Pushing on

John Bayley

  • The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis
    Hutchinson, 294 pp, £9.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 09 163790 2

‘The first thing a novelist must provide is a separate world.’ So Philip Larkin pronounced, and his two novels certainly provide one, as does his poetry. Is the same true of his friend Kingsley Amis, who hazarded the shrewd guess that Larkin published no more novels because he feared failure, in that genre, of the power to keep going with his own separate world of art? It seems likely that Amis has done something which in terms of the novel may be more difficult, and that is to carry the reader with him into whatever new places his interests or imagination have led him. Rather than making a separate world, he devotes his energies to persuading us to join him in his own.

Traditionally this kind of persuasion has been exercised less by the novelist than by the purely talkative writer – Lamb, Hazlitt, Meredith, J.B. Priestley. Amis has something in common with all of them, and his conversational powers, transposed into the verbal clatter of the typewriter, are as formidable as theirs were as men of the pen. The hero of Take a girl like you was always more than prepared to let others have their verbal stint, trot out their hobby-horses: but was it his fault, so he reasoned, if the words came to him while his fellow talkers were still whittling away at their own contributions? We often have the feeling with an Amis novel that we are just not going to be able to keep up: that the flow of sophistication, perception, wittiness, up-to-the-momentness, will reduce our powers of novel-reading repartee, as it were, to helpless silence. But we are wrong, fortunately. Amis is the kindest of novel-talkers in that he does always, and very considerately, wait for us to catch up and make – at least notionally – our own little point.

This is just as well, because the verbal texture of The Old Devils is richer, more unremitting, than ever before; less, and less prepared, with every clause, to let us slump back into the comfortable old worn fauteuil that every novelist hollows out for us sooner or later. No reposing on the past, or our own sense of Amis’s. Indeed that is the theme of the novel: that the past is never safely in place but keeps coming round again in the obsessive chatter of the continuum. Older people need each other because of it. It keeps them young by reminding them that youth is a state we carry helplessly around in our peer-group: those who are just beginning life can be seen to be much more grown-up. All the infirmities of age – white whine swilling, importunate bladders, evenings beginning after breakfast – thrust us firmly back into the needs and the atmosphere of being young together.

And so Alun (at school it was plain Alan) Weaver and his wife Rhiannon come back to South Wales together, to re-encounter their student peer-group, who are disintegrating talkatively together in the snug suburbs of an unspecified South Welsh town. Alun has become a famous professional Welshman and poet, renowned and financially successful not only for his own Welshness but for having been a friend of the fabulous Brydan, doyen of all local poets and topers. He at once reopens relations with Sophie, at one time ‘the surest thing between Bridgend and Carmarthen town’, wife of Charles Norris, one of the male group who meet at the Bible, who is a co-owner in the restaurant business with his brother Victor: ‘Absolutely not my cup of tea. He’s ... you know.’ ‘What, you mean ...’ ‘Well, we’re not supposed to mind them these days but I can’t help it. I came to them late, sort of.’

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