The one indispensable answer to an environment bristling with people and things one thought were bad was to go on finding out new ways in which one could think they were bad.
—Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim
The trendy Amis, of course, is Martin, whose latest book, Einstein’s Monsters, is described on the dust jacket as “Martin Amis’s impassioned fictionalized protest against nuclear weapons. . . . The subject is depressing, almost unthinkable. But Amis makes of these stories a life-affirming lament.” Such laments, taken in tandem with the equally stylish America-bashing of The Moronic Inferno, a recent collection of occasional essays, helped to make of Martin Amis a coming young man of English letters.
Martin’s father used to be a coming young man of letters himself. When Kingsley Amis, an obscure poet and lecturer at a dreary South Wales university, published Lucky Jim, his first novel, in 1954, critics were quick to recognize in him a comic novelist on the order of the pre-Brideshead Evelyn Waugh. But Amis père spent the next three decades doing every unfashionable thing imaginable. He tried his hand at various types of genre fiction: ghost stories, spy stories, detective stories. He wrote a column for Penthouse called “Kingsley on Drink.” He even wrote a James Bond novel.
The only thing Kingsley Amis never got around to doing was tinkering with his style.
The only thing Kingsley Amis never got around to doing was tinkering with his style, which has remained more or less unchanged throughout seventeen novels, a collection of short stories, and a diverse assortment of other books ranging from a biography of Rudyard Kipling to a history of science fiction. “What I think I am doing,” Amis said in 1976, “is writing novels within the main English-language tradition, that is, trying to tell interesting, believable stories about understandable characters in a reasonably straightforward style: no tricks, no experimental foolery.”
In time, Amis’s politics would become as quaint as his prose style. The author of Lucky Jim was, like the other Angry Young Men who electrified English readers of the Fifties with their vigorous rejection of mandarin literary ways, a socialist of sorts. But Lucky Jim, as Amis put it in a 1967 essay, gradually turned right, a metamorphosis which shocked and dismayed many of his erstwhile fans. (“How could a chap like me, an intellectual with an interest in jazz and science fiction to protect me from total fuddy-duddyism, possibly not be on the Left?”)
As Amis grew more obviously conservative, critics who once praised him began to dismiss him as a middle-aged hack incapable of realizing his youthful promise. Eventually, Amis even began to have trouble publishing his books in the United States, a dilemma with an inescapably political dimension. One novel, Russian Hide-and-Seek, never found an American publisher at all, while another, Stanley and the Women, became a cause célèbre on both sides of the Atlantic when word got out that feminist editors at three New York publishing houses, dismayed with the novel’s alleged misogyny, had turned it down.
Kingsley Amis’s sales, to be sure, have remained perfectly respectable. His last novel, The Old Devils, even won the 1987 Booker Prize, England’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and he continues to get good reviews. But the critical tide now runs against him. John Updike’s 1979 review of Jake’s Thing in The New Yorker made the latter-day case against Amis with dismaying clarity:
[I]t is a rare sentence of his prose that surrenders to the demons of language, that abdicates a seat of fussy social judgment, that is there for its own sake, out of simple awe, gratitude, or dismay in the face of creation. His universe is claustrophobically human, and his ambition and reputation alike remain in thrall to the weary concept of the “comic novel.”
This is an interesting, if obtuse, appraisal of Kingsley Amis, for it correctly singles out much of what is distinctive about his work. With a slight change of tone, some readers might even take it for high praise. But while all of Amis’s novels are funny, many of them are far from “comic,” at least in the specifically limiting sense Updike has in mind. His vision of modern life is surprisingly, even shockingly black, and the laughter of his finest work is the uneasy kind provoked by a sudden vision of the skull beneath the skin.
Like so many other comic writers, Kingsley Amis was born into middle-class drabness. William Amis, his father, was a senior clerk in the export department of Colman’s Mustard whose cultural tastes ran to Gilbert and Sullivan and detective stories. “My parents,” Amis remembered, “evidently underwent a fairly gruelling nonconformist nurturing in and around a Baptist chapel in south-east London. By the time I came along they had moved a certain distance away from this environment. The training they gave me was strong in morality, rudimentary and quite uninsistent in questions of doctrine apart from a conventional taboo or two.”
