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.’

This exchange is between Rhiannon and Gwen, wife of Malcolm, who was once in love with Rhiannon though Peter was much more so, so much so that she had to have an abortion in consequence. The two are talking in Gwen’s kitchen, where ‘with a small start Rhiannon noticed that the bottle of white wine on the table in front of her was not the same as the one they had started on quite a short time earlier. This had a green instead of a blue and white label and was also about half-empty already.’ A little later:

Gwen got up quickly and toddled to the litter-bin behind Rhiannon. There, having let the empty bottle rustle and thump down inside, she was to be heard knocking out the ashtray on the edge of the bin. Silence followed while she presumably regrouped. When she spoke it was clear from the acoustics that her back was turned. Rhiannon shifted uneasily on her chair.

  ‘You know, Malcolm was absolutely knocked sideways when your letter came. We’d heard talk but nothing definite. Knocked him completely sideways.’

  ‘Not with horror, I hope.’

  ‘Of course not with horror. With delight. With joy.’ A loud smacking pop indicated what Gwen had been up to while out of sight. ‘But something else as well, Rhi, you know that.’

  Gwen came into view again with the new bottle and the empty but still dirty ashtray and rather flung herself down in her seat at the table.

  ‘You were his first love,’ she said matter-of-factly.

All Amis’s verbal skills are present here, in a concentration much stronger than the white wine. The military ‘regrouped’, the brilliantly suggestive economy of ‘rather’ (‘rather flung herself down in her seat’), even the unobtrusively alcoholic absence of question-marks – all show that the old master is firmly in the saddle and has a better seat than ever. But it is significant, too, that these special ways of taking us with him combine with clichés from a multitude of other novels (‘first love ... matter-of-factly ... something else as well’). Deconstructionists would say it could hardly be otherwise, but Amis has a special way of profiting from the situation, so that we join with him all the more intimately by reason of his way with more public conventions. This donnée about the past, and the way it haunts us, he contrives to make his own, and original, despite the difficulty of its obviously novelish usefulness. Elizabeth Bowen did the same, believing with a certain inner passion, or so her novels indicate, that we remain secretly arrested by early and terminative emotional experiences, smoking away for the rest of our lives and perhaps relit at intervals. The Old Devils has something in common here with The Little Girls, or The Death of the Heart, as well as with William Trevor’s The Old Boys. Naturally enough, all three distinguished novelists contrive to keep the subject clear of the standard treatment given it by afternoon plays on the BBC (‘Stephanie has come back in middle age to the town where fate once dealt the card’ etc, etc), yet we may still have a sneaking feeling that the truest word on the subject for most people was Anthony Powell’s in A Dance to the Music of Time, where the narrator re-encounters an old flame and finds it barely credible that he could have ever had a physical or any other kind of relationship with her.

Stanley and the Women continued what had become the usual Amis plot of compelling our loyalty to the hero-narrator no matter what appearances might indicate. Stanley, like Jim and Jake and the Fat Englishman and all the others, might appear unsatisfactory in many ways, but he saw and understood things – a great Amis denominator – in ways inaccessible to both the nicer and nastier persons in the novel. Complacency between writer and reader lies at the heart of the novel form, and through his heroes Amis exploited it with great cunning. But The Old Devils has no single hero or narrator, and the change is technically and morally interesting: all the persons in it start with the same powers, and are allotted the same number of ‘understanding’ counters. All exercise the same wry charity that is exercised on them.

Yet there are drawbacks. As a novel, it is far from wishing to woo us, or not to bore us. Like Henry James, almost, it seems too intent and majestically preoccupied with its conversational nuances to imagine that this could happen. That is impressive, just as it is in Henry James. There may be a slight overkill on the principle of imitative form: the old devils are so preoccupied with themselves and their drinks and recollections that they seem to have no time to remember they are in a novel which someone is reading. But here again Amis’s skill reveals itself more and more surely as the novel progresses. Slowly but surely we are ingested and become one of the elderly party, who know that nothing much will happen (apart from one of us – I won’t reveal who – dropping dead) and that nothing of interest will be said. The effect is the exact opposite of the comic principle as met with in the novels of Patrick Hamilton, say, or of Anthony Powell (who is rather engagingly referred to, by one of the Welshmen, as an author presumably Welsh, and who remarked that more marriages come to grief from envy than from jealousy).

