to the men’s consuming fear, fear of women’s irrationality, of their bewilderingly obtuse thought processes, fear of being ganged-up on. Peter’s wife, Muriel, starts having a go at him in the car and he

thought as many times before of a film he had seen about half a century earlier. In it, a sadistic sergeant broke the spirit of a soldier in a military prison by beating him up at systematically random intervals, from more than a day down to a quarter of an hour, so that the victim never knew when the next attack was coming, never felt safe. Life with Muriel, it seemed to Peter, had over the last seven or eight years turned into a decreasingly bearable version of that. There were times, it was true, and this was one of them, when you could be morally certain a drubbing was on the way, not from anything she said or did but because you had spotted something disagreeable to her, either in itself or in its associations, drifting to the surface over the past few minutes or so; that was enough for her. For some strange reason, though, this kind of early warning did little to soften the eventual impact. He actually felt the sweat break out now on his forehead. (p.57)

I read these passages with a mixture of discomfort and indulgence, indulgence because I have heard, or used to hear, men making the same points in conversation; why shouldn’t these views be recorded in a novel, it is part of the human condition, it is how men of that generation (presumably) thought and spoke? Discomfort because these old bastards express their views about women far more crudely and angrily than anything I remember.

‘Once you’ve – Christ – relinquished the perverse, pig-headed expectation that women should mean what they say and say what they mean except when they’re actually lying, this sort of thing gets to be all in a day’s work.’ (p.246)

This cantankerous railing against the modern world, against women and pop music and modern pubs, and no-one fixes anything any more and no-one knows how to dress properly, it does capture a generation, an attitude, a grumpy, small-minded, ungenerous complaint which I associate with (some) older relatives.

But from the standpoint of 2015, it feels as if we came through the psychological and economic depressions of the 1980s into a less angry fraught world in the 1990s: one benefiting from the collapse of communism and the ‘peace dividend’, the release of Nelson Mandela, the Good Friday Agreement and so on; and then that the advent of digital technology, the internet, the transition to a gender-neutral service economy, not to mention the tremendous influx of immigrants from all nations, have made for a modern, globalised, cosmopolitan culture, an open rainbow culture, which makes the tight little nationalist and sexist world of Amis’s fiction feel as distant as the Middle Ages.

Wales

‘Wales is a subject that can’t be talked about. Unless you’re making a collection of dishonesty and self-deception and sentimental bullshit.’ (p.373)

The novel is set in Wales, all the characters are Welsh and there is a great deal of chat about Welshness, which is treated with varieties of cantankerous affection, with a running theme about whether the poet they all pretend to revere – the Dylan Thomas figure, Brydan – was a genius or a selfish, drunken charlatan, and whether he was really Welsh at all.

I’ve no idea what a Welsh person would make of it, or what its reputation is among the Welsh, and I’m not qualified to comment.

Old age

Amis would have done us a favour if he had produced a penetrating novel about old age since we now, in 2015, are more aware than ever of the coming boom in numbers of the elderly, living longer, dominating our society, requiring expensive healthcare and support.

But this isn’t that novel. It is dominated by the characters’ Welshness (4.8% of the UK population), by their universal drunkenness, and by the almost complete absence of thought or reflection, the space where it should be filled with rancorous, cantankerous, grumpy old git moaning and complaining and bitching about each other.

Put another way, the ostensible subject matter of this novel – old age – should make it more relevant, a more compelling read, than ever before. Instead I think it, and Amis generally, were never so marginalised and forgotten. His earlier novel about old age, the cruelly black comedy Ending Up, is more penetrating and a lot shorter.


Style

These grotesques and their dismal affairs are painted in prose which is slack, repetitive and aimless. It is like reading soggy cardboard. In my review of Stanley and The Women I itemised features of Amis’s late style and hoped they were in fact exaggerations designed to characterise the first person narrator of that novel, Stanley. But no. They are Amis’s late style.

1. Dangling clauses at the end of sentences, making them weaker and vaguer. Afterthoughts, second opinions, demotic tags and fragments, just one more bit, after all, in the end, so to speak, at the end of the day, in general, more or less, and all the rest of it, or part of it, or something…

But they were soon past there now and on to where she had not been for at least ten years, probably a good deal more. (p.205)

But when it came it was fine, in the same style as before, covering rather more ground, not much though. (p.212)

[Performances like that] brought out your awkwardness and almost your resentment of each other, or some if it. (p.218)

‘The fact you minded so much about not remembering, that’s worth as much to me as if you had remembered, very nearly.’ (p.225)

Gwen gave him a farewell twiddle of the fingers and stylised simper that made him feel sorry for Malcolm, but only in passing. (p.2540

2. Or Instead of stating something confidently and clearly, it has become a real mannerism for Amis to use ‘or’ to tack on an extra interpretation or two to even the most banal action, thus weakening and undermining countless sentences. In my Stanley review I said this has at least three effects:

  1. A wavering of meaning, a permanent uncertainty or inability to express himself which is almost senile.
  2. If there are several ‘or’ alternatives, the effect tends – explicitly or implicitly – towards a concluding ‘or whatever’, a throwaway dismissal of the attempt to be clear; a sod-you, who cares attitude, sometimes open contempt.
  3. Possibly an attempt to recreate the running-out of steam of a drunk who just doesn’t have the energy to finish a sentence clearly but runs on in a diminuendo of pointless rambling additions.

