Philistines

Barbara Everett

Literary friendships (Sidney and Greville, Pope and Swift, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Eliot and Pound) have interest for the critic as well as the biographer. They show how unlike temperaments of near-equivalent talent may be drawn together by unanimity of literary principle. This unanimity should therefore be worth looking into, especially in the case of work like Philip Larkin’s, always more reserved and elusive than it seems. I want to consider his writing in juxtaposition with that of Kingsley Amis, close friend of the poet’s for over forty years; and to begin with Amis’s recent Booker Prize-winning novel. The element of apparent circuitousness in this approach to Larkin is perhaps excused by the nature of friendship itself: both persons matter, as Montaigne implied in his well-known explanation of friendship, ‘Because it was he, because it was I.’ Amis’s remarkable individuality may be defined so as to clarify, however indirectly, Larkin’s great and always in some sense reticent achievement.

The success of The Old Devils was just: it’s a considerable novel, and if anything improves with rereading. But there’s a certain disjunction between the book and what might be called its notional character. Critics seem agreed that the book is not only set in Wales but is actually about Wales and Welshness. Certainly Amis writes here with his usual brilliancies of comic realism, and gives a whole ‘social geography’ of location and behaviour. But as to the people in his book, some reservations have been expressed. One or two reviewers complained that Amis’s characters have begun, in this late novel, to blur together, to talk and think too much like each other. The problem struck me in a slightly different way. If this is a story of Wales, then it has to be said that the people in it aren’t Welsh – that under all the carefully-assembled Welsh locutions the psyches of the characters remain obstinately English, or at least obstinately Amisian. Celts just don’t come like this.

One of the book’s major themes is the very loss of national and racial identity: Wales and Welshness, it is said, hardly ‘exist’ now except as a form of charlatanism, or a bane. Yet, just as this lament has its own moral counterpoise – what the individual does not find outside himself, he must find inside – so it offers a clue to certain of Amis’s aesthetic methods; and beyond him to Larkin’s, too – for it can be in the same way less easy than it may seem to settle just what Larkin’s poems are ‘about’. In The Old Devils, uncertainty about Wales and Welshness, and indeed about the whole characterisation of individuals, can act more as a positive than a negative, and lead the attention to where the book has its real strength and character. Amis is concerned here, as he has mostly been (and as the whole novel genre has usually been, insofar as it is a social medium), with love and friendship: the love, in this case, of men for women, and the friendship of men for men – and theoretically, too, the love of women for men, and the friendship of women for women. Wherever the story nominally takes place, the book is constructed in a series of emotional confrontations, the chapters being given (as in Henry James’s ‘dramatic’ novel, The Awkward Age) the names of the leading actors in each, and the ‘awkward age’ being in this case nearer 67 than 17. The plot concerns retirement and homecoming, ending and reconciliation, and the Welsh setting as Amis evokes it – a faded provincial distance – is therefore relevant. But this is a story of ‘coming home’ in a more inward sense. In the course of the book the all-male and all-female drinking-bouts that pass for ‘social life’ evolve to something closer to simple human loving-kindness, where human beings actually talk to each other. The relationship of parents to grown children becomes important, and there is even, in the form of a nice Labrador puppy, a kind of surrogate grandchild: it too, in the wedding that acts as grand finale, has become a grown-up dog.

This action falls naturally into dramatic encounters, sometimes chorus-like, more critically between person and person. Characteristic, though gentler than most, is the outing shared by Malcolm and Rhiannon in Chapter Five (‘Rhiannon’): their jaunt a climax obscurely awaited by the reader from the novel’s opening pages, with Malcolm’s narratorial thoughts of the returning Alun and Rhiannon. The occasion, seized by Malcolm to make his declaration of lifelong passion for the still pretty, ‘ordinary’, kind and sensible Rhiannon, is hopeless, for he is not only married – and he not only knows that Rhiannon loves him as little as does his wife, as well as being herself married and in love with someone else again who only ambiguously loves her – but is himself ‘hopeless’, a virtuously clumsy sexless loser. Yet something does come out of the touching communion of these two most innocent of the characters, and begins to affect the rest of the action.

The landscaping of Malcolm’s and Rhiannon’s outing, apparently west along the coast from Swansea, leaves even the most sympathetic reader not very clear about what it was all like: the writer is obviously so much more interested in the pathetic persons of the drama, trying to talk to each other. And the intensity of this encounter can best be explained in terms of its echoic nature. Their comic but weeping conversation seems to be a richer replay of the terrible evening-out of Jenny and Graham in Take a girl like you, the best novel of Amis’s earlier years. That previous heroine was, in theory, North Country English, and the hero’s sad grotesque friend a Thames Valley Scot. But the Welsh Rhiannon and her Malcolm (whom the end of the novel leaves not altogether unhappily putting his love into his translation of Welsh Medieval verse) are to all intents and purposes Jenny and Graham met again almost thirty years later. The whole point of their second encounter seems to lie, not in anything that has to do with shifts of localisation, but in that peculiar permanence of the characters, and in the burden and release of the phrase ‘thirty years later’. It matters that the devils of this book are old devils.