Amis’s father shared the common desire to see his only child ascend the slippery pole of class, and so young Kingsley was sent to a private preparatory school, where he earned a scholarship to St. John’s College, Oxford, in 1941. Though wartime Oxford was a sober and austere place, the undergraduate Amis contrived to be known as a militant Labourite, a jazz fanatic, and a virtuoso mimic. Decades later, his classmate Philip Larkin would recall Amis’s phenomenal abilities in this last capacity:
[H]e used it as the quickest way of convincing you that something was horrible or boring or absurd—the local comrade (“Ecsa poincher see . . . assa poincher see”), the Irish tenor (“the sarn wass dee-cli-neeng”), the University CSM (“Goo on, seh”), a Russian radio announcer reading in English a bulletin from the Eastern Front (“twelf field mortars”), his voice suffering slow distortion to unintelligibility followed by a sudden reversion to clarity (“aberbera mumf mumf General von Paulus”).
Amis was drafted in 1942 and served in the Royal Corps of Signals. After the war, he returned to St. John’s College, where he took a first in English in 1947 and that same year, brought out a volume of poetry called Bright November. In 1948, he married Hilary Ann Bardwell, by whom he had two sons “who turned up very fast, one after the other”; in 1949, he accepted a job as a lecturer in English at the University College of Swansea in South Wales.
Amis was soon recognized as a poet of modest but genuine accomplishment.
Amis was soon recognized as a poet of modest but genuine accomplishment. “Kingsley Amis,” Philip Larkin said in 1964, “I admire very much as a poet. . . . I think he’s utterly original and can hit off a kind of satiric poem that no one else can (this is when he is being himself, not when he’s Robert Graves).” Like Larkin, Amis was a charter member of The Movement, the group of plain-spoken English poets whose work, according to Robert Conquest’s 1956 manifesto in the Movement anthology New Lines, was animated by “a refusal to abandon a rational structure and comprehensive language” and “a negative determination to avoid bad principles.”
By the time these words appeared in print Kingsley Amis had already written Lucky Jim. Immediately upon its publication in 1954, this comic portrait of an inept young college professor from the lower middle class drew lavish praise from critics and readers in England and America. Even Somerset Maugham was impressed by the book, although he found Amis’s scruffy characters disturbing. As he explained in his Sunday Times review:
This is a new class that has entered upon the scene. It is the white-collar proletariat. Mr. Kingsley Amis is so talented, his observation is so keen, that you cannot fail to be convinced that the young men he so brilliantly describes truly represent the class with which his novel is concerned. They do not go to the university to acquire culture, but to get a job, and when they have got one, scamp it. . . . A few will go into Parliament, become Cabinet Ministers and rule the country. I look upon myself as fortunate that I shall not live to see it.
Clearly what distressed Maugham was not so much the novel as the postwar England in which it was set. Just as Kingsley Amis’s Oxford had been a dour institution caught in an uncomfortable transition from the plovers’ eggs of Charles Ryder to the austerities of a country at war, so was Amis’s England turning into something strange and new: a centralized welfare state which, for all the earnest intentions of its founders, remained far from classless.
Young men like Jim Dixon, the hero of Lucky Jim, were stalwartly attempting to crash the economic and social barriers of class during the Fifties, and Amis was acutely aware of their struggles. His portrait of Professor Welch, the small-time cosmopolitan, with his madrigal sings and his readings of Anouilh in the original and his dogs named Ego and Id, rings every bit as true as that of Jim Dixon, who freely confesses to having specialized in medieval studies because “the medieval papers were a soft option in the Leicester course.”
Where did the young Kingsley Amis learn to turn class differences into a source of biting comedy? For years, the American paperback edition of Lucky Jim carried on its cover the following blurb from Arthur Mizener: “No one has been so funny in this vein since Evelyn Waugh was at his best.” While Amis has consistently acknowledged the influence of Waugh, he has also been careful not to overemphasize it. “I’m flattered,” he said in 1985, “but the analogy is misleading. Waugh wrote very elegant comedy. His people spoke beautifully. Compared with his works, mine look like grim documentaries.”
The grim settings and situations of Amis’s early novels suggest another, less obvious source. Robert Conquest, writing in New Lines, cited “George Orwell, with his principle of real, rather than ideological honesty” as an important influence on the Movement poets, and it is a very short journey from the drab prewar England of Coming Up for Air and Keep the Aspidistra Flying to the equally drab postwar England of Jim Dixon, a scholarship boy who, like one of Orwell’s hapless heroes, might easily have wound up selling insurance door to door or working in a second-hand bookshop had he been born twenty years earlier.