Either way it is the opposite of clarity of thought, precision of language.

In a flash Malcolm knew or as good as knew… a row of men in hats standing outside a thatched cottage in Ireland or some such place… none of his audience showed any sign of responding, then or at any future time… someone else pronounced a few phrases of thanks or thanksgiving or anyway termination… Charlie’s first breath or sniff of air brought some redolence or other… when the pain or series of pains began… ‘Mario’ or very possibly Mario… Garth’s laughter was heard again faintly, or fairly faintly… there would still be times like tonight, with her too pissed, or about to become too pissed, to drive… He poured himself a treble, or another treble…

On leaving Malcolm’s in a mood of heavily qualified satisfaction he had happened to find himself passing, or as good as passing, the house of an old friend. (p.265)… Although he often said where he was going, or might have been going, he never said where he had been. (p.269)

Short of that, she would most probably have Rosemary with her, back from her evening out (or somewhere) with William Thomas, who seemed to have been around since first light or thereabouts. (p.267)

‘You must be tremendously relieved, or a bit relieved rather.’ (p.292)

‘There are plenty of people about who talk like that for real, or semi-real…’ (p.305)

It is the opposite of alertness, curiosity, keenness of intelligence. It is in love with blurry, drunken, half-arsed incuriosity and everything’s going to hell. There are half a dozen passages which begin to capture the run-down, depressed atmosphere of South Wales in the decade when coal mines, steel and other heavy industries were being decimated by Mrs Thatcher, glimmers of something which might become interesting but then… fade into the characteristic Amis ‘something or other’.

With the end of its function as a port and the closure of the metal works and the silica quarry, Birdarthur had shown marks of unemployment, but none were visible now that the town had been designated or turned into an enterprise zone and the unemployed had gone away somewhere else. (p.279)

Oh well. It’s all a mess. Too hard to think about. Who’s up for another drink?

3. Pointless qualifications

It was miles and miles away from saying she was beginning to grow reconciled to what had taken place, what had almost failed to take place, between herself and Alun. (p.260)

From his earliest novels I noticed Amis’s tendency to produce sentences so full of qualifications, equivocations and slangy parentheses (after all, in a manner of speaking, certainly, at least, one had to admit, for instance) as sometimes to border on gibberish.

It was not very good, though surely better than nothing, and he had done his best to sound quite pleasant, at any rate for him, but nobody seemed to hear much and nobody came over, not even Dorothy, until Sophie brought him a gin and tonic, offering to fetch ice which he forbade. (p.56)

Much of the book is this badly, this contortedly and meanderingly written.

Quite a lot of time had indeed passed, but so far to surprisingly small effect. What he had said to Sophie just now about her appearance and so on was of course untrue, though it would have been much untruer, one had to admit, of most other people he had known that long. But in a general way, applied to experience, it had a bearing. All sorts of stuff, for instance what had been taking place a little earlier, seemed much as before, or at any rate not different enough to start making a song and dance about. This state of affairs might well not last for ever, but for the moment, certainly, the less it changed the more it was the same thing, and the most noticeable characteristic of the past, as seen by him, at least, was that there was so much more of it now than formerly, with bits that were longer ago than had once seemed possible. (p.100)

This is shit writing, isn’t it? Long-winded, saying nothing, full of pointless qualifications which give an impression of thought, of pausing for careful consideration where, whenever you look at it closely, there is absolutely none. Clumsy, hobbled sentences delivering nothing except rancour and unhappiness, 383 pages of them.

On the upside

From this great mass of verbiage there do emerge characters depicted with consistency and a cold eye, there are insights into the tribulations of old age, there are funny and outrageous scenes where old farts behave like naughty teenagers. You are drawn into their lives, their little kindnesses, their colossal rudeness and unhappiness. There is even an unexpectedly moving finale where wrecked old Peter and Rhiannon, at the wedding of their respective grown-up children, are reconciled, after a lifetime of being in love with each other but married to the wrong partners, and the book actually finishes on an upbeat note, with these two old lovers moving in together, smelly socks, dentures and all… There are moments of real tenderness and sweetness among the insults and blether.

The Old Devils is a long, very thoroughly imagined novel and there is much here to consider and savour and sometimes really enjoy. But God it is such a struggle, sometimes an almost physical ordeal, to wade through the strangely mannered gloop of Amis’s late style in order to see it.


TV series

The Old Devils was dramatised by Andrew Davies for the BBC in 1992, directed by Adrian Mourby and starring John Stride, Bernard Hepton, James Grout and Ray Smith. It isn’t available on Amazon or eBay and this is the only snippet on YouTube. Not, one deduces, a particularly sought-after item.

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 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 schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes 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 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 and sensitive 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 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 – A short novel showing five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down 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 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 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 – First person narrative told by muddling middle-aged advertising salesman Stanley Duke, whose son Steve suffers a severe mental breakdown, thus (somehow) leaving him 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 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.
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

Stanley and the Women by Kingsley Amis (1984)

The reference to Jewboys on page 43 (‘Soon afterwards I went out and picked up a taxi on its way back from dropping somebody at one of the Jewboys’ houses in Bishop’s Avenue’) was so wantonly offensive that it brought me up short and made me realise the character of Stanley Duke, who’s telling this first person narrative, is a character – is intended to be a fictional creation separate from his creator, the author known as Kingsley Amis who couldn’t possibly be that casually anti-semitic, and that we mustn’t make the elementary mistake of confusing a created character – who can hold all kinds of views – with his creator, or the character’s opinions with the author’s.

