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.

Dale Salwak seems to have been studying Amis for about twenty years. His PhD thesis on the subject was submitted in 1974. He is the compiler of a reference guide to the author, and editor of a collection of pieces about him. He has combed the Sunday papers for contemporary reviews of the novels, and has more than once interviewed Amis himself. He has worked in the American Amis deposits, notably the one at the Huntingdon Library in California; he quotes from fifty-odd manuscripts in the collection, including early unpublished fictions. It is possible to imagine an Amis hero meditating on this situation: while he is still alive and embarrassed in all manner of urgent ways, calm researchers are rummaging in the contents of his boxroom and finding evidence of early failure, anxiety, attacks of conscience, and so forth. Not long ago I, too, was browsing in the Huntingdon files and found a large box of letters from Robert Conquest to Amis; the other side of the correspondence was missing, and what was there contained lots of limericks and few confessional items for the use of any future biographer of Conquest, possibly Salwak. It seemed somehow a slightly dingy way of spending a morning.

Salwak, however, made better use of his time. He spares no effort. We learn that Amis was born on Easter Day, 1922, and are asked to believe that this is a fact in which the author ‘might well take some subtle satisfaction’. Why? Because Easter, which ‘symbolises rebirth, renewal and fulfilment of promises’ happened that year to be cold and wet: hence it is interesting that the child born in such disappointing holiday weather should have grown up to write novels in which ‘existence is a chilling absurdity’.

This chilling absurdity is followed by more of the same. It may be unreasonable to expect books about heroic authors to be heroic, or books about deeply funny authors to be deeply funny, but if any heroics or any jokes occur they should at least be intended. Allowing for a slightly surprising tendency on the part of Amis to grant interviews of uncharacteristic solemnity, one can only suppose he was not quite straight-faced in giving himself lines that would suit only his dimmer or more ridiculous characters. ‘For most young people,’ Amis recalls, ‘the summer of 1940 was “very nasty and alarming”. Germany’s blitzkrieg that year announced in no uncertain terms the Nazi presence as a dominant – and growing – military state... under the leadership of Adolf Hitler.’ It seems that Amis’s contribution to this historical revelation, the bit in double quotes, was vouchsafed in a Lynn Barber interview. The rest is Salwak’s work.

He is further able to inform us that Amis learned from his father’s example ‘the nature and practice of moral judgment’, that he is aware of ‘a cleavage between conscience and desire’, and has noted that there is a continuing battle between integrity and human weakness. Amis, it appears, tends to wonder whether ‘our fate is in our own hands, or... out of our control.’ He is, moreover, compassionate but anxious. He is recorded by yet another interviewer as holding the view that ‘a writer should know as much as possible about the subject on which he is writing.’ As a somewhat isolated figure, it gave him ‘personal joy and satisfaction’ to be allowed to attend that Bertorelli lunch table with its ‘regular and lively exchange of views’.

It once happened to Jake that ‘a passage of Horace stole into his mind unbidden, so he booted the bugger out again,’ and one would expect Amis to give similar treatment to some of these assertions. What’s wrong with them is their tone, or lack of it. Professor Welch’s discourse on the difference between recorders and flutes, we are told, ‘reifies the music right out of existence’. That sentence should certainly be told to bugger off. ‘All that is necessary,’ we read, ‘is a sharp ear for the nuances of human speech to hear much of what Amis built the novel on’ – a sentence deficient in the one thing declared to be necessary.

Salwak’s plot summaries may have a use, but few of his judgments will impress. He has a lot to say about goodness as it is represented and recommended in the novels, and this is fair enough, since it combats any less well-informed views to the contrary. What he has not a lot to say about is the language of the novels, on which almost everything that is effective in those representations must depend. The issue is a large one. Amis is Johnsonian in more ways that one, and would presumably subscribe to two Johnsonian aphorisms: ‘Language most shows a man: speak, that I may see thee’; and ‘wheresoever manners and fashions are corrupted, language is. It imitates the public riot.’ This statement of affiliation may be, in its turn, too solemn, but it begins to explain why Amis’s humour isn’t just a way of concealing a broken heart or masking the urgency of ethical dilemmas. For anything like a shrewd commentary on his lexical and syntactical virtuosity one had better turn to John McDermott’s book; it has been out three years, but evidently did not attract close attention from Salwak. It is a serious lack; by comparison, the attribution to Henry James of a book called Lesson of the Masters and to Cambridge of a Peterhouse College seem venial slips.