Amis has at all times been a comic novelist, one who shared with Orwell a consuming interest in popular fiction.
Still, Amis has at all times been a comic novelist, one who shared with Orwell a consuming interest in popular fiction. “The reading on which my wilting has been founded,” Amis wrote in 1986, “was always various, even indiscriminate, including as it did and taking seriously not only ‘straight’ novels but adventure stories, ghost stories, spy stories, detective stories, science fiction.” When asked in 1975 to name the modern writers who had most influenced him, Amis mentioned Waugh, Anthony Powell, Angus Wilson, the early Joyce—and P. G. Wodehouse.
Asked what advice he would give to a young comic novelist, Wodehouse said: “I’d give him practical advice, and that is always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. . . . I think the success of every novel—if it’s a good novel of action—depends on the high spots. The thing to do is to say to yourself, ‘Which are my big scenes?’ and then get every last drop of juice out of them.” Lucky Jim follows this advice to the letter. Like nearly all of Amis’s novels, it begins in medias res (“‘They made a silly mistake, though,’ the professor of history said, and his smile, as Dixon watched, gradually sank beneath the surface of his features at the memory”) and charges directly into an action-packed plot in which set piece follows set piece with the relentless speed of Right Ho, Jeeves or The Mating Season.
From the beginning, Amis’s knack for mimicry proved to be an invaluable novelistic means of depicting the nuances of class. Amis’s characters, like Waugh’s, are defined by their accents and their use of language. (“He quickly decided on a bluff, speak-my-mind approach as the best cloak for rudeness, past or to come. . . . Deliberately intensifying his northern accent, Dixon said: ‘Afraid I got off on the wrong foot with you last night.’”) But while the young Waugh, following the example of Ronald Firbank, allowed his dialogue to speak almost entirely for itself, the young Amis sets his off, Wodehouse-style, with ironic commentary:
If Welch didn’t speak in the next five seconds, he’d do something which would get himself flung out without possible question—not the things he'd often dreamed of when sitting next door pretending to work. He no longer wanted, for example, to inscribe on the departmental timetable a short account, well tricked out with obscenities, of his views on the professor of history, the Department of History, medieval history, history, and Margaret and hang it out of the window for the information of passing students and lecturers, nor did he, on the whole, now intend to tie Welch up in his chair and beat him about the head and shoulders with a bottle until he disclosed why, without being French himself, he'd given his sons French names.
Kingsley Amis, as this passage suggests, was very much on the rampage in Lucky Jim. His own understanding of what he was attacking was not yet fully developed, though, and it is not surprising that Lucky Jim was widely read, even by so perceptive a critic as Edmund Wilson, as a fairly straightforward paean to English socialism: “Uncertain and perplexed though they are, [Amis’s characters] have still something to build, to win. . . . The only things they have behind them to brace them are the victory of the Labour Government in 1945, the ideals of the Welfare State, and they hold out as best they can, at the cost of much nervous strain, much confusion of social relations, much sacrifice of individual dignity.”
To be sure, Lucky Jim does pay homage to the egalitarian values of the Labour Party. (“If one man’s got ten buns and another’s got two, and a bun has got to be given up by one of them, then surely you take it from the man with ten buns.”) But Jim Dixon’s rebelliousness is less political than personal. He is, for instance, as quick to snap at “phoniness” as Holden Caulfield, his near-contemporary, and inclined to bristle defensively at the appearance of anything having to do with high culture (“The piece was recognisable to Dixon as some skein of untiring facetiousness by filthy Mozart”).
Part of what Dixon and his creator were rebelling against, although this fact is not made explicit in Lucky Jim, was modernism. Speaking of the Angry Young Men as a group, an older Amis pointed out that “there was certainly no rebelliousness at all of treatment or presentation [in our books]. And we were, in that sense, reactionaries rather than rebels. We were trying to get back, let’s say, to the pre-Joyce tradition, really—but not very consciously.” For many of Amis’s contemporaries, this rebellion would at times be scarcely distinguishable from out-and-out philistinism; Dixon’s reflexive dislike of “filthy Mozart” is not so very far away from Philip Larkin’s railing against “things that seemed crazy when they were new and seem crazy now, like Finnegans Wake and Picasso.”