The only problem with this is that the voice and attitude, the troubled relationship to other human beings, the grumpy resentment of the modern world, the relentless sexism, are all very much of a part with previous Amis books. It reads like Amis, it sounds like Amis, it thinks like Amis. Just giving the narrator a few unpleasant prejudices and a verbose style doesn’t really change the fact that it is an Amis text we’re reading, through and through. And this, late Amis, is mined with deliberate offense.

The plot

Stanley Duke, born and raised in Sarf London, is the permanently perplexed advertising manager of some car magazine in Fleet Street. He’s divorced from the ageing actress, Nowell who, looking back, he has no idea why he married. (She is now remarried to Bert Hutchinson, a TV ad director who is permanently pissed and sweary.) Stan now lives with posh, supportive Susan, who he nonetheless often finds puzzling, and who is connected to a ferociously posh mother, Lady D, and absurdly posh sister.

Stan and Sue are just tidying up after a dinner party when his 19-year-old son, Steve, turns up on the doorstep, apparently having suffered a mental collapse, behaving and speaking with bewildering irrationality.

It becomes clear that Steve’s had some kind of nervous breakdown and Stanley’s GP, Cliff Wainwright, after visiting, recommends him to a psychiatrist. The latter is on holiday so Steve’s care is taken over by pushy young female psychiatrist, Dr Collings, whose modish jargon and general femininity Stan takes strong exception to. He is backed up in this by the fogeyish Harley Street consultant, Dr Nash, who they visit for a second opinion and who strikes Stan as a good bloke when he not only offers sherry during the interview, but takes them on to a boozy lunch at a nice little place he knows. Educated woman = bad. Heavy drinking middle-aged white man = good.

The text is divided into four parts: Onset (94 pages), Progress (110 pages), Relapse (60 pages), Prognosis (44 pages).

If you were sympathetic to Amis maybe you would defend the book by saying it is a riotous satire on a certain type of middle-aged, drunk, sexist, anti-intellectual philistine. Except:

  • The views and style are too close to too many previous Amis narrators.
  • The first half at least – the part describing in detail Steve’s symptoms – isn’t funny at all, it’s genuinely distressing.
  • I laughed at the scene where Stan joins Bert at a party on a houseboat in the Thames where all the guests get puking drunk and the pissed couple drive to a little place Bert knows in central London where he reveals that he only pretends to be pissed and only swears at Stan whenever he turns up, in order to keep the ghastly Nowell onside, for he has come to hate and detest her. It is funny but embarrassing, this tale of two irresponsibly pissed fifty-something men who should know so much better.
  • Amis moves the goalposts to support Stan’s sexism: he makes the old, established, male psychiatrist totally support Stan’s dislike of the female psychiatrist; he makes Bert support Stan’s interpretation of Nowell’s horrible character. It isn’t a truly open exploration of being adrift in the modern world: Amis loads the dice in favour of his sexist narrator. Which just doesn’t seem that clever or inventive.

Misogyny

There’s no avoiding the fact that Amis has gone out of his way to make this novel as unpleasant to women as possible. All women. Early on he establishes that Stan’s ex-wife is an unbearable drama queen. Steve’s psychiatrist, Dr Collings, is portrayed as superficial, trendy and almost incompetent, herself often a rag of messed hair, smouldering fag and resentment. Throughout the novel Stan sprinkles sexist comments and remarks and Amis makes sure Stan’s attitude is bolstered by other male figures.

‘On our first meeting at your house, do you remember my asking you if you thought all women were mad?’
‘Very clearly,’ I said. ‘And I told you I thought a lot of them were. Well, what’s happened in the meantime hasn’t exactly forced me to change my mind.’ (p.307)

But it’s in the final section that there comes the one really big surprise, the one genuine plot twist in the novel. Steve is released back into Stan and Susan’s care but suffers a relapse. (This, Stan discovers, is because the awful Dr Collings is weaning him off the medication which had, in truth, been stabilising his condition.) They wake up one morning to find Steve has climbed high up a tree in the garden to avoid ‘them’ looking into his mind.

The twist is the effect this has on his previously solid, reliable second wife, posh Susan. When Stan rings the ex, Nowell, to come round and talk Steve down from the tree (based on the way she managed to calm him down on the first evening when he turned up in such a state), Susan refuses to be there, to see her, to hear her voice, but hides in the bedroom. She reproaches Stan for preferring his ex to her, when in Stan’s mind it’s a simple matter of what’s effective.

Then – arguably the key event of the novel – is that the next day, Stan gets a call at work to hurry home and finds his friend, Dr Wainwright, treating Susan for a bad cut on her forearm. She claims Steve attacked her with a kitchen knife then panicked, ran back to his bedroom while Susan called the doc. But Dr W tells Stan, in front of Susan, that when he went in, talked to, and then sedated Steve, the boy disclaimed any knowledge of the incident. For a moment Stan is completely perplexed.

