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.

‘No wonder we like them,’ said a poem of Amis’s once. The poem says that women are ‘much nicer than men’. But the novels were soon to exhibit an interest in misogyny, and to see a connection between ‘the old hoo-ha’ and ‘the old last end’ – expressions used by Ormerod and Standish respectively, in Take a girl like you, for sexual intercourse and death. Thinking about women is a way of avoiding the thought of death – and yet women may be the end of you. No wonder we fear them. A paranoid reproach is aimed at all females by an Amis-like figure, who then reproaches himself, or is reproached by some other Amis agent detectable in the novel. At times a golden girl is present in the vicinity of the discussions of the subject that keep happening, and is felt to restore a balance. Fairly early in Take a girl like you Patrick delivers himself of an unqualified condemnation of women, which is followed by a sentence from the narrator concerning and presumably condemning Patrick’s attitude to Jenny at that stage, as a girl to be taken and left: ‘He wanted more than his share of her before anybody else had any.’

These ‘Jenny-dealings’ have now, after nearly thirty years, incurred a sequel, in which the discussion, and in which the former comedy and bleakness, are resumed, and in which the question of continuity of utterance within the novel once again arises. The beauty of the earlier prose is, in part, a beauty of grace notes, the pointing of sentences, charged elegance and buoyant, intelligent wit. In Take a girl like you a great sentence falls like the dew from heaven during one of the scenes in Amis when a terminally drunk man endures a sexual turmoil and fiasco, is stunned by a stunning but not very nice girl. This particular girl, a model, is putting Patrick in his place by going on about cars: ‘ “Most of my friends have them on the firm,” she said, with the sort of lift of the old proud head that he could hardly believe had not accompanied a limiting judgment on Villiers de l’Isle Adam.’ In Difficulties with girls there are passages which recall that lift of the old proud head. ‘In silence, the two almost bowed almost stiffly to each other, behaving rather like two – well, two somethings-or-other, thought Patrick. Two climatological dendrologists or career torturers, pre-eminent in their respective domains but divided on some technical points.’ The new prose, however, is in general less embellished, more elliptical, even quite taxingly so on occasion, and yet more colloquial too. There is less style, of the kind known to Villiers de l’Isle Adam. Fewer jewels. Excellent use is made of the text of Tom Jones, but it would be less easy to tell that the writer had done his stint of teaching English literature at university level.

The voice of the novelist is heard continually through the speech of his characters. Patrick is a lord of language, as he was in the previous novel. But this novel has not just one but two barmen who could also at a pinch be hailed as lords of language. Even schoolteaching Graham, who is meant to be amusingly boring, is good with words, as teachers sometimes are. And even Jenny, who is meant to be a mistress of plain speech, is allowed, in this comparatively austere book, a quiet felicity of phrase based on the justice of her perceptions. The lordship in question is the novelist’s, not only in the usual sense, often forgotten, that every word of the novel is his, but also because the speech of its characters can be like that of the narrator, and indeed like that of the writer of Kingsley Amis’s discursive prose.

This is not the first time that such considerations have arisen for readers of his fiction. Readers of The Old Devils have asked: are its Welsh Welsh? Its characters have been said to sound English. (Northern Jenny Bunn, incidentally, sounds, to me, Welsh.) I assume there is a matter of principle here for those who wish their authors to be concealed: such authors should not sound like the characters they invent, any more than they should express opinions. But the raconteurs of the extraliterary world are permitted to shape and turn the speech of the characters in their stories, and to play the pervasive evident author. And anyone who doubts whether the method can safely be transferred to literature should consult one of Amis’s best novels, Ending up. Raconteur and raisonneur, in his art as in his personal life, he is a concealed author who is evident enough in his hotly opinionated fiction: he is inclined to keep his own passionate opinions out of his novels, that is to say, but can be recognised without resort to microscopy in each little bit of every one of them, including the characters’ speech. Each novel of his, it might well be suitable to add, is an opinion of his, co-extensive with the work itself and rather hard, as a rule, to read off in summary. The method, though I expect he would hate to hear it, is dialectical.

