The Old Devils

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2185

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.

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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 post as a university lecturer to work in an industrial concern. After both he and Rhiannon had married others, it was thought the issue was closed and forgotten.

There are humorous interludes and asides in abundance throughout the novel, and these are largely of two sorts. For one thing, Amis allows leading characters to launch brash, irreverent attacks on all comers, and at any provocation; they will not stand on ceremony or defer to pretense or social niceties. At times, Alun is rather curt and brusque in fielding questions about his writing. In another context, in dealing with an officious waiter in a restaurant, he cuts short a discourse about the varieties of table wine when he snaps, “’I didn’t ask for a bloody lecture on vinification, you horrible little man.’ Alun laughed a certain amount as he spoke. ’Tell me the shipper and the year and then go back to your hole and pull the lid over it.’” When he meets the representative of a Welsh organization in America, Alun rebuffs offers of another meeting, at the man’s home in Pennsylvania, by suggesting times during the year 1995. With one another, the older men are even more gruff and inclined to say precisely what is on their minds.

In other ways, Amis, as the narrator, suggests the comic dimensions of everyday articles by conjuring up unusual and offbeat metaphors which are sometimes recorded from the standpoint of no particular character. Rhiannon’s shower at home, for example, is “a glassed-in job featuring a massive control-dial calibrated and colour-coded like something on the bridge of a nuclear warship.” The wall clock in Garth Pumphrey’s house is “disquieting in appearance but only to a minor degree, about right for the billiard-room or butler’s pantry in Castle Dracula.” Moreover, sometimes people are also depicted in this way; the presumed mother of an unidentified minor character is described as “a grim-faced female who looked like a retired bouncer in drag and shorty silver wig.”

In this work, some odd forms of cultural particularism in Wales are also considered; indeed, a certain number of such mannerisms have been adopted since Alun, purportedly an interpreter of Welsh ways to outsiders, had left his native region. Specific notice is taken of road signs, radio and television broadcasts, and other means by which written or spoken uses of the Welsh language obtrude; various characters have dictionaries or other publications which use some Welsh. Occasionally there are differences of opinion about the proper spelling or pronunciation of Welsh names. Sometimes local residents also complain about current practices and recall nostalgically that English was used practically exclusively one, two, or more generations before. The effort to impose some historical and linguistic identity upon this area, then, seems more than anything to have produced confusion and awkwardness; for that matter, there are only passing and mixed reactions to the “FREE WALES” sign somebody has scrawled on a wall near a local village. Somewhat more incongruous are those from a contingent altogether foreign to the region: An Arab group has acquired ownership of a Welsh pub, and the others comment disapprovingly on this development.

For a novel about an established writer there does not seem to be much in the way of reflection on the creative process, or its effects on the author’s household or everyday life. Furthermore, there seems to be some distance between Alun Weaver, as a protagonist, and Amis the author; by no means is the former likely to be regarded as an alter ego for the actual writer. From the allusions that are supplied here and there, it would appear that Alun’s poetry has no particular claims to distinction, aside from the slightly exotic Welsh air it affects. Although he has started a novel, and works away at it while he can, some passages seem dull and wooden to him; when he then asks Charlie Norris for a critical assessment, Alun is thoroughly disheartened when his friend severely finds fault with this work in progress.

The characters’ situations are resolved in the final two episodes; one is entirely unexpected and the other was anticipated all along. One fine evening, there is a gathering of the various men at Garth Pumphrey’s house. There are plenty of drinks to go around; the others reproach Garth that, true to his calling, he intends to charge them for whatever they consume on his premises. Past concerns rise up once again, notably with some revelations that before her marriage Angharad had maintained a liaison with Peter Thomas. After some other gibes at one another among the men, Alun chokes on his whiskey and water, and suddenly sprawls forward; when the others examine him, he is quite unmistakably dead. Apart from some fleeting suggestions that Garth be hanged for his presumed transgressions, the others proceed with the main event that has already been scheduled. The marriage of William Thomas and Rosemary Weaver is performed in a fine old church; the reception features a sumptuous array of foods eased down by champagne, red and white wine, and gin drinks. There is some question as to whether, and in which ways, the newlywed couple will assist Rhiannon, now that she has become a widow. Otherwise it appears that life will go on amid memories of what has and what might have been.

