Kingsley Amis Essay - Amis, Kingsley (Vol. 8)

Amis, Kingsley (Vol. 8)

Amis, Kingsley 1922–

A distinguished English novelist, short story writer, poet, editor, and essayist, Amis won critical acclaim in 1954 with the publication of his first novel, Lucky Jim. His prose is characterized by its comic texture, and his subject, in his own words, is the "relations between people." Amis's interest in science fiction has been sustained throughout his career: he was coeditor of the Spectrum science fiction anthologies and was the author of the first English full-length critical survey of the genre in New Maps of Hell. He has also written under the pseudonym Robert Markham. (See also CLC, Vols, 1, 2, 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Kingsley Amis is not the first writer to demonstrate that old age is material for a kind of harrowing comedy. Muriel Spark, for one, did it in her first and best novel "Memento Mori." But [in "Ending Up"] Amis avoids her cautionary moral, her note of dies irae, just as he avoids the more popular airs of gloating sentimentality and gratuitous ferocity. He neither sniggers, nor swaggers, nor waxes indignant. The hard and polished surface of this novel offers no purchase for the grip of any attitude or thesis or moral. "Ending Up" is funny and upsetting, but not tendentious.

The five septuagenarian protagonists are funny because they keep tripping over the gaps between their intentions and their abilities. They are upsetting for the same reason….

Behind the stiffening bodies, thickening voices and wooden gestures, Amis's characters remain all-too-human….

[Even] the sudden, maybe too sudden, nastiness of the ending does not point to a generalization. We gather not that old age is like this, but that old age is like this for people like this: for people whose bad luck or temperament made them unable to invest in other people when they were flush with youth. Even that, however, sounds too much like the moral this novel is too businesslike to have.

"Ending Up" is remarkable, among other things, for its rounded concision and self-sufficiency. Its formal virtues are the kind we usually think of as classical, the virtues, as William York Tindall put it, of making the most out of self-imposed limitations. My rough estimate is that of his 11 novels, only in "Lucky Jim" and in "The Green Man" did Amis make as much out of his virtues and limitations. (p. 5)

George Stade, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 20, 1974.

[Kingsley Amis] can make his characters stand up on the page like brilliant cut-outs springing to life as one opens the book. Everybody has a funny voice and a distinctive, usually remarkably ghastly, suit of clothes. If you look closely, you can see the jagged cardboard edges, but Amis gets them into action so fast that only a very sour critic indeed would complain of their coarse colours and rather hasty scissorwork. His new novel, Ending Up, is one of the best he's ever done: a brutal comedy which is not so much about old age as about the problem of why people ever bother to get born at all. (p. 87)

In the hands of anyone else, Ending Up should have been an unbearably bleak book. But Amis sets in on his old people with the relish of Billy Bunter at a dorm feast. He turns weakness and pretension into good copy, and, oddly in a novel which affects such weariness at the vanity of human life, infects us so thoroughly with his enjoyment that the whole thing becomes a long whoop of delight. One feels that, unlike Larkin, whose poem "The Old Fools" shares a lot of surface features with Ending Up, Amis does not really mean what he says. His pessimism, finally, doesn't stand a chance against the overweening force of his good humour. (p. 88)

Jonathan Raban, in Encounter (© 1974 by Encounter Ltd.), November, 1974.

[One] expects from Kingsley Amis more than a rehash of familiar material [as presented in Rudyard Kipling and His World]. Precisely because of the author's sparkling talents as a novelist and essayist, he disappoints the reader who looks for the customary touches of wit, elegance and verve. Intermittently Amis writes with genial good humor, but his general style is subdued, sometimes flat…. (p. 101)

Amis's relaxed, tolerantly amused manner is more appropriate to Lucky Jim or Take a Girl Like You than to a serious study of Kipling. Yet is he serious when he writes that "Kipling produced among others the most harrowing poem in our language"—by which he means "Danny Deever"? Does Amis really believe that Kipling is "clearly our best writer of short stories"? For the discriminating reader, Amis's judgments, sometimes provocative but mostly irritating, fail to do their subject justice. (p. 102)

Leslie B. Mittleman, in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 3, Winter, 1977.