Rob Nixon, who lives in New York, is an expatriate South African. Here and there in his book he clearly and reasonably has South Africa in mind, and might have declared an interest if Naipaul had said much about that country. His business is quite simply to expose what he regards as the falsity of Naipaul’s position as a disinterested observer of, and expert on, the ‘Third World’, and the reason why he does so impressively is that he can write. His polemic is sustained and on the whole temperate.

He is not the first critic to assail Naipaul in this way, for there has been a good show of opposition already, especially from blacks and Indians. Derek Walcott has been harsh, and Selwyn Cudjoe, a professor of Black Studies, produced in 1988 a long book called V.S. Nai-paul: A Materialist Reading, which describes Naipaul as ‘an apologist for the imperial world order’, as scornful of Caribbean cultural values and even, in his response to his native Trinidad, ‘psychotic’. He adds that Naipaul is so interested in himself and in the stature he has gained as a writer that he is ‘not remotely concerned with the developmental possibilities of third world people’. He has accepted the European stereotype of the ‘savage’, thinks of blacks as ‘monkeys pleading for evolution’, and, having a horror of ‘the bush’, would prefer to think that its residents do not read him. A chronological survey of the whole oeuvre leads Cudjoe to the conclusion that since the fading of his early talent Naipaul has hysterically displaced ‘the reality of the post-colonial world’, even while in London and New York authoritative voices claim that he, almost alone, understands it.

If the case for the prosecution needed restating or strengthening Nixon was at hand. He considers those metropolitan judgments: ‘unarguably the most brilliant interpreter in English (perhaps in any language) of the maelstrom of the Third World’, its Solzhenitsyn, and so forth. Nixon asks how this ‘distinctive authority’ was achieved when, on his view, Naipaul complies so willingly but so disablingly with ‘imperialist discursive traditions’.

He explains it in part as a result of the author’s repeated insistence that he is always on his own, an independent, homeless citizen of the world, an unprejudiced observer, a marginal man, untainted by ideology. Nixon admits that there had to be an enormous initial effort for Naipaul to become a writer at all – an effort requiring him to break away from his roots – but having won acceptance in the metropolis he allowed independence of mind to degenerate into bigotry, and ‘a disfiguring anger’ against his native heritage. So he now gives comfort to those who like to believe that ‘the problems of post-colonial nations are largely self-inflicted.’

There is shrewd analysis of certain habitual expressions of Naipaul, his use of such words as ‘mimicry’, ‘parasitism’, ‘barbaric’, ‘primitive’, ‘self-violation’, ‘exile’ (rather than ‘expatriate’, ‘emigrant’ or the like). It is sometimes said that Naipaul can be as tough on the First as on the Third World – not so, says Nixon. When he gets round to England (in The Enigma of Arrival) and America (in A Turn in the South) his tone becomes ‘unprecedentedly benign’.

Powerfully written though it is, the book feels a bit too long. There are chapters on Naipaul’s relation to the English tradition of travel literature (Naipaul is as racist on the West Indies as Trollope and Froude) and on his ‘elective affinity’ with Conrad; this, it must be said, is particularly well done. Occasionally one glimpses a civilised desire to be fair, but what Nixon really cannot stick is the author’s lofty characterisation of all desires and plans for collective action as merely ‘obsessive’. ‘Collective action requires binding causes, requires what Naipaul would call obsessions and what others might call commitments.’ Naipaul himself, we are told, is obsessed with ruins, which, as Roy Fuller observed before him, are ‘implicit in every structure’. This obsession is no help when the desperate need is for improvement, any improvement. Nixon is keenly aware of the difference between actually living in a country full of chaos and despair, and visiting it with a prior conviction that nothing much can be done about it.

There is, without doubt, a case to answer. The defence will need to execute what has become a tricky manoeuvre, and contend that it is possible to admire writing without subscribing to the views of the writer. There would still remain a quarrel with the metropolitan assumption that Naipaul is a fair as well as an eloquent reporter, but although critical acceptance has been at least as important to Naipaul as to other writers, that is a difference between critics. What is needed is a book as intelligent as Nixon’s by somebody who has no doubt that whatever else may be said about him, Naipaul can write.