A Dingy Start to the Day

Frank Kermode

  • Kingsley Amis: Modern Novelist by Dale Salwak
    Harvester, 302 pp, £24.99, April 1992, ISBN 0 7450 1096 2
  • London Calling: V.S. Naipaul, Postcolonial Mandarin by Rob Nixon
    Oxford, 229 pp, £27.50, May 1992, ISBN 0 19 506717 7

The collocation of these books suggests a moral: it is easier to write well about living authors if they annoy you than if you worship the very paper they write on. Rob Nixon is censorious and lively; Dale Salwak is reverent and laboured. His is the second book in recent memory expressly to demand recognition for Kingsley Amis as a moralist; the other, John McDermott’s, is actually called Kingsley Amis: An English Moralist. McDermott says ‘moralist’ clearly and right away, whereas Salwak’s subtitle sounds like one of Amis’s phonetic reports on the way a drunken man might have struggled to get the word out. However, both insist on Amis’s serious ethical concerns.

The point is not exactly new, though not universally conceded. Some, and especially women, think the claim weakened or demolished by the consideration that Amis has an immoral attitude to the female half of the human race. There are some pages in the oeuvre where this becomes a rather explosive issue: for example, in Jake’s Thing, with its memorable last page. Jake, offered relief from impotence by hormone treatment, does ‘a quick run-through’ of women, ‘their seeming to be better and to be right while getting everything wrong, their automatic assumption of the role of injured party in any clash of wills, their certainty that a view is the more credible and useful for the fact that they hold it... and a lot of things like that’. Weighing all this, he finds it ‘quite easy’ to refuse the offered treatment.

It can of course be argued that Jake is not Sir Kingsley, and also that Jake himself has already shown himself impressed by the opinion of his friend Damon: ‘men have their own ways, just as efficient ways, of being evasive and unsatisfactory.’ He even admits that his own view has been affected by the fact that he is no longer ‘normal’, and calls himself a male chauvinist pig. Amis’s males often say and do what they subsequently regard as deplorable, and then have to wrestle with a temptation to think well of themselves for having consciences. There is an occasional suggestion that women also have them, at any rate to begin with, as the character of Jenny Bunn suggests; but many mislay them somewhere along the way, perhaps because having them, and accordingly feeling it proper to describe themselves as pigs, is a part of what makes men difficult.

Later the row about Amis’s alleged sexism grew even more heated, with Stanley and the Women, and it won’t be resolved here. Suffice it to say that the relations between men and women are by general agreement relevant to the discussion of modern morality; and as Amis frequently adverts to these relations he is some sort of moralist, whether sound or not. One trouble seems to be that there is nothing very striking about whatever ethical positions are deduced from his works; I imagine few people read them for the sake of such deductions, and I believe that those who do so are inadequate readers. A related difficulty is that if you gut the novels for their plots you are left with not particularly memorable stories. These points, taken together, suggest that the virtue of the novels is quite intimately connected with the way they are written, rather than with their morality, or even their plots.

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