The present offering is the sixteenth novel the author has produced. With his first works, Lucky Jim (1954) and That Uncertain Feeling (1955), Kingsley Amis won recognition for his adeptly realized depiction of uncommon ordinary people; Take a Girl Like You (1960) explores fluctuating mores in modern romance and courtship. Although later he evinced major interests in science fiction and espionage novels, as well as poetry, Amis returned to earlier themes from another perspective with fictional studies of generational conflict. Works such as Girl, 20 (1971) and Ending Up (1975) deal with the reactions of aging protagonists to a youth culture which seemingly has little sense of values or direction. The author’s political orientation, both stated and implied, also took a turn toward more avowedly conservative stances. Variations upon earlier themes were considered in Jake’s Thing (1978), which portrays an aging university professor concerned with declining virility, among other things. Other directions were charted in Stanley and the Women (1984), where the title character confronts problems of a divided household and psychiatric treatment for a wayward son. All these works, though set in Britain at the time of writing, differ in notable respects from The Old Devils; but in this group there are enough common points that any devotee may recognize similar elements in Amis’ novels. The Welsh setting is not unique; it was also utilized in large part in Amis’ second work. Political concerns seem somewhat in abeyance; arguably there is not much bitterness in Amis’ study of the Weavers and their associates. The Old Devils also suggests that past standards of propriety and social respectability are important in the outlook of characters from a given generation, particularly as they come to deal with later issues. Otherwise, Amis’ protagonists are not overly concerned about whey they do for a livelihood; they do drink with a gusto that would put others of any age to shame. On the other hand, the problem of advancing years, which may be found in some earlier works, is nearly a ubiquitous preoccupation and arises at every turn. Perhaps the reader will not be overly despondent upon reflecting that, by dying in a state of some intoxication, Alun Weaver did not happen upon the most unpleasant way to depart this existence. Here, as elsewhere, one must not overlook the comic elements that impart a specific and distinctive quality to Amis’ work. The award of Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize for this novel should signal the extent to which the author has succeeded within his preferred genre.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 170

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIII, December 1, 1986, p. 529.

Books and Bookmen. October, 1986, p. 32.

The Christian Science Monitor. LXXIX, March 20, 1987, p. 22.

Contemporary Review. CCL, January, 1987, p. 45.

The Economist. CCCI, October 18, 1986, p. 96.

Gardner, Philip. Kingsley Amis, 1981.

Gohn, Jack B. Kingsley Amis: A Checklist, 1976.

The Guardian Weekly. CXXXV, November 2, 1986, p. 21.

Illustrated London News. CCLXXIV, December, 1986, p. 64.

Kirkus Reviews. LV, January 1, 1987, p. 2.

Library Journal. CXII, February 1, 1987, p. 90.

Listener. CXVI, October 16, 1986, p. 22.

London Review of Books. VIII, September 18, 1986, p. 12.

Maclean’s. XCIX, November 10, 1986, p. 70.

The New Republic. CXCVI, March 30, 1987, p. 33.

New Statesman. CXII, September 19, 1986, p. 29.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIV, March 26, 1987, p. 15.

The New York Times. CXXXIV, February 25, 1987, p. 20.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, March 22, 1987, p. 14.

The Observer. September 14, 1986, p. 27.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXI, January 16, 1987, p. 63.

Punch. CCXCI, September 24, 1986, p. 77.

Salwak, Dale. Kingsley Amis: Writer as Moralist, 1974.

The Spectator. CCLVII, September 13, 1986, p. 31.

Time. CXXIX, March 9, 1987, p. 77.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 12, 1986, p. 994.

USA Today. V, March 6, 1987, p. 7D.

The Village Voice Literary Supplement. March, 1987, p. 3.

The Wall Street Journal. CCIX, March 20, 1987, p. 9.

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