This is quite an important matter. Jane Austen, whom Amis has never much cared about, made a fictional principle out of boredom, but it was not implemented by boringness. In showing us just how tedious and restricted her characters’ lives were, she liberated us from the tedium they endured and embodied. Mr Woodhouse and Miss Bates are as tiresome as Amis’s Old Devils, but this is transcended, so far as the reader is concerned, by Jane Austen’s ability to make them entertaining. The same thing happens in Patrick Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky, and in Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time: something like it happens in every successful comic novel which is not based on farce or the picturesque. Having actually to attend those dances and parties which Powell’s narrator goes to would be enough to kill any reader who finds them so absorbing and delightful within the safe confines of the novel.

And the importance of the matter does not end there. If you are prepared to bore your reader in the name of fictional integrity, you will also be prepared to disgust, terrify and upset him, embarrass him and make him feel small. He becomes a legitimate target for the new terrorism of mimesis. Long ago a purveyor of Gothic novels, Mrs Barbauld, wrote an essay on ‘The Pleasure to be Extracted from Objects of Terror’, and this was of course just the same as the pleasure to be extracted in Jane Austen’s art from all the boring people. The novel has always accepted the point involved, and yet has always seemed to rebel against it. In many ‘experimental’ novels the rebellion becomes systematic, accepted policy. It would be surprising to find such an arch-conservative as Amis writing an experimental novel, but that, in a sense, is what has happened, whether or not he intended to do so.

Perhaps this is a rather large claim to make for a novel so sturdily based on all Amis’s prejudices, tricks, jokes, domestic details; one, too, that ends, more or less, with a death and a wedding. Amis himself might well retort that all good novels are experimental in the sense that they try to do something not done before. He has approached the study of a group of elderly people, living mostly in pubs and on drinks, in an open-minded spirit, and he is entitled to ask for a little co-operation from the reader. It is noticeable today that novels do seem to get older, and more about the old. A.N. Wilson, the young fogey, has just produced an eloquent fiction about senile dementia, and though he sticks to Jane Austen’s method on the whole, one would rather skip the pages where his old dear really has her head. One of Amis’s triumphs in The Old Devils is to portray the young as attending caringly and courteously upon their elders, while seeming at the same time completely opaque and mysterious, necessarily left out of the fictional enclave. That is no country for young men any more.

Of course there’s a lot of kidding on the level. Dorothy is the drunkest and most boring of the lot. Everyone flees from her when she starts in on how to learn Russian or the customs of New Guinea, and the reader flees too. When it is time to go, Percy, her husband, ‘put his hands under her arms and hauled sharply upward, using great but seemingly not excessive force. Dorothy shot to her feet as smartly as a nail responding to a claw-hammer.’ (Force in unexpected directions is one of the novel’s motifs, as if the elderly still had force to exercise but only in unexpected directions. Going to bed, Alun stood on one leg ‘and shook the other with tremendous force to rid it of that part of his trousers’.) But when one of the old devils has a bit of a breakdown Dorothy’s ‘words of comfort far outdid the others’ in range and inventiveness’, and she ‘was obviously having a whale of a time distinguishing herself in fields like responsibility, compassion etc’. There is something very just about all this, though it may seem like having things both ways. Amis is quite aware that the warmest impulses (‘caring ... compassionate’) must be made fun of if they are not to seem intolerably self-righteous: and yet he gives those things their real due with unemphatic force. One of the best things the book does and gives is the sense in which old devils feel warm for each other and try to look after each other, with a little help from the young: so that this seems not a moral but a fact.

And even if our attention wanders, Amis’s sentences keep plucking it back. Someone’s cereal is of ‘a resolutely inauthentic type’; Muriel soothes her husband as well as needling him by observing that those who don’t have days on forget that others have days off. Out of the pub, amid ‘door-slamming and the whinnying of starters’, it might be felt that ‘now was a time for the years to roll back. But no, they stayed where they were.’ The women decide that ‘women have an awful way of feeling things there’s no point in them feeling.’ Jokey low-key benevolence extends even to the Brydan industry, and its horrible manifestations of the poet’s seats, pubs, and shoppes along the coast. Amis might have been expected to go to town on this large fat target, but no, he refrains, implying, rather in the spirit of Malcolm Brinnin’s book on Dylan Thomas, that the whole business was repetitively sad rather than wonderfully awful. Press on, and never say die, is the general impression, both of the author and of his characters. ‘As number one, Alun had naturally secured the front passenger seat, and he was soon twisted most of the way round in it to push on with conversation.’