These considerations affect the difficulties which attend Difficulties with girls, and which come to the fore with the most Amis-sounding of its characters, the male lead. Amis’s novels have always been full of opinions, and have become increasingly prone to a marked ambiguity of effect, especially with regard to questions of gender and race. Patrick has plenty to say on such subjects, and he says it in the lordly way which does much to furnish the book with its presiding idiom. But are we meant to sympathise with what he says? It is possible for most of the time to take pleasure in the presiding idiom, while admitting that it sometimes enables Amis to have his opinions and to eat them too. By attributing certain ideas to certain characters, and by contriving to disown these ideas, while uttering them in the prevailing manner of the novel, he can appear to place it in a state of suspension. If the state was not present in his novels from the first, it is there in One Fat Englishman, and in Jake’s Thing. It is there in Stanley and the Women, which persuaded Marilyn Butler – somewhat against the odds, but nonetheless intelligibly – to interpret it in the London Review as a critique of male supremacy. It is compatible with the canon of artistic detachment, but it can cause controversy. Heirs to the freedoms which, on the threshold of the Sixties, Take a girl like you may be thought to have assisted in inaugurating, but which it also contrived to criticise, young people now seem to feel that the old Patrick belonged to a story that was sexist in tenor, and they may well feel that the old Adam has surfaced again in the new Patrick. But a solicitous critic (Amis has had his share, for all the faces he makes) could perhaps be counted on to demonstrate that the novelist is sorry that Patrick is sexist.

Take, for example, the Jewish question as it arises in the novel. Patrick has been hired by an obnoxiously trendy mismated publisher. He labours scornfully for this Simon Giles, faintly comforted by a corner in Classical studies which has been granted him for reasons to do with the firm’s image. Between Patrick and Mrs Giles there flows, or gutters, a current of dreary sexual electricity. He fancies that Simon is Jewish, and that he gives off ‘a slight hot smell’. We are later tolerantly informed – in the presiding idiom of the book, by a narrator keen, as ever, to monitor Patrick’s impressions – that the smell was not atrocious: ‘not strong but easily perceptible, like a large zoo passed at a distance’. By then, however, Patrick has been informed, by an office placeman and fuddyduddy who believes that trendiness has ruined everything, that smelly Simon, though he may be obnoxious, is not Jewish. This is a bad day for Patrick, who had volunteered that Simon was ‘one of a certain ... persuasion’. According to the narrator, Patrick is ‘so far from being anti-semitic that a couple of his best friends really were Jews’ – and now he has been put down, made to seem anti-semitic, by a probable anti-semite. The encounter could be read as establishing that he has been silly, while clearing him of a certain ... imputation. But it could also be read very differently. For some, it may serve as a reminder of the Kingsley Amis who once unambiguously remarked, in the course of a berating of Philip Roth, that ‘Jewish jokes are not funny.’

Then there is the woman question, which arises in the novel in a fashion which sets us wondering, as in the past and as in the case of the above encounter, which parts of the bad behaviour on display Amis quite or largely likes. The woman question is treated together with the homosexual question. This is the mid-Sixties, and homosexuals are being released from the closet by a law enacted by Parliament late in the novel. Patrick is far from being anti-homosexual, though not entirely patient with the relevant practices and pretensions. This standpoint is gathered up with others in a book which is free with descriptions of creditable and discreditable dealings on the part of those of that persuasion. Two, or three, of them are in, or moving into, the far from populous row of flats, just over the river in South London, which is inhabited by Patrick and Jenny, and by a stunning, boring wife who affords Patrick one of the novelist’s turmoils in a vulgarly-appointed borrowed flat some miles to the north. Among the few Standish neighbours on the row is Eric, long gone from the closet and married to Stevie, a he-man former semi-film-star, whom he eventually stabs. Eric is represented as sympathetic, and the counsel he imparts to Patrick on the subject of gender might almost have been imparted by Patrick:

you and I are by nature, by our respective natures, males who are irresistibly attracted by a non-male principle. In your case, straightforward, women; in my case not straightforward, not women – but, non-male, except anatomically. And it’s the clash between male and non-male that causes all the trouble. They’re different from us. More like children. Crying when things go wrong. Making difficulties just so as to be a person.

But when Patrick says that sort of thing to Jenny, he adds that she is an exception to this law of nature. She is not ‘that sort’ of woman.