Amis’s relationship to high culture, of course, is a great deal more ambivalent than the word “philistine” would suggest.
Amis’s relationship to high culture, of course, is a great deal more ambivalent than the word “philistine” would suggest. Far from regarding Mozart as “filthy,” for instance, Amis is an extremely well-informed music lover, and two of his later novels, Girl, 20 and The Alteration, make convincing use of classical musicians as major characters. Amis’s real quarrel, which he shared with Orwell and with the rest of the Angry Young Men, was not so much with high culture per se as with the pretentious upper-crust mandarinism of Cyril Connolly and the Horizon group. (Significantly, one of the things about Professor Welch that irritates Jim Dixon most is his interest in things French.)
Jim Dixon’s greatest frustrations arise from of his difficulties with women. Like so many of Amis’s later novels, Lucky Jim contains two contrasting principal female characters: Margaret, the sexual predator who symbolizes everything hostile and disagreeable and confusing about her sex, and Christine, whose behavior is equally confusing but who is prettier, more desirable, and far more agreeable. Like Orwell, Amis is quick to endow this sexual contrast with strong overtones of class conflict:
The notion that women like [Christine] were never on view except as the property of men like [Professor Welch’s son] was so familiar to him that it had long since ceased to appear an injustice. The huge class that contained Margaret was destined to provide his own womenfolk: those in whom the intention of being attractive could sometimes be made to get itself confused with performance. . . . But renewal always came: a new sweater would somehow scale down the large feet, generosity revivify the brittle hair, a couple of pints site positive charm in talk of the London stage or French food.
In Lucky Jim, the conflict is resolved predictably: Jim Dixon triumphs over the barriers of class, getting the nice girl and a better job and thumbing his nose at his snooty enemies. “The shits,” Amis said of Lucky Jim in 1987, “all get their comeuppance in the end.” This unabashedly happy ending is typical of the kind of book Kingsley Amis would write at regular intervals throughout the rest of his career: fast, funny, and not too long, with all the loose ends tied up neatly in the last chapter. But Lucky Jim also served as the calling card of an author of real promise, and his subsequent books would make good on this promise, sometimes in thoroughly unpredictable ways.
Given the enormous success of Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis could have easily gone dry or, worse, repeated himself mechanically in sequel after sequel. Indeed, Jim Dixon might have made a rather charming series character, a sort of welfare-state Bertie Wooster. But Amis chose instead to follow up Lucky Jim in 1955 with the novel That Uncertain Feeling, the story of John Lewis, a Welsh librarian who finds himself entangled in an extramarital affair with a bitchy woman who, having married money, is looking for sexual adventure as well. Like Lucky Jim, That Uncertain Feeling is fast and funny, but its tone is far more unsettling, and the best Amis can contrive in the way of a happy ending is his hero’s reluctant decision to leave town and take a lower-paying job at (of all places) a coal mine, there to remain faithful to his long-suffering wife and their children.
Throughout his career, Amis would alternate between straightforwardly comic novels like I Like It Here (1958) and One Fat Englishman (1963) and more adventurous books like That Uncertain Feeling and Take a Girl Like You, a longish novel dating from 1960 which tells the story of a beautiful young woman named Jenny Bunn and her determined struggle to remain virginal. Take a Girl Like You, like its predecessors, is set in Amisland, the sooty, shabby industrial town up the road from Wigan Pier where good jobs grow on other people’s bushes and the landladies serve cheap breakfasts. “I kept a very thick and detailed notebook for Take a Girl Like You—about a hundred pages,” Amis later recalled, and the result strongly resembles an old-fashioned social novel in its sober proliferation of detail. But Amis’s purpose is uncertain. The greater length of Take a Girl Like You is not accompanied by a corresponding increase in gravity, and the reader ultimately feels that underneath the descriptive padding, the book’s real scope is no greater than that of such lighter efforts as Lucky Jim or That Uncertain Feeling.
