Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The Old Devils is Amis’ seventeenth novel, but the first to win a major award, the Booker Prize for the best British novel of 1986. The judges’ decision merely adds force to a general awareness that Amis has been the most consistently successful novelist in Great Britain for more than thirty years, distinguished by his variety of themes and modes and by his combination of humor and underlying seriousness. Critical as opposed to popular recognition has, however, been withheld by Amis’ scorn for established values, which has led him on the one hand to write genre fiction such as The Riverside Villas Murder (1973, a detective story) or The Alteration (1976, an alternate world story), and on the other to explore such unpopular themes as old age, in his novel Ending Up (1974), or antifeminism, most notably in Stanley and the Women (1984).

One may say also that Amis has consistently flouted the strongest conventions of fiction and has done so successfully. It is a strong if unstated assumption that novels must contain young people, because young people are more interesting and their lives more eventful, and novels have to rely on events. It is the main achievement of this novel to have challenged both assumptions and for Amis to have produced a work which holds the attention without either the glamour of youth or the excitement of contrived events. The Old Devils is a pure novel of character, which succeeds through mastery of conversation and through depth and breadth of sympathy.