Chief Devil is Rhiannon’s husband Alun – famous, faithless, shallow, engaging – the story’s catalyst, as he is the source of the book’s dark vitality. He is in many ways sharply characterised, with a formidable resource of observed contemporaneity – Media Man in motion. Yet, for all his TV hair-do’s, he, too, has an ancestry like that of Rhiannon and Malcolm; he is surely descended from the incorrigible Patrick of the earlier book who lamentably rapes the gentle Jenny instead of marrying her the first time round: an attractive and intelligent if callow cricket-playing Classics master, as ‘English’ an archetype as one could find in the modern novel. Alun and Patrick have something important in common: what might be called a formally demonic quality in the judgment of the writer of their novels. Both are forgivable – or at least Alun is finally forgiven by some of his friends in the light of their own moral frailties, and Patrick, being to a large extent the empathetic, if not sympathetic central consciousness of his story, its ego if not its hero, can as little be absolutely rejected in the end by the reader of the novel as by Jenny herself. But the actions of both men are obviously repulsive to the moral sense. And the greedily erotic, vain and venomous Alun – brought by the dramatic method of the book as inwardly close to us as anyone else in it – would quite plainly have continued his escalating violences had not the developing logic of the story stopped him (by death: one of the few things to be said in favour of death, so the book reminds us, is that it kills off the destroyers). His homecoming is an ending in a sense he didn’t expect. But it also offers the novel a conclusion in a rather different sense: it serves to suggest intellectually that love and friendship can’t exist just to be defined in practice as hatred and enmity. The novel’s real achievement is to make its action follow this simple, strong, moral logic, adding to it the bringing-about from unpromising beginnings of several acceptable if quiet happy endings: a whole group of genuinely touching reconciliations, all dependent on first the arrival and then the stopping of the vital but deathly Alun, regarded by the little gang of ageing cronies, the Old Devils of the title, as their star and centre.

From this point of view, the novel conveys through its jovial title a faint luminosity of meaning more than merely colloquial. Its action really is a casting-out of Old Devils: the set of epically drink-sodden old boys gets not once but twice thrown out of pubs, the second time – epoch-markingly if not for ever – from their own headquarters, their den, the cramped cosy cubby-hole in Tarquin Jones’s public-house, the Bible and Crown, known throughout the narrative as ‘the Bible’. In this haunt of the Old Devils there is something strikingly reminiscent of one of Larkin’s most potent small poems, the Dutch 17th-century genre-painting of a tavern, at once radiant and very gross, which he called ‘The Card-Players’. The Larkin poem possesses a rich calm moral abstraction that works against and yet through its earthy image of what happens when, in the company of ‘Jan van Hogspeuw’ and ‘Dirk Dogstoerd’, someone behind ‘Old Prijck’ eternally sings his love-songs. It is possibly harder for a reader absorbed in Amis’s more densely naturalistic novel to recall that Tarquin (not the most commonplace of Welsh names) was a Roman who, like the hero of Take a girl like you, raped an innocent woman.

There are always good reasons for not reading allegory into work that succeeds at the vividly realistic level. Yet it perhaps does no harm to extend the number of ways in which a good novel can be good. And the English novel has often found a place for the psychomachia, the ‘battle for the soul’. Even the best novel critics don’t always leave room for the distinctness of the English novel tradition, but identify it with the kind of 19th-century realism in which Tolstoy and Balzac are supreme. Such criteria may not help in judging the more romantic English genre that contains Richardson and Jane Austen and Dickens, all as different from each other as they could be, yet none precisely a realist. Smaller in scale, Amis is – like Evelyn Waugh, in some respects an influence on him – a comedian, a comic artist: yet neither fails to be a novelist.

The Old Devils in particular shows what very various elements can get together to make up the idiosyncratic English novel. If it lacks the economy of the more savage Ending up (another dark comedy of age), and even something of the hard-hitting sociology of Stanley and the Women, and of the (lesser) Jake’s Thing, The Old Devils has a real largeness of its own that is more than a matter of its sprawling form. And this extra breadth and depth is owed to its quality of ‘Romance’ in several interlinked senses. Mainly this is a question of reliance on looser yet more abstract literary disciplines: forms right for the definition of love as reflected through life’s randomness, through social dispersion and simple human ageing – a treatment which we meet, for instance, in the Late Romances of Shakespeare (one of which, Cymbeline, even takes its action into wild Wales, where it finds things not altogether unlike England).

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