And, after the doc has gone, Susan has a massive tantrum, all her pent-up anger and frustration with this intolerable situation coming out in a long tirade against Stanley, his selfishness, his boorish, lower-class habits, his drunkenness. Now – to her horror – she realises he doesn’t even believe her about the knife incident; for a moment he was more inclined to believe his disastrously mad son than his loyal wife. And so she packs her bags and storms off to her mother’s vowing never to return.

Stunned, Stan staggers through his day, but is lucky enough to have his old flame Lindsey to call on, they go for a meal and then back to her flat, to bed. However, the thrust of these scenes is that Lindsey knew Susan at university – and Susan is mad. Lindsey tells a number of anecdotes about how Susan couldn’t bear not to be the centre of attention, smashed places up, caused havoc, almost had to be restrained on numerous occasions. ‘She’s mad, Stan, mad.’ The moral of this plot device is: Even the sanest, most reliable woman you’ve known for ages – underneath, turns out to be completely bonkers!

Later, Stan talks to Dr Nash who, gives voice to a long, repellent rant about women, how they are incapable of understanding honesty, or decency, or admitting their mistakes.

‘They don’t have motives as you and I understand them. They have the means and the opportunity, that is enough.’ (p.306)

And, in the final pages, Stan goes round to dinner at Doc Wainwright’s who explains that the kind of cut Susan got is not the kind you’d get fending off an attacker – it is the kind of carefully undangerous cut on the fleshy part of the arm that someone would give themselves. Horribly, he confirms that Susan almost certainly self inflicted the wound, confirming Lindsey’s analysis that she is a hysterical attention-seeker – confirming the mounting thrust of the whole novel, that women are unbearably other, impenetrable irrational beings.

At which moment, with comic, or gruesome, timing, just as we’ve learned all this about poor Susan – the phone rings and it is Susan, abjectly apologising to Stan for her outburst, she’s been under a lot of strain with the Steve thing etc etc. Will he take her back…?

While she hurried on about having been so desperately frightened and upset and one thing and another I turned towards Cliff, who did the brief lift of the chin South London people use to mean Told you so or Here we go again or Wouldn’t you bleeding know it. (p.317)

As a male reader I found the style and attitude of this novel wearing and occasionally jarring. If I was a woman, I think I’d be happy to see it burnt.


The narrator’s alienation

Amis is marketed as a comic writer but I have found all his books eerie and unsettling because of the profound disconnect between the observing narrator and the characters. The narrator really struggles to know what other people are thinking or doing. He finds other people’s behaviour a constant puzzle.

Far from being funny, I routinely find it like being inside the mind of an autistic person – almost every sentence, every gesture, produced by other people is bewildering and mystifying. The narrator – and the reader – looks on in complete bafflement. Maybe many readers find the results funny but I find them deeply disturbing.

The narrator’s style

The narrator’s style in this book is characterised by vagueness and verbosity. Given half a chance he uses what you could call ‘dangling clauses’, tagging onto the end of sentences an additional phrase or two which never give greater precision or definition, but always do the opposite – emphasising that there are one or two or three interpretations of what someone else has done or said or might have if they, you know, had the chance, maybe – well, whatever. The narrator is so used to being disoriented by other people’s surprising behaviour, he doesn’t care much any more, sort of thing.

Too often this ‘whatever’ attitude is expanded to fill whole paragraphs of repetitive bumf which all follow a similar pattern: this happened, she said this, my marriage was like this and I could never figure out whether it was her or me or them who sometimes, you know, when it mattered or even when it didn’t matter, said or did something which, you know, in the great scale of things, sort of might have been the cause but you never really know, do you.

Coming fresh from reading the taut, clipped, information-rich prose of Martin Cruz Smith, Amis’s prose feels like a bloated blancmange.

The narrator’s sod-you attitude

Amis’s attitude – entertainingly stroppy and insubordinate in the straight-laced 1950s – had become a really anti-social, fuck-you attitude by the 1980s. Wouldn’t necessarily matter except that Attitude has replaced all semblance of thought, reflection, of plain intelligence – just as the bloated mannerisms have swamped, eclipsed and devastated what might once have been a style.


Examples of style and attitude

Rather The opening pages emphasise the middle-class Englishness of Stan and Susan. Rather, quite, actually, quite, rather.

They drank a rather good white Burgundy… The sitting room on the first floor had a low ceiling and a rather awkward shape… a specially built wooden case, part of which housed the rather old-fashioned hi-fi… things were not going too badly for her after some rather rough times earlier on… (pp.11-12)

Or After a while I began to circle every time the word ‘or’ was used to express the narrator’s inability to decide between several interpretations of something, or his deliberate decision to highlight that things can have multiple interpretations, or his chronic inability to figure out what the hell he’s trying to say. This might have been interesting if the interpretations were themselves sharp and insightful, but they are always the opposite – throwaway, half-hearted, dazed and confusing, fading away into a general ‘whatever’.

