The Old Devils
When a well-known writer, the author primarily of poetry, returns to his native Wales after residing for some thirty years in London, he finds, predictably, that much has changed; and there is also much that is odd or quirky about once-familiar people and places. Moreover, as the author of works with some rustic pretensions, which claim to portray Welsh folk and ways for indulgent English and American readers, the renewal of old acquaintanceships opens some questions about the literary calling which made him a celebrity. On another level, the reunions that ensue bring to mind unresolved or problematical relationships from the more distant past. Such, in any event, are the premises of Kingsley Amis’ novel of the tragicomic final journey of Alun Weaver, who with his wife Rhiannon come across rather a different stretch of country from that which they had looked forward to finding. Most of the action takes place around parties, dinners, a sudden death, and a wedding; but this work is memorable primarily for its alternately poignant and broadly humorous depiction of the aging process amid cultural displacement.
When it is known that Rosemary Weaver, the daughter of Alun and Rhiannon, is to be married to William Thomas, the son of an old friend, the family plans an excursion to the groom’s home village in South Wales. Rhiannon, moreover, is positively eager to settle down permanently in the area. Alun, though he has made a name for himself as a literary Welshman based in the English capital, seems to anticipate the awkward issues his handling of his own people in his writing will raise; nevertheless, he agrees with the others and comes along. He brings with him the opening segments of an unfinished novel. Other characters are drawn together by shared memories, which sometimes seem suddenly to spring to mind; some recollections are rather unflattering to others concerned. Among those who had, more or less, grown up together are Malcolm Cellan-Davies, an unsung local writer, and his wife Gwen; Peter Thomas, a chemical engineer, and his wife Muriel; Charlie Norris, the proprietor of a restaurant, and his wife Sophie; and Garth Pumphrey, who with his wife Angharad attend to business at a pub in the area. Their daily lives are ruffled by much anxious fretting about the more unseemly harbingers of advancing age. The children who remain on hand do not have any pronounced empathy for them, but generational rivalries, where they exist, are muted on any count.
Amis is notably adept at portraying the mundane personal concerns that have grown into characteristic idiosyncrasies; here most of those involved scurry about trying to attend to those bodily ravages of time that can still be addressed. Weakening teeth, slipping dentures, dietary restrictions, and dwindling physical energies seem to be common complaints among the older people; fading libidinal impulses are cited from time to time as well. Malcolm worries about artificial teeth and laxatives; Charlie and Peter half-heartedly try out various concoctions that are low in calories. Some of the women are troubled by excess weight, wrinkles, and other vexations wrought by the passing years. Those who smoke try to count their cigarettes carefully and ration them according to fixed schedules. Flatulence occasionally makes unwelcome intrusions. To this catalog of pregeriatric woes, however, there seems to be a major exception: Even with slimline tonic, plenty of gin is consumed all around; and wine, whiskey, and other potables are taken frequently and sometimes in staggering quantities. For social gatherings, Soave Superiore (DOC) seems to be the wine of preference. One particular brand of whiskey, identified by its strength as 57 percent, also is tossed back in due course. If they are not exactly doddering, some of the older families suffer from their share of aches and pains; but it is rare for anyone to turn down a drink or two, or however many, when offered.
Hovering over the proceedings, which take place in pubs, restaurants, and people’s homes, are assorted memories from that youthful period before Alun and Rhiannon had gone out into the wider world. Some recollections are specific and to the point. For example, at a climactic moment, Peter Thomas shot an eagle on one hole at a local golf match in 1948; five years later, a Welsh player achieved a major upset during a tennis confrontation with the British Empire amateur champion. Romantic encounters, as considered in retrospect, are a different matter altogether. For Alun there are a certain number of bittersweet musings on times when, before he married Rhiannon, various fumbling gambits were employed in his efforts to seduce other women. In those days, courtship, or indeed more casual pursuits, seemed to follow fixed, rigid patterns where desire invariably exceeded fulfillment. At one point, Rhiannon recalls for the others how physical intimacy was approached through six separate stages which seemingly had to be reached during a series of dates over a period of months. Variation in this procedure could lead, and had led, to scandal, which then took some trouble to suppress. Early in the novel it is learned, in summary fashion, that during the academic year 1947 and 1948, Peter had become involved in a heated affair with Rhiannon, leading to the necessity of her obtaining a private abortion. Shortly thereafter, he left his...
(The entire section is 2185 words.)