Science fiction—for which Amis [in "The Alteration"] proposes two alternative terms, Time Romance and Counterfeit World—tends lamentably toward description, explication and stasis, and these must be offset by simple characters and a melodramatic plot to animate didacticism. Amis provides them. His protagonist is another in the lengthening list of precocious children in our current literary culture. To Edwin Mullhouse, Jeffrey Cartwright, Billy Twillig and J. R. Vansant we now add Hubert Anvil, the precocious 10-year-old possessor of a beautiful soprano voice. Of course the Church covets it, wants Hubert to preserve that voice and repay God's favor to him by cultivating his talent. This will require castration. "I know it's glorious to have God's favour and I'm as grateful for it as I can be," Hubert says, "but I can't prevent myself from wishing it had taken another form."

With only a few weeks in which to submit or escape (coincidence is the secret rocket-fuel of this and most S.F.), Hubert becomes the nexus of a struggle among diverse interest groups in and out of the Church. Unfortunately the central issue—roughly, life vs. art—is not much to the point. (For which see "Ode on a Grecian Urn" or, more appropriately, E.B. Browning's "Musical Instrument.") In addition, the only alternative world is an Edenic America but also a puritanical religious tyranny, though milder—they impose apartheid upon the Indians and they also castrate, but only for social reasons, not esthetic ones—and Amis's moral issue is based on simplistic and rhetorical notions. For instance, he suggests that "there might be some sort of natural case against mutilating a child for the greater glory of music or God or His Church or anything else whatever." Nature—so often red in tooth and claw—is a shaky foundation for kindly ethics; so is Amis's backup basis, truth. A superficial Jesuit is made to say: "I feel nothing but wonder and gratitude when I look on so many centuries of patience, hope, content, trust, constancy, restraint and certitude, so much art, letters, music, learning, all founded upon one great lie." We are meant to shudder, but only those who have found a satisfactory truth will do so. The rest of us will recognize those shudderers as dangerous, and by Amis's own criterion, since no one firmly convinced of an ultimate truth, a truth without any countertruths and complements, can rightly tolerate dissent from it.

A plot must have an outcome; and here, as in almost any work in which particular characters and events are manipulated to demonstrate general meanings, the working out is disappointing if not absurd. Amis's strength expresses itself as always not in thought but in the tangential humor. His Pope is a delight before the plot transmogrifies him; a dull-witted Yorkshireman, he observes that "if there's one thing we can't abide at any price it's sin. We think we can safely say that…. Yes, we think we can safely say that." His motto, wonderfully, is "no time like the present." Amis also has great fun with altered titles; we hear of "St. Lemuel's Travels," for instance, "The Wind in the Cloisters" and "Lord of the Chalices." He also nobly reminds his readers of Anthony Burgess's "The Wanting Seed," a better novel than his own, though less showy. But one shouldn't carp: this is heavenly S.F., by God…. Perhaps that might have been worded better. (pp. 4, 27)

J. D. O'Hara, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 30, 1977.

It always puzzled me to see Kingsley Amis numbered among the rest of those young English writers of the Fifties. Remember them bundled together under a banner that now has no more than nostalgia value—the Angry Young Men? He didn't belong in that crowd. He didn't seem, well, angry enough. Was John Osborne angry? You bet. Alan Sillitoe? Furious. But Amis, essentially a comic novelist, seemed merely to be miffed at the social inequities that sent the others into hooting, howling frenzies. He just joked about them.

Yet all that is about 20 years in the past. And if today John Osborne seems to have lapsed into silence (temporarily, one hopes) and Alan Sillitoe has grown almost jolly, then you should also know that Kingsley Amis is no longer the pink-cheeked jester who used to amuse the Establishment far more than he irritated it. He has, as they say in Rolling Stone, gone through some pretty heavy changes….

Beginning with The Anti-Death League (1966), he has produced a number of very dark novels, among them the mysterious "ghost story" The Green Man and that pernicious comedy Girl, 20, surely the bleakest funny book ever written. In these and other books his concern has been increasingly metaphysical, even theological. He has dealt so deftly with the big eschatological questions he raises, making such appealing use of his distinctive blend of elegant wit and plain foolishness, that practically nobody seems to have noticed what he is up to.

