philip hensher

The Old Devil

About five years ago, I decided to get rid of most of my books. The general principle I worked on was that there was no need to have the whole of English literature in my flat. The London Library had copies of the novels of John Updike if I ever felt the urge to read one again (I haven’t). The specific principle was this: if I had only two or three of a writer’s novels, I clearly wasn’t that keen on them; if, on the other hand, I had all of them, they were a genuine enthusiasm and they could stay.

The result was enlightening, and I’m not just referring to the interestingly unfamiliar sight of the skirting boards. Some writers I had expected to find in complete form (Thackeray, ComptonBurnett, Waugh, Tim Winton, Elizabeth Taylor). Others, however, had mysteriously amassed over time, and only when I saw their complete writings together on the shelf did I realise that, among others, Philip Roth, Rosamond Lehmann, Justin Cartwright, Nevil Shute and Elizabeth Bowen must be favourite novelists of mine. In dribs and drabs, I’d bought and read all their books.

One of the most unexpected of these authors turned out to be Kingsley Amis, whose books I’d picked up here and there in different editions: the rebarbative yellow Gollancz hardbacks, versions with that scattered-objects cover design that was so popular with publishers in the 1960s, chic modern-classics relaunches and one 1970s paperback (The Green Man) with a cover so lurid that I hadn’t been able to read it on a train. This took me back. I would have said, if asked, that Lucky Jim was a classic and that Girl, 20 and I Want It Now are both underrated and insightful novels of their time. But was I an admirer of the work as a whole? Well, I had every novel, including The Anti-Death League and The Riverside Villas Murder, some two dozen in total. So evidently yes. Did I agree with most of what they had to say? Hardly at all. They stayed and have gone on being disagreed with.

This last couple of weeks, presented with the festival of sanctimoniousness that constituted the announcement of this year’s Booker Prize shortlist, I found myself reaching for novels that I could heartily disagree with, ones where the characters, too, coming from different places, disagree with each other. It’s the centenary of Kingsley Amis’s birth next year, and considering that this is often the point when a writer’s reputation sinks to a low ebb, he’s holding up surprisingly well. He’s in print; he’s read; he still seems worth talking about.

The difficulty, it seems to me, is that readers sometimes approach novels these days expecting instruction or moral affirmation, not just from the novel as a whole, but from every line and every character in it. We’ve moved on from the fatuous requirement that characters in a novel be ‘likeable’ (so much for Vanity Fair) to a requirement that no character in a novel say anything that we might dislike. One critic recently complained that Sally Rooney let a character say something dismissive about Japanese tourists and was therefore racist. I’ve had a reviewer deplore a character in a novel of mine, an old-fashioned misogynist gay,

being rude about women. This seems to me to misunderstand the nature of the novel, and the relish it takes in a wide range of perspectives, not all of which – perhaps none of which – are admirable or held up for approval.

Returning to Amis, it’s not hard to list his crimes against the Richard Powers-style novel of pedagogic improvement. In Take a Girl Like You, the hero gets bored of persuading his girlfriend to sleep with him and rapes her when she’s drunk. One Fat Englishman is entirely about a completely horrible human insulting everyone he meets. Jake’s Thing and Stanley and the Women are concentratedly offensive about women as a class of humanity (all insane) and the medical profession. Ending Up is about five old people locked up together, torturing each other in ingenious ways; they are killed off at the end in a gruesome series of accidents. The things people in Amis’s novels say about women, children, ethnic and sexual minorities, the working classes, the upper classes, the educated and the uneducated were always startling and now can often seem genuinely alarming.

The fact remains, however, that many of his novels are extraordinarily insightful, capable of astonishing the reader at every turn. The range and plausible sympathy of Amis’s homosexual characters, from the rueful detective in The Riverside Villas Murder to Eric and Stevie in Difficulties with Girls, is unmatched in the work of any of his contemporaries. Genre novels – the murder mystery, the ghost story, the alternate-world fantasy – are ripped open and turned inside out. And often, while reading, we have to decide where we are going to stand. At what point do we start to detach ourselves from Patrick’s campaign of seduction in Take a Girl Like You, or begin to feel some sympathy for the on-the-make hero of I Want It Now? What are we to make of the rampaging Roger in One Fat Englishman? Amis had one of the most sumptuously accomplished techniques of any English novelist, with an ear better than anyone’s. He also valued the reader moving through a book, savagely disagreeing, shaking their head, laughing with a touch of shame, occasionally recognising something. The idea that the reader should put down the book and express admiration for the moral standing of its author never crossed anyone’s mind. That would come later.

No one knows in detail what will last, but it seems generally true that books with a variety of views indifferently arrayed, books that surprise and startle their readers, books that are well written and books with a high tolerance for laughter do better than novels principally concerned with impressing a reader with a moral stance. What is going to last longer, a novel in which characters explain climate change to each other, or one in which we find Jim Dixon wanting to ‘rush at [Margaret] and tip her backwards in the chair, to make a deafening rude noise in her face, to push a bead up her nose’? We can deplore Amis, and we often should. People we disagree with have a way of persisting in our imagination, however.

october 2021 | Literary Review 1