One of the troubles with getting on all right with people like your mother-in-law, or looking as if you did, or trying to, was that people like your wife took to leaving you alone with them for a nice chat. (p.33)

Lady D had managed to keep that sort of feeling more or less to herself. But then of course there had not been anything much in the way of reason or excuse or provocation before. (p.42)

Then I caught Steve’s eye and he recognised me instantly, which does sound like what he should have done in a way, and it was not that he mistook me for someone else he knew or thought he knew, at least that never occurred to me then. (p.85)

Jews, or people who might have been Jews or counted as Jews or Israelis, were after him because he had once known – not, I was sure, ever very well – a girl who was quite likely one sort of Arab or another. (p.87)

When I rang the hospital the next day the response was much as before. Another Asian voice, or quite likely the same one, said Mr Duke was comfortable but, it turned out, was not to be visited – not must on no account be or taking everything into account had better not be, just was not to be. (p.105)

‘You could tell what she meant when she thought she was meaning the opposite or not meaning anything at all… You’re the doctor who’s looking after my son or however you want to put it… I dare say you haven’t finished examining him or whatever you want to call it yet… ‘ (pp.132-133)

There’s a hymn of ‘or’s after Stan has listened to Dr Collings diagnose Steve’s mental illness in terms of seeking escape, building a mental refuge for unbearable pressures in the ‘real’ world, all diagnoses he finds unbearably trendy and meaningless (which is funny, coming from a man half of whose thoughts are meaningless repetitions):

I told myself it had to be, had to make sense somehow, somewhere. The resemblance to TV must be a mistake, an illusion based on my own ignorance, which had made me miss all sorts of subtle points and misunderstand phrases and expressions that were nearly or even exactly the same as bits of drivel but actually conveyed a precise scientific meaning to those in the know, and getting in touch with your own anger and finding out who you really were etc., were technical terms referring to definite, observable processes. Or Collings’s approach was so new that they had not yet worked out a what, a terminology for it. Or she was hopeless at talking about what she did but shit-hot in action. Or something else that made it all right, because something must. Whatever she might say and however she might behave, the bint was a doctor. (p.136)

Obviously this is Stanley the fictional character speaking. But to what extent does his anger at trendy psychobabble, and his resentment of ‘bint doctors’ reflect Amis’s view? Given the evidence of all his other novels, and the many interviews and articles he wrote, the answer must be – quite a lot.

‘Something like mental trouble being caused or anyway helped on by experiences in childhood… So Steve had a breakdown because you took no notice or the wrong sort of notice of him when he was little…’ (p.142)

Collings allowed me plenty of time to take this in by finishing, or so far just going on with, the letter or note she had been writing when I came in. (p.150)

At my side, the nurse or more probably sister made a small sound or movement that might have meant she disagreed. (p.169)

Cloudy and diffuse Even without the ‘or’s proliferating clauses of diminishing meaning, plenty of sentences disappear into gaseous verbosity, with the very conspicuous and deliberate addition of pointless tags: I suppose, on the other hand, sort of, kind of, at least, in a kind of way. So often he just can’t be bothered to define what he means.

It was true she lacked the withdrawn expression to be seen in most women considered to be beautiful, but there ought to have been a word for her combination of features, which was among other things completely distinctive, meaning less good versions of it somehow never seemed to show up, and the obvious word always had a lot to be said for it, quite enough in this case. (p.14)

Notice how the sentence becomes less meaningful as it goes on until it has almost become gibberish. Hundreds of sentences in the book are like this, making the text at times almost unbearably irritating and frustrating to read.

I felt very reluctant to be in his company – oh, I felt plenty of other things too, and disapproved of that one, but there seemed to be nothing I could do about it and for the moment it was neither here nor there. (p.69)

‘There are exceptions, naturally.’
It was such a gift to Nash to say Naturally back that I had no idea how he avoided it, but he did, just pushed his mouth forward and went on staring at me in what seemed to be his way, not offensively, seeing either quite a lot or not much of anything, it was hard to tell. (p.72)

‘Go back to the time you describe, when your son appeared late at night. Isn’t it possible that you were sure then that he was mad,’ – for once, just on that last word, Nash’s voice softened – ‘or nearly sure, or you might have been sure if you hadn’t told yourself you knew nothing about the subject, or you would have been sure if it had been someone less close to you?’ (p.80)

At the end of a fraught interview with Dr Collings there is a moment which epitomises the technique, the pattern or rhythm of so many of these sentences, which 1. open with something arresting 2. then weaken the effect by giving it multiple possible interpretations before 3. dwindling down to the anti-climax of not really being bothered either way.

1. In the middle of [indicating she had gathered enough information, Dr Collings] threw me out completely by giving me a really powerful sexy look, one that almost qualified as a leer. 2. At least that was what I took it to be, though given her skimpy control over her face it might almost equally well have stood for impersonal sympathy or moral disapproval. 3. Not that that mattered much either. (p.162)

It’s a common pattern or thought process, like watching a drunk slowly pass out.

[1] When I asked him what he was doing he took no notice, [2] in fact he looked away and seemed to stare into the next garden or the one further, [3] where there might have been something interesting going on for all I knew. (p.250)

Drunk Of course much of this might be an attempt to capture the thought rhythms of a drunk, an alcoholic. Stanley drinks steadily throughout the book and he regards it as a good sign in the men he meets if they also drink a lot. He goes to the barge party where plenty of middle-aged people drink so much they’re sick, and many meetings and encounters take place down the pub where Stan puts away an impressive amount of scotch and gin.

