Kingsley and the Woman

Karl Miller

  • Difficulties with girls by Kingsley Amis
    Hutchinson, 276 pp, £11.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 09 173505 X

A recent photograph of Kingsley Amis shows him with a cat – a hairy cat with arched back, which is manoeuvring in relation to the author’s typewriter. The author’s face wears a witch’s smile of appreciation. He is clearly familiar with and fond of that cat. The smile may have come as a surprise to connoisseurs of pictures of the author which have been issued to the world. These pictures, rarely cordial, have become more and more baleful: it is as if he is holding himself back from physical assault on a reader supposed to be a trendy and a lefty, which is, indeed, what many of his readers have always been. The smile contrasts, moreover, with the expression to be imagined on the face of the male lead, Patrick Standish, in Amis’s novel of 1988, Difficulties with girls, when the cat in Patrick’s life pays him a visit. You feel at first that on a bad day (there are quite a few) Patrick might give it one of the kicks that the novelist seems about to direct at his readers. Then it turns out that Patrick rather likes it after all. But then it turns out that the female lead, his wife Jenny Standish (née Bunn), unreservedly cherishes their cat. All this could suggest that Amis isn’t altogether sold on Patrick Standish.

Readers of Amis can be expected to remember Patrick and Jenny from the past. They appeared in his novel of 1960, Take a girl like you, in which Patrick gives freezing looks, and a group of children wears the ‘expression of being proud of being serious, like some famous author photographed in the Radio Times’. The new novel has married the pair and moved them on to the mid-Sixties and from the provinces to London, where Patrick works misgivingly in a fashionable publishing house. And there are other reappearances from the earlier novel. Each of the novels has an alluring Wendy. Graham McClintoch of ‘the indefensible ginger-coloured suit’ has returned, and there are commemorative mentions of a ginger this and a ginger that. Patrick is still having difficulties with girls: the married man keeps going to bed with them, not liking it very much and not liking the distress it brings to a wife whom he does like and who is carefully crafted to be likeable.

I reviewed Take a girl like you when it came out, and took pains to convey how much I enjoyed and admired its incendiariness. The review seemed to think that the swinging Sixties contained a readership, among others, that would be shocked by the novel’s candour and scabrousness about sex – ‘no doubt he has touched himself on the raw. He will touch everyone on the raw’ – and that the young would receive it as an account of what they were up to. But it was clear, and is clearer still in retrospect, that an old decorum had been deferred to. Jenny’s Jack the Lad is addressed by her as ‘my lad’, and she firmly refuses to rush into bed with him. The narrator may not wholly be in jest when he refers to sexual intercourse with a certain girl, 17 or thereabouts, as ‘the ultimate indecorum’, and rereaders of the novel are likely to be mindful of the survival here of an old England lived in by people like the middle-aged T.S. Eliot, exponents of a disgusted chastity.

So the piece was solicitous in trying to alleviate the shocks by explaining that the novelist himself was shocked. And I think it was right to argue that the book has its ‘strict disclaimers’ and that goodness of heart, chiefly Jenny’s, is defensively displayed amid a welter of misconduct. There is a bleakness which centres on Patrick’s infidelities: but it may also be true that the rudeness and aggression with which Jenny, their sex object, is treated by various chuntering males has grown grimmer with the years than it was reckoned to be, by the author, by me and by many of his readers, at the time. The review predicted that ‘any eventual mating’ between Patrick and Jenny ‘will have something permanently bitter and irresolute about it’. A linguistic point was made in the course of the review – that Julian Ormerod’s lounge-bar slang is ‘continuous, in a way, with Patrick’s cool utterance’ – and it also made out that Ormerod’s overdone good heart is continuous with Jenny’s.

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