By this time, Kingsley Amis had revealed quite a bit about himself in the various essays and articles which were later collected in What Became of Jane Austen? (1970). The journalistic Amis is to some extent a theatrical creation, a beef-eating pantomime Englishman who, for all his untutored literary shrewdness, is nonetheless quite pleased to dismiss highbrow books like Lolita as “thoroughly bad” and “suffocatingly narrow,” opting instead for a diverse assortment of popular wordsmiths ranging from Warwick Deeping to Mickey Spillane:
It might well be agreed that the best of serious fiction, so to call it, is better than anything any genre can offer. But this best is horribly rare, and a clumsy dissection of the heart is so much worse than boring as to be painful, and most contemporary novels are like spy novels with no spies or crime novels with no crimes, and John D. MacDonald is by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow, only MacDonald writes thrillers and Bellow is a human-heart chap, so guess who wears the top-grade laurels?
Though the Kingsley Amis of What Became of Jane Austen? is something of a lowbrow poseur, he is also a perfectly sincere fan of genre fiction, and this affection led Amis to produce a book which was at once his first fully successful attempt at expanding the boundaries of the traditional comic novel and his first outright genre novel. Published in 1966, The Anti-Death League is a seriocomic spy thriller about Operation Apollo, a top-secret biological warfare experiment conducted by the British Army and aimed at Red China. Amis’s large cast of characters exists not merely to exploit the rich comic potential of military life but to dramatize a far more serious problem: how to make sense of a godless world.
The progress of Operation Apollo is disrupted when Captain Max Hunter, an alcoholic homosexual, causes a scandal in the unit by secretly distributing leaflets advertising the formation of an “anti-death league” which has no purpose and no program save to enhance public outrage at the meaningless way some people die. (“Case No. 1: A woman of about 30 years old was dishing up the family supper. She took a potato out of the dish and popped it in her mouth. It lodged in her throat and she died of asphixiation [sic] then and there, in front of her husband and 3 young children who were present at the time.”)
Hunter’s private anguish acquires added immediacy when his friend James Churchill, the hero of The Anti-Death League, falls in love with Catharine Casement, who promptly discovers that she is suffering from breast cancer. The absurdity of the world in which they live is emphasized when Operation Apollo is revealed to be an elaborate ruse undertaken for arcane strategic reasons. The message of the novel is stated explicitly by Catharine: “You knew very well that it’s up to people not to get on with the bad things God has invented for them. It’s their job to show they’re better than he is.”
Kingsley Amis’s early novels are full of dark hints that the world is under the thumb of an actively malevolent creator.
Kingsley Amis’s early novels are full of dark hints that the world is under the thumb of an actively malevolent creator. (“You atheist?” Yevgeny Yevtushenko once asked Kingsley Amis. His reply: “Well, yes, but it’s more that I hate him.”) The Anti-Death League is Amis’s first full-scale treatment of this theme, and despite occasional lapses into sentimentality, it remains an impressive achievement, both for its emotional depth and for the ingenious way in which it uses the techniques of the thriller to serve more ambitious satirical ends. Kingsley Amis is still angry, but he is no longer so naïve as to think that the world can be made noticeably better by taking a few extra buns from the rich and giving them to the poor.
In 1967, Kingsley Amis published an essay called “Why Lucky Jim Turned Right” in which he announced his acceptance of the conservative vision of human nature and its limits. (“Many of the evils of life—failure, loneliness, fear, boredom, inability to communicate—are ineradicable by political means.”) Amis’s political conversion was initially stimulated by his growing awareness of “more and more voluminous and unignorable evidence” of the evils of Communism, much of which was doubtless brought to his attention by his friend and colleague Robert Conquest. But his greatest contempt was reserved not for committed Communists but for the hopelessly phony “wets” of Sixties England:
I mean the kind of person who . . . professes neutralism while reciting Hanoi’s line; who says the East European satellites arc really swinging places that have stopped bothering with politics; who used—when it was more newsy—to go on about Ian Smith’s Fascist regime; who thinks student freedom is impaired when a college applies its statutes; who buys unexamined the abortion-divorce-homo-sexualiry-censorship-racialism-marijuana package; in a word, the Lefty.
These concerns would become the subject matter of the 1968 novel I Want It Now, a fast-moving situation comedy in four sharply contrasted tableaux which focuses on the bumpy courtship of a glib young talk-show host on the make and a sexy, slightly deranged American heiress. I Want It Now takes on two ambitious subjects: the irresponsible rich and the trendy Left. Ronnie Appleyard is much like Jim Dixon, but he lives in a post-Lucky Jim world whose increased upward mobility has made it possible for refugees from the lower middle class to aspire to infinitely more stately mansions—at the price of their souls.