Thus, many of the events feel marinated in booze, and perhaps the verbose but gaseous style is an attempt to capture that fading of energy, the loss of will in a drunk who gets half-way through a sentence then just can’t be bothered. Blah blah blah ‘or something’:

I felt drunk or something. (p.135)

It showed great powers of something-or-other to have got there unassisted… She had hardly started before I became too drunk to remember afterwards any of the individual bits… (p.143, 145)

Or maybe it isn’t a clever parody of a drunk’s thought processes. Maybe it is just Late Amis.

A bit of stuff going on There’s another mannerism which gets pretty irritating, the way he describes other people’s behaviour as a kind of impersonal event: he observes people as if they are peculiar pieces of machinery rather than fellow human beings to be empathised with. For example, a woman wouldn’t be crying; there would be a bit of tears going on. People wouldn’t be laughing; there’d be some laughing going on over in the corner.

People don’t actively do things; instead, in a variation of the passive voice, there’s a bit of ‘x’ going on. The effect is alienating, and dismissive of people as people, as valid humans, as agents of behaviour: instead they become balls of actions at the periphery of Stan’s consciousness.

As soon as [Nowell] understood what was required of her she started thick-and-thinning away like nobody’s business and after doing enough of it to last me, or herself, said she would come at once. (p.253)

It was Nowell… ‘Darling Stanley.’ A warm hug came my way, one full notch below sexiness but no more and accompanied by the usual good smell. (p.257)

Not ‘she hugged me’. Instead, ‘a warm hug came my way’.

When people are talking to him, he’s inclined to refer to ‘that part’ or ‘that section’ of a discourse. It’s not ungrammatical, but it is another indication of the way the world is held at bay, not engaged with, seen through a not very clean glass, from the isolated zone where our man struggles to make out people, their intentions, their meanings. As Harry Coote is talking to him Stan largely tunes out:

That last section saw me halfway into another jar. (p.196)

That last section, that bit, that part of whatever he was on about, after a bit more of the same kind of thing, she went on for a bit more but I had stopped listening…

At the hospital , after Steve’s relapse, Stan begs Dr Collings to take him back into care but she refuses in a to-and-fro which goes on at some length, initially recounted in some detail, but then:

After a bit more along the same lines I came away, trying not to feel scared about what might be in store. (p.262)

‘After a bit more along the same lines’. The impression is that he can’t be bothered to repeat the full conversation; people just say the same old same old, anyway.

Instead of being sharp and precise, the text and attitude are old, tired, dismissive. He can’t even be bothered to account for the characters he himself has invented. At times, reading this novel, it seems a wonder Amis can be bothered to tell the story at all. Surely he’d be happier slumped, like Stanley, in front of some rubbish on the telly with a large scotch in his hand shouting to his wife in the kitchen, ‘When will dinner be ready?’


In a few days I’ll be reading the next Amis, The Old Devils, and I am praying this diffuse, muddling, indecisive style is an affectation, an exaggerated style and attitude created for the character of Stanley Duke, and is not simply the diffuse, muddling, deliberately offensive style of late Amis.

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 – A short novel showing five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down 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 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 – First person narrative told by muddling middle-aged advertising salesman Stanley Duke, whose son Steve suffers a severe mental breakdown, thus (somehow) leaving him 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
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

Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis (1980)

This is another surprise from an author I’m getting used to being surprised by. Amis has the reputation of writing realistic comic novels about the contemporary world, skewering contemporary trends and types with a speciality in documenting scabrous and often misogynistic ‘problems with girls’ – but of the seven novels before this one, only two fit this description while the others are all experimental in one shade or another – ghost stories, detective stories, science fiction, alternative worlds – and this one, again, is an experimental or genre novel.

Russian Hide and Seek

The novel opens with an obviously Russian character named Alexander Petrovsky riding a horse through extensive grounds to a grand house, meeting his sister and mother, then preparing for a formal dinner, mentioning Tolstoy and Chekhov, and so I thought I was (unexpectedly) in a novel set among Russia’s bored upper classes before the Revolution.

It was disconcerting, then, when, after the formal meal Alexander, the young cavalry officer ‘hero’, goes for a stroll in the garden with Mrs Korotchenko, one of his parents’ guests, and she not only moves rapidly to kiss him, but asks him to help her take her dress off, and then invites him to make love to her on the lawn. Hmmm. Not very 1910. On page 30 there is casual mention of Northampton which is really jarring, making the reader realise this is all set in England. And then there’s an increasing flow of references revealing that we are not only in England, but some time in the 21st century, some 50 years after an event referred to as ‘the Pacification’.

1. So it slowly unfolds that the Russian aristocrats we are following are an occupying power who ignore or put up with the sullen indifference of the ‘native’ English.

2. Just as strikingly, the entire oil-based economy seems to have disappeared – has Amis accepted 1970s predictions that oil will run out? Certainly all the serf English are managing with horses and carts, Alexander uses a horse to get around, only very exceptionally is a petrol car referred to as an extreme luxury, and there’s a brief glimpse of a vast highway with other roads going under and over it, festooned with rusty old blue signs, now empty and abandoned, presumably a disused motorway.

