- A Sinking Island: The Modern English Writers by Hugh Kenner
Barrie and Jenkins, 290 pp, £16.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 7126 2197 0
One day a long while ago Philip Larkin dropped a remark in passing about the difficulties of his current private life. He made it in the form of a jokey generalisation about the impossibility of relations between men and women, and added that the women ought really to marry each other, but that would be wrong, wouldn’t it? I forgot the remark for over thirty years until I bumped into it as an observation by one of the characters in Kingsley Amis’s latest novel, Difficulties with girls. It may not have been the same remark, of course: but since Amis was Larkin’s close friend, and Larkin a great letter-writer, and since the words on the page served suddenly to bring back a long-past occasion, it seems possible that a series of sentences has survived.
What interested me was the degree to which the piece of recall failed to affect the novel in any way. Amis is mentioned in Hugh Kenner’s A Sinking Island – which is to say that like Hughes and Heaney his name appears briefly without discussion (Larkin himself gets a dismissive page or two); and they all feature as examples of what happens to a culture when it gives way to its own philistinism. The presupposition seems to be that British culture is innately, and has always been, an enemy to art and intellect; it can’t dissociate art from life, and is always falling back into the gutter of mere morality, biography, and all other forms of snobbish gossip. This is why things are as bad as they are in Britain now.
There is a great deal of philistinism in the British Isles, true, and it does a great deal of harm. But in trying to construct a thesis, Kenner finds himself working back and back to find when we started sinking, and absent mindedly includes both Wordsworth (page 235) and Shakespeare (page 240) in the process: Wordsworth never used really hard words like ‘incarnadine’ and Shakespeare himself ‘hadn’t thought of his playscripts’ being preserved’. As it happens, Wordsworth used ‘diurnal’ in a lyric, and if Shakespeare hadn’t preserved his early plays through changes of company, we shouldn’t have – as we do have – evidence of early copy in the Folio. More important is the simplicity of a notion of philistinism which can fail to see that if philistines created the longest and strongest and richest literary tradition in existence, there must be something interesting and complicated about some forms of philistinism. It puts tough literary minds on their mettle, say, and gets the best out of gentler characters who might want to entertain but would hardly venture on ‘Art’.
Amis is listed by Hugh Kenner as an example of the post-(Second-World-) War trough in the English arts, a case of ‘anarchic energies ... there to draw applause’. Amis doesn’t always, of course, draw applause-there are English readers too who reckon him a philistine, and who neither like nor admire the books; and he clearly isn’t very young people’s cup of tea at all. This still leaves Kenner’s position unconsidered. I began by mentioning the fact that Difficulties with girls happened to bring back suddenly an actual conversation. What struck me was the degree to which the novel was left curiously unaffected by the kind of connection of art with life, even confusion of life with art, which Kenner presupposes as the English vice – by the recall, in one reader’s mind, of a kind of random ‘source’. Nothing in the novel got better, or worse, as a result, or seemed any different; a piece of vaguely factual information, whether or not true, remained entirely incidental. This suggested two conclusions, of which the first is general. I myself read writers’ biographies, and sometimes with large pleasure and interest. All knowledge of life and lives, and indeed of history, is a good in itself, and seems likely to inform literary intelligence; and in addition Amis’s novels would rather confuse if thought to be the work of an early Tudor writer. Beyond this, the use of biography, its actual ability to throw light (rather than just to be entertaining and nice to have around), seems to be a fantasy.
More particularly, the failure of connection I have mentioned appears to bring in its train a literary fact about Amis himself. Cited by Kenner as one of the philistines, and as liable to give his readers the pleasure of the artless, even the amateur, Amis has nonetheless his own obvious doctrine of what Modernism made its watchword, ‘Impersonality’. If his novels call up memories of the actual, even glimpses of known personalities, these at once disintegrate into the irrelevant. The reason for this is that the books are powered by forms and fictions quite of their own, not liable to interconnect in the wrong way with the stuff of real life. The Larkin-character in this most recent novel, who actually gives the book its title by speaking of his ‘difficulties with girls’, adds that part of his problem is that he gets tired of ‘pretending’, and perhaps as time has gone by Amis himself has found the same problem as a writer: for the energy with which his artistry Works to disguise itself seems to be thinning a little, and leaving a world which – though finely realistic in a sense – at the same time more plainly sets out what can only be called the given idea of the novel in question. And yet to speak of Amis as getting more and more Modernist can’t be right. It must be truer that Modernism merely took to itself, in extreme forms, principles that any good writing exercises. Eliot’s separation of the man who suffers from the artist who creates is up to a point just good sense: all art, indeed all language, abstracts, de-forms, dissociates.