For all its underlying seriousness, Ronnie Appleyard’s story in I Want It Now is told within the modest compass of the comic novel. Appleyard’s frenzied efforts, like those of Jim Dixon, bring him happiness in the end; he keeps his job, gets the girl, and even becomes a less wet, more humane person into the bargain. (“I was a shit when I met you. I still am in lots of ways. But because of you I’ve had to give up trying to be a dedicated, full-time shit. I couldn’t make it, hadn’t the strength of character.”) Similarly, Amis’s next novel, The Green Man (1969), for all its considerable interest, remains safely within the precincts of the ghost story. With Girl, 20 (1971), however, Amis takes as great a forward stride as he had five years earlier with The Anti-Death League.
On the surface, Girl, 20 looks suspiciously like yet another of Amis’s Wodehousean pastiches: short, brilliantly concentrated, full of sharp verbal satire and richly comic set pieces. But the humor in Girl, 20 is ferociously dark, even more so than in The Anti-Death League, and Sir Roy Vandervane, the anti-hero of the novel, is the most complex character Amis has yet created. Sir Roy is a musician of real, if second-rate, talent. But he is also a first-rate phony, for his politics are casually leftish (by now a reliably bad sign in any Amis character) while his private life is entirely subordinated to the increasingly desperate pursuit of nubile, ever-younger women.
The amorous adventures of Sir Roy and Douglas Yandell, the music critic and amateur pianist who serves as narrator, keep the focus of Girl, 20 squarely on women and their discontents, a perfectly natural development for an author whose first marriage had recently ended in divorce. Accordingly, the portrait of love in the Sixties sketched by Amis in Girl, 20 is altogether forbidding. In The Anti-Death League, Amis allowed his principal characters the solace of love in the midst of chaos. Not so in Girl, 20. Kitty, Sir Roy’s wife, is doomed to a life of unhappy solitude; Penny, his daughter, becomes a heroin addict; Sylvia, his seventeen-year-old mistress, is a practitioner of “moral vandalism” who is clearly psychopathic. Even Vivienne, Douglas Yandell’s charmingly eccentric girlfriend, walks out on him at the end of Girl, 20 because, despite his solid, even stodgy aesthetic values, Douglas lacks the moral strength fully to commit himself to a romantic relationship.
In its fusion of high comedy and serious intent, Girl, 20 represents an apotheosis of the Wodehouse-style comic novel. It also marks the high point of Amis’s use of language as a medium through which the social and cultural follies of English life can be savagely guyed. (“It was . . . a quartet, or chamber concerto for violin, with parts for sitar, bass guitar and bongoes. Across the top of the first sheet Elevations 9 was written, perhaps by way of title. I felt a particular loathing for that 9: either there were eight other Elevations or the numeral was arbitrary, a piece of decor, which was nearly as bad.”)
Perhaps inevitably, the novels which followed Girl, 20 were all less successful in their various ways.
Perhaps inevitably, the novels which followed Girl, 20 were all less successful in their various ways. The Riverside Villas Murder and The Alteration are well-made genre novels, the first an old-fashioned detective story, the second an exceptionally clever “alternate world” fantasy about what England would have been like in 1976 if the Protestant Reformation had never taken place; Ending Up (1974), a tale of old age and physical decline, is a mordant but slight variation on Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori.
Jake’s Thing, by contrast, is a clear attempt to recapture the darkly comic mood of Girl, 20, this time taking as a point of departure the adventures of a middle-aged man who, finding himself impotent, dives crotch-first into the therapy racket. The subject is promising, allowing Amis to focus on the affectations of postwar English culture and the war between the sexes, two of his favorite targets. But the treatment is too obviously studied; one feels that Amis is self-consciously “doing” the world of psychobabble in Jake’s Thing and that his satirical shots are insufficiently incisive for so gifted a marksman.
More disturbing is the obvious coarsening of Amis’s prose style. The author of Jake’s Thing is no longer capable of the lapidary concentration of Girl, 20. His ear is less sure, his style less pithy. This loss of tautness can be found to an even greater degree in Russian Hide-and-Seek, a fantasy about England under Soviet rule. Russian Hide-and-Seek may have been turned down by American publishers for political reasons, but it remains Amis’s weakest novel for artistic ones.