Plot 1 – Context

The start of the plot is that a commission of the occupying forces has been set up to try and restore the English culture which was so completely obliterated at the time of ‘the Pacification’. Officially sanctioned, this leads to a set of scenes which are oddly comic-satiric-touching in tone. First we witness a concert of English music being staged (including numbers by Duke Ellington, obviously a member of the old English aristocracy). Then some ancient plays (Look Back In Anger has its audience in stitches all the way through, presumably a satirical dig at Amis’s contemporary, John Osborne). However, the next night the audience can’t make head or tail of Romeo and Juliet and get so restive that after much booing and yelling someone actually sets fire to the theatre.

Though comic in details (its mostly illiterate native audience have lost any context for such live performances, don’t know they have to keep quiet, completely misunderstand genres, plotlines and the antique language) this rather harrowing vision of a people completely disenfranchised from their own past, their own culture, is quite moving and eerie. Especially in the third of the three scenes where the Russian authorities encourage locals to renovate an old disused church and put on a ‘service’, led by a doddery old man, a ‘vicar’, who is one of the very few ‘prewars’ still alive ie English person who remembers the country before ‘the Pacification’ 50 years earlier.

We are shown the reactions of Alexander and his mistress Kitty and of Kitty’s father Dr Wright to the ‘service’ and then ‘sermon’ delivered by blind old Mr Glover. All of them are perplexed by the antique language and completely misunderstand the language of the hymns and puzzle over the relationship between the three gods referred to in this old pantheon. This amounts to a powerful and slightly haunting vision of what a genuinely post-Christian society would be like, in which Christianity has been completely forgotten and is now a puzzling oddity…

Plot 2 – the Conspiracy

From its opening pages to nearly the end, the novel – told in the third person – follows young, arrogant, unpredictable and self-absorbed cavalry ensign Alexander Petrovsky. We witness relationships among his fellow officers in the 4th Guards, quartered in a former private school in the country outside Northampton. We see him attending a number of formal dinner parties or summer garden parties at local grand mansions, his seduction by Mrs Korotchenko, mentioned above. This deepens into a sort of amusing sado-masochistic relationship in which, every time he visits her, she has thought up kinkier and kinkier scenarios – against the kitchen wall naked, tied and gagged spread-eagled in the bedroom, suspended by ropes in the barn, or joined by her equally naked and depraved 12-year-old daughter. Alexander quickly adapts to her appetites and to her regular demand that, after the actual sex, he tramples over her naked body, preferably wearing his cavalry boots.

About half way through the novel Alexander is sounded out by fellow officer, Theodore Markov, whether he wants to join ‘the Conspiracy’. Turns out there is a Resistance or Underground movement among the Russian occupiers, which plans to overthrow the existing authorities, hand England back to the English, and leave. From the start this plot development seemed unreal and implausible to me. It certainly lacks the psychological depth of something like Winston Smith slowly realising he is an opponent of Big Brother in 1984: Alexander is asked to join and says, Sure, OK. If it was intended to have the grip and excitement of a thriller, it didn’t. I wasn’t gripped, simply curious to see how Amis would play the thing out.

  • Alexander is introduced to fellow conspirators and – since Theodore is in love with his sister, Nina – this includes her and her friend Elizabeth. Everything is set for the revolution the following Sunday.
  • The conspirators become aware that the creepy Director Vanag, head of security, and his secret police may have infiltrated the Conspiracy. It is discovered that Mrs Korotchenko knows a key officer in Vanag’s office and so Alexander is tasked with persuading her to do whatever it takes to persuade the officer to hand over the Top Secret list of spies who’ve infiltrated the Conspiracy. Ie to give in to his requests for sex. This she reluctantly does, but only if Alexander is himself prepared to do what he had up till then refused to, and incorporate her daughter in their sado-masochistic sex sessions, which he shamefully agrees to, though no details are given.
  • A few days later, as soon as Mrs K hands Alexander the list he realises that some of the top leaders of the Conspiracy are in fact double agents. He also understands that his senior officer’s warnings a few days earlier about desisting from keeping dangerous company didn’t, as he thought at the time, refer to Mrs K. He realises the Conspiracy has been thoroughly infiltrated. He goes straight to Theodore and makes the impulsive decision to bring the revolution forward 72 hours. This seems futile and wildly improbable as we have heard that it is a co-ordinated strike, not only across England, but even in Moscow itself. One small cog doesn’t have the authority or contacts to alter a timetable so intricately communicated across such a far-flung network.

Nonetheless, next day Alexander orders his NCO and another soldier to accompany him to the Armoury where they bluff their way past the guard and take possession of the ‘projectile’ weapons which obliterate anything they’re fired at. (Shades of the futuristic weapon, the atom-bullet-firing rifle mentioned in The Anti-Death League). But his men jib at targeting regimental headquarters, as he intends. They point blank refuse to kill their comrades and so Alexander, in a rage which everyone who knows him is all-too-familiar with, rides off on his horse to carry out part two of his mission, followed in hot pursuit by his two mutinous soldiers until he reaches the house of his parents. He storms into the drawing room to confront his father who tells him it is pointless, the Conspiracy is completely infiltrated, every move and aspect of it has been completely anticipated and neutralised. Alexander, not a very likeable person, blusters that he doesn’t care, he doesn’t actually hope to change anything, by killing his own father he just wants to register  his anger and frustration at the way things are, to show his opposition to the smugness and complacency of the authorities.