His latest novel, The Alteration, though quite different from anything he has written previously, fits neatly into this established pattern. It is, in fact, the most overtly and specifically theological of all his books, for it deals with a practice that, until the nineteenth century, was not only permitted but encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church; that is, the castration of gifted boy sopranos so that they might continue to sing on into manhood in the same high voices….

Has Kingsley Amis, then, written an eighteenth-century historical romance? No, he has done something far more subversive than that. The Alteration belongs to a fairly rare sub-genre of science fiction, the so-called counterfeit- or alternative-world novel….

Just what is the counterfeit-world sub-genre and what relation does it have to science fiction? Amis himself defines it as "a class of tale set more or less at the present date, but portraying the results of some momentous change in historical fact." It is, in other words, social science fiction in which the what-if factor has been drawn from past events…. (p. 28)

The Alteration … is only intermittently and superficially funny. The novel's humor is the one thing that appeals to me least about it. Most of it seems to have been added as an afterthought, simply because Amis thinks it is still expected of him.

Granted the basic idea of the book is funny—the present imagined as a direct extension of the medieval past—but Amis has not taken any more from his imaginary history of Europe than is absolutely necessary for the purposes of the plot. Here and there along the way he has tried to toss in some laughs, most of them using the device of introducing historical personages into his counterfeit world in altered roles….

Fundamentally, The Alteration is another of Kingsley Amis's angry screeds against the Catholic faith and the Catholic idea of God. And it is not just what Amis sees as the life-hating, sex-hating aspect of High Christianity—something that made possible such monstrous phenomena as the castrati—that concerns him here….

But Kingsley Amis is castigating much more than that. Speaking through one of the more daring clergymen in The Alteration, he reflects on how much has been "founded upon one great lie…. At first a lie nobody had the smallest need for, since become the sole necessity." And the lie he is talking about is, for Amis, Christianity itself. At the end of The Anti-Death League, his oddest and most extreme book and in some ways his best, Amis allows some talk of reconciliation, of forgiving God the wrongs He has done humanity. But there is none of that in The Alteration. It is an almost bitter book by a man grown angry in middle age. (p. 29)

Bruce Cook, in Saturday Review (© 1977 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), February 5, 1977.

In The Alteration Kingsley Amis considers the plight of a gifted child in [an alternative] world…. Amis plays [the] game more wittily than most writers about "alternative worlds" would do, and it's a nice touch that his world knows of ours, quite inaccurately, only from the science fiction stories schoolboys read on the sly. And I'm glad to find a usually opinionated writer allowing the relative value of his world and ours to seem an open question….

The main character of The Alteration is Hubert Anvil, a marvelous boy soprano whom the Vatican musical authorities propose to castrate for the greater glory of God and His art….

Amis isn't famous for his compassion, but here he affectingly catches and respects a child's puzzlement about the threatened loss of something he knows about only from descriptions, trying to care because other people seem to…. [Knowing] so little, he finally accepts his alteration without strong regret. This is sad for us but not really for him, Amis seems to suggest, like his altered world itself, which we don't like to imagine but would probably live in more or less contentedly if we had to. Whatever is, is—if not right—at least tolerable and probably no worse than anything else. If no Beethoven, then more Mozart.

In the light of our own recent history, this seems to me an intolerable moral, though not, coming from Amis, a surprising one. He has lately been negotiating between "serious" fiction and humbler kinds like thrillers, and fantasy stories…. But if the democratizing of high art is a healthy enterprise, Amis's way of doing it exposes the major premise of the kinds of popular fiction he's concerned with: the stimulating variety of detail in a story of crime or imagined worlds leads finally back to an idea of human nature as immutably fixed and gravely flawed. To appropriate the title of his critical study of science fiction, we can draw "new maps of hell," but the territory represented remains the old, known one that was ours—was us—all along.

Such an outlook can encourage a saving contempt for all forms of "authority" and for the self-deceptions that encourage us to assume or obey it—The Alteration is alive to the extent that it reminds us of Amis's wonderful Lucky Jim. But its major mood is that of a tired, anti-ideological quietism which insists that secular choices are futile. The best I can say for that message is that it is conveyed in a surprisingly subdued and often affecting way. (p. 31)

Thomas R. Edwards, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1977 NYREV, Inc.), March 3, 1977.