In Stanley and the Women, published in 1984, Kingsley Amis moves for the first time since The Anti-Death League beyond the narrow technical confines of the comic and genre novels. Longer and more serious in tone than Jake’s Thing, this book is the climax of Amis’s growing tendency to regard the war between men and women as a permanent and unwinnable battle; indeed, Stanley and the Women almost seems at first glance to be the finished novel for which Jake’s Thing was merely a preliminary study.
Stanley Duke, the hero and narrator of Stanley and the Women, is a middle-aged businessman with a good job and a seemingly happy second marriage. His teenage son, Steve, suddenly develops symptoms of what turns out to be schizophrenia, and Stanley’s second wife simultaneously reveals that she no longer loves him. When Steve goes to a female psychiatrist, the reader is led to expect a brutal attack on feminism. Instead, Stanley goes much farther, arguing that not merely feminists but all women are amoral, untrustworthy monsters. There is no “good” woman character in Stanley and the Women, for both of Stanley’s women, not to mention Steve’s therapist, turn out to be predators of the very worst kind. The familiar predator-nice girl pairing of Amis’s earlier novels has turned into something far more disturbing: predator-predator.
Midway through Stanley and the Women, Stanley Duke suggests that “women were like Russians—if you did exactly what they wanted all the time you were being realistic and constructive and promoting the cause of peace, and if you ever stood up to them you were resorting to cold-war tactics and pursuing imperialistic designs and interfering in their internal affairs.” As readers of “Why Lucky Jim Turned Right” know, no comparison, coming from Amis, could be more damning. And the case against women is made even more directly at the end of the novel when a sympathetic male psychiatrist delivers the following speech:
Good God, you’ve had wives, haven’t you? And not impossibly had some acquaintance with other women as well? You can’t be new to feeling the edge of the most powerful weapon in their armoury. You must have suffered before from the effect of their having noticed . . . that men are different, men quite often wonder whether they’re doing the right thing and worry about it, men have been known to blame themselves for behaving badly, men not only feel they’ve made mistakes but on occasion will actually admit having done so, and say they’re sorry, and ask to be forgiven, and promise not to do it again, and mean it. Think of that! Mean it. All beyond female comprehension. Which incidentally is why they're not novelists and must never be priests.
Stanley Duke is not wholly without a crude kind of sympathy for women. “The root of all the trouble,” he says, “is we want to fuck them, the pretty ones, women I mean. Just try and imagine it happening to you, everyone wanting to fuck you wherever you go.” But Stanley derives no comfort from his limited understanding of the feminine dilemma. At the end of Jake’s Thing, Jake Richardson, offered a miracle cure, decides that he would rather remain impotent than have to put up with women. The end of Stanley and the Women is bleaker still: Stanley becomes reconciled with his second wife. “While she hurried on about having been so desperately frightened and upset and one thing and another,” he says at the very end of the book, realizing that he is trapped in a hopeless, universal dilemma, “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. People elsewhere too, I dare say. Perhaps all over the world.”
Stanley Duke is not wholly without a crude kind of sympathy for women.
The uncontrolled rage of the male characters in Stanley and the Women is as disquieting as the continuing lack of focus in Amis’s prose, and the knowledge that Amis’s own second marriage (to the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard) had ended in divorce shortly before the publication of Stanley and the Women necessarily colors one’s reading of this horrifying fictional portrait of a second marriage gone sour. Not surprisingly, many reviewers of Stanley and the Women went so far as to accuse Kingsley Amis of sharing the misogyny of Stanley Duke and his friends. “A novel,” Amis retorted, “is not a report or a biographical statement or a confession. If it is a good novel, it dramatizes thoughts that some people, somewhere, have had. Haven’t most men, at moments of high exasperation, thought, ‘They’re all mad’'?”
The real message of Stanley and the Women probably lies somewhere between these two poles. Amis returns again and again in his novels to the theme of the extreme difficulty, if not hopelessness, inherent in human relationships; Stanley and the Women takes a more jaundiced (and less convincing) view than usual of the degree to which women are the cause of the problem.