As he raises his gun to kill his father – now on his knees begging for his life – one of the two soldiers who had followed him steps through the French windows and shoots Alexander dead. That’s it. That’s the end of the main plot and of the character we’ve been closely following for the past 220 pages. Was I meant to be caught up in the plot, gripped and thrilled and excited? Because if so, it failed. Amis throws in the fact that these final events are set on a hot humid stifling afternoon turning into night, amid an oppressively gathering thunderstorm, with flashes of lightning on the horizon, a melodramatic backdrop to Alexander’s futile actions. But to little or no impact on this reader.

Epilogue

As in his other alternative world story of a few years previously, The Alteration, there is an epilogue which gives the wider context of events and rams home the Author’s Message.

1. Director Vanag gloats to a hall-full of captured conspirators that the entire conspiracy was in fact dreamed up by Moscow purely as a way of flushing out anyone with even slight dissident tendencies. The list Alexander went to such lengths to get hold of was in fact a list of their own genuine leaders who some of the conspirators very usefully proceeded to murder. They were all puppets dancing on a string. They will all now be sent to forced labour camps. Goodbye.

2. Vanag has a one-to-one with Theodore, who had recruited Alexander into the Conspiracy and had been affectionately engaged to Alexander’s young sister, Nina. Both are now under arrest. A living death in the gulag awaits. After mockingly asking Theodore what on earth he expected to achieve, he – in passing – gives a bit more detail about the conquest of Britain, 50 years back.

‘There had been disorders here, runaway inflation, mass unemployment, strikes, strike-breaking, rioting, then much fiercer rioting when a leftist faction seized power. It was our country’s chance to take what she had always wanted most, more than Germany, far more than the Balkans, more even than America. And she took it…’ (p.241)

Author’s message

Is this the point of this odd novel? Is it a warning by an Amis who had swung through the political spectrum from sort-of leftish young man to reactionary old fogey? Is it part of the mind-set and the atmosphere of the late 1970s which thought that under a left-wing Labour party and ravaged by strikes in all sectors of society, Britain was actually collapsing into chaos and economic collapse? The atmosphere in which we know that MI5 bugged Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s office and there is evidence of the planning of a military coup to overthrow the government? Despite being set in the future, is this strange novel a kind of message from a period of really intense social unrest which most people have forgotten about?

Analysis

The list of ‘spies’ Alexander gets hold of is dated 2035 and, since it is repeatedly stated that all this is happening 50 years after ‘the Pacification’ that sets the Russian invasion of Britain in 1985 ie one year after what was, for many people, still the terrifyingly ominous date 1984, now just a literary footnote.

As in The Alternative the reader is impressed by the fullness with which Amis has imagined and populated this alternative world, fully imagined the psychologies of the occupied English and the occupying forces, imagined the rivalries and small bitternesses and resentments which grease all their exchanges. A distinguishing aspect is the drabness of this world: the Russians have brought their own Soviet shabbiness to bear: everyone’s clothes are badly made and fit badly; the flowers they take pride in are actually undercultivated weeds, the drinks are thin and tasteless, the food is poor, but nobody notices except the narrator because nobody has ever known any better.

On a larger scale the social life depicted in such convincing detail is an oddly diffracted, strangely distorted version of contemporary trends, in that the big parties in the grand houses have a strange 19th century formality, but are shabby and cheap (as mentioned above) and coarse: after a certain hour lots of the guests are fighting drunk, throwing up, crawling around, passed out, or openly fornicating among the bushes.

What makes it such a persuasive fiction is the very mundaneness of this future world with its bad clothes, drunk officers, ersatz drinks, poorly maintained gardens, roads full of potholes, nasty food for the mostly illiterate serf population, a powerful air of provincial humdrum boredom such as you do actually find in pre-Revolutionary Russian literature. Amis has successfully transplanted that world to England. It is an extraordinary and disquieting and completely unexpected feat.

However, the book’s strength is its weakness. The heaviness and dullness of the everyday establishes an ambience in which nothing happens so authentically that it is next to impossible to believe the sudden eruption of the Conspiracy. Especially when the psychological motivation of the young men involved is so shallow and casual. A very believable setting; but a disappointingly unbelievable plot.

The title explained

Russian hide and seek turns out to be a stupid game played by the bored officers in Alexander’s troop. they go out into the darkness with loaded revolvers at the end of an evening’s hard drinking, split up, find hiding places, then shout to give away their location and the others take pot shots at them. A sort of variation of Russian roulette. After one terrifying go Alexander realises he is no hero and never does it again. Towards the end of the book a session is held in which one of the officers, Leo, is badly wounded. He is brought into the barracks screaming with pain and fear where the troops’ commanding major, to my surprise, shoots him in the head like a horse. Is this some kind of satire? A comment on the heartlessness of Russians? Or just a cold sci-fi view of the future? Like a lot of things in this disconcerting novel, it is hard to tell.

Related links

Penguin paperback edition of Russian Hide And Seek

Penguin paperback edition of Russian Hide And Seek

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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