Meanwhile the also sympathetic but Grahamly maddening Tim is struggling to move into a flat on the row, while supposing himself to be struggling to come out of the closet. A third homosexual on the row? What he has to come out with is not initially clear, but it becomes clearer when a taste of gay night life turns him off, and he trails back to his dull wife. This could be termed an uncomely version of what happens to Patrick, whose wife discovers that, at long last, she is pregnant. She is sure that this will settle them for the foreseeable future. Their relationship is still unresolved, as wise heads had foreseen in 1960: but their marriage has gained a lease of life. The woe that is in marriage is not all that bad really. Jenny has urgently advised Tim to return to his dull wife, telling him that her dullness is the ‘whole point’. Those who think that Jenny herself is a little dull at times will conclude that Patrick has impaled himself on that point like the teacher of Latin that he used to be. He is to do a lot less swinging. ‘She was going to have him all to herself for at least three years, probably more like five, and a part of him for ever ...’ The novel is no persuasive advertisement for marriage, or for Jews and gays. But it isn’t plain sailing either to claim it as racist and sexist.

There is a difficulty with Jenny, of a kind that came with the innocent of the previous novel. She now knows more, but the iron has not entered her soul. Amid the general ventriloquism she does often manage to speak for herself. The novelist is less inward, less collusive, with her than he is with her husband – a relation fully consonant with Eric’s law of nature – but he wants her view to be respected, and works it too hard as a purchase on wrong thinking. Amis is still soft on her, a sentiment which is likely to strike most of his readers as natural too. She even succeeds in eliciting from him, on one occasion, the rudiments of one of his own opinions. On this occasion she is at a posh party, where she has taken a glass of champagne, but only ‘to be sociable’ – a motive which in anyone else would have driven Patrick to contemplate another of the umpteen blows he feels like unleashing – when the novelist unleashes one of his phonological jokes, which play on the vagaries of received pronunciation. A man, back from Spain, addresses her in what the Independent thought was the ‘well-educated voice’, and in what the Guardian thought was the ‘assured accent’, transmitted by the Intelligence chief responsible for the shooting of the IRA bombers in Gibraltar which preceded the arrival of the novel. Jenny understands him to say that he has had trouble on his travels ‘with the Reds’.

     ‘Oh, I thought they’d taken care of them,’
said Jenny. ‘Since that war they had there.’
     ‘They haven’t, believe me. Well, not up
anything you could call a mountain.’
     ‘No, I suppose that’s where they would tend to hole up.’

Where can Jenny have been for the past thirty years, to be willing, if only out of nervousness, to accept that the Reds in Spain have been swept out from under the bed and up into mountain caves? It’s a very funny joke, but it works at the expense of treating her like a child, which is not at all what the novel usually intends.

Amis writes here, as he has written before, about the distance between men and women; he shows that it is not all roses for the rational hedonist who deceives the woman he lives with and loves. It isn’t every comic genius who would undertake to send his talent into such painful places; it isn’t easy to be light, and right, about the marriage of Count Almaviva. Both this novel and the one before are ‘hung’ books, in the sense that Parliaments are said to be hung. Adultery has been a hanging matter, in both senses, for the literature of the past, and perhaps it could be suggested that both senses can be applied to what Amis has done with the subject, and that there is no striking difference in this respect between what he did in the Sixties and what he has done in the Eighties. I don’t think this means that there is no saying what he is getting at in these works; opinions can and will be formed, and for the extent of the present discussion I have been attempting to express one. Any such attempt has to look closely at their chastened but ultimately unchastenable hero, at his hostility, at his stylistic authority and command of the books he belongs to.

Maybe there will one day be a novel from Amis which portrays the Patrick Standish of the Eighties – more baleful, no doubt, on certain subjects, nicer to his cat, surrounded by the monuments of the New Right and by the debris of the swinging past to which he had once been a contributor. The two previous Patrick books are stations in a progress – what Amis has called Lucky Jim’s turn to the right. This is a progress which has found its haven in the achievements of Mrs Thatcher, and the Patrick of the Eighties will have to deal with that. It will be difficult for him to be baleful about the Millennium.