Stanley and the Women is dedicated to “Hilly,” Amis’s first wife, to whom he grew more closely attached with advancing age. Amis’s 1987 entry in Current Biography has as its penultimate sentence the following bald statement: “Amis lives in a self-contained ground-floor flat in a house in north London that he shares with his first wife and her third husband, Lord Kilmarnock.” The Old Devils, written in 1986, suggests that these changes in Amis’s life wrought a welcome transformation in his writing as well.
The scene of The Old Devils is Wales, locale of That Uncertain Feeling, and the action of the novel concerns the gradual reconciliation of a pair of aging lovers who parted nearly forty years before. There is no diminution of harshness in Amis’s satire, but the world of The Old Devils, for all its disillusion and brutality, is one in which even the very old can achieve redemption of a limited but genuine kind through the power of love.
This is a note which has been missing from Amis’s “serious” novels since The Anti-Death League, and it is made all the more powerful by the fact that he sounds it with a restored technical authority. In The Old Devils, the slackness of Amis’s last few novels has hardened into a more persuasive narrative style. The rapidity and pithiness of his early comic efforts have been successfully exchanged for the subtleties of a broader fictional canvas. The cast of characters in The Old Devils is large, the plot accordingly complex, and while there is little of the sheer comic brilliance of Lucky Jim or Girl, 20, there is in its place an unforced human warmth. Rhiannon, the woman who triggers unexpected depths of feeling in most of the men in The Old Devils, is the first female character in Amis’s work with the complexity and roundness of Jim Dixon or Max Hunter or Sir Roy Vandervane. No mere misogynist could possibly have imagined her, much less have written so deeply moving a story of old age and romantic love.
Amis’s latest novel, Difficulties with Girls, recently published in England and due out here next year from Summit, represents a relaxation of the new-found expressive powers of The Old Devils. A sequel to Take a Girl Like You, Difficulties with Girls is an easygoing examination of the married life of Jenny Bunn, one of Amis’s most engaging and sympathetic characters. As the title of the book suggests, Difficulties with Girls rings amusing changes on many of Amis’s familiar themes. But Difficulties with Girls, clever, entertaining, and assured though it is, nonetheless adds little to our knowledge of Kingsley Amis. The Old Devils must remain his valedictory statement to date, and it is an impressive one. For a writer to have made so singular an artistic advance so late in his career is a truly noteworthy achievement, one which suggests that Amis’s best work may still lie ahead of him.
Some reviewers thought that Kingsley Amis wrote The Old Devils as an act of literary contrition after the rage and malice of Stanley and the Women. Michiko Kakutani even suggested that “[ijnstead of making fun of his characters’ dilemmas, Mr. Amis has chosen this time to write each of them—men and women—from the inside, and this decision . . . burnishes the entire novel with the luster of redemption.” But Amis surely needs no redeeming. Though his cultural targets have shifted since the days of Lucky Jim, the wit with which he skewers them, and the outraged moral values on which that wit feeds, have remained constant; he is still “finding out new ways” to attack the bad things in an absurd world. Meanwhile, his early satirical thrusts have outlived their original social contexts and retained their sharpness and pertinence.
This is not to say that Amis is a great novelist. In fact, he has gone to some pains to avoid the traps that await the writer who purposefully aspires to greatness. Amis told an interviewer in 1975 that Gore Vidal’s novels “suffer from American cleverness: the fear of being thought stupid, or dull, or behind the times. I think that’s a very bad attitude for the novelist to adopt.” Despite the deliberate modesty of his own artistic attitudes, Kingsley Amis has done virtually everything one might possibly expect of a novelist, particularly a comic one. To read Amis’s novels in bulk, rather than merely dipping into Lucky Jim or Stanley and the Women, is to realize that he has created not a miscellaneous shelf of amusing entertainments but a distinctive oeuvre full of character and complexity.
Comparisons with Evelyn Waugh remain hard to resist. Waugh’s classicism, his ruthless detachment, the silent but omnipresent religious underpinnings of his early books: all of these qualities lend to his best work a greater depth and artistic purity. But Amis still remains Waugh’s closest postwar counterpart, a genre writer of satirical bent whose output is nonetheless far more serious and satisfying than that of most of his peers and virtually all of his juniors, Amis fils included. Some of his novels may well prove to be “major,” and one cannot doubt that most of them will continue to be read with real pleasure.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 7 Number 3, on page 8
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