Back in 2001, a massive volume that had been first published in the UK the year before was put out by the now defunct Talk Miramax books. Coming in at around 1,200 pages, the book was The Letters of Kingsley Amis, edited by Zachary Leader. As I remember it, the reaction to this book was a mixture of "How interesting" and "What?" Though certainly a different situation could probably, possibly, be seen in England, in the US, in 2006, Leader seemed to want to double up on this bemusement by publishing The Life of Kingsley Amis, his 900-page biography of the erstwhile Booker Prize-winning British comic novelist, major cultural figure, grump, drinker, father of Martin Amis, political drifter from Left to Right, one of the Angry Young Men school of English artists (though not self-designated as such and not happily a member of that club), poker of wounds, who died in 1995 and whose last novel that by 2006 had been deemed eligible for continued significance, which is not the same thing as readership but anyway, was The Old Devils, the one that won the Booker, in 1986. Major cultural figure Amis had indeed once been, but not for many years prior to his death. Not having the politics that an artist in the 1990s was meant to have, and certain books, especially Stanley and the Women, that were perceived as being bitter and sexist, seem to have done him in, not physically, but as a Writer Of Note. Therefore in the US -- and honestly probably in the UK too, Amis being better known and so logically more disliked -- that "Why him?" response to Leader's apparent refusal to let Amis sink out of memory prevailed. Listen, Lucky Jim is still in print. That should be enough.
Well, not for me. I've been reading Kingsley Amis for a very long time now, and for a pretty long time then, and while my personal history with his work needn't concern us here I will say that at no point during those many years did Amis ever fall out of favor with me, other than having read so many of his books that I've also read some of the bad ones. And so when in his favorable review of The Letters of Kingsley Amis for The Washington Post, Michael Dirda expressed surprise that one letter in particular, one in which Amis said he disliked people who were "racialist, intolerant of homosexuality, anti-British, members of the New Left" indicated that Amis was "a gentler and more compassionate soul than the splenetic, bibulous monster of publishing legend," my thought was if Dirda, a critic I admire very much and who seems at times to have literally read everything, knew Amis's novels better than he knew the legend, he'd know that books such as The Folks That Live on the Hill had already revealed this several times over. In truth, Amis' conservatism was always cut with an urge to shed what he considered useless old restraints, be they sexual, as they often were in his books, or otherwise, as they also often were. It's just that he didn't want those restraints being replaced by something just as bad or worse. His conservatism, which was used to so thoughtlessly reduce his reputation and his talent, was hardly careless or unfeeling. That Amis' ability to root out and thoroughly obliterate the hypocrisy of pretty much every type of person, including his own type, was unerring and frequently deployed may not have helped. I don't know.
But Zachary Leader may be having the last laugh that I've decided must have been his goal all along because for the last few years NYRB Classics has been reissuing Amis' novels. Not just the classics like Lucky Jim and The Old Devils but also titles from deep in the catalogue, like Girl, 20 and One Fat Englishman (as is the custom with this sort of thing, each volume also boasts a new introduction written by an Amis admirer or expert, and hey what's this, Michael Dirda wrote the introduction for Amis' uniquely Amis-ian horror novel The Green Man). On Tuesday they're adding to the list one his earliest novels, Take a Girl Like You from 1960 and 1974's Ending Up, one of those not-quite-forgotten minor classics that has long seemed about to slip back into print, and now finally has. It's an interesting pairing, one dictated entirely by rights availability for all I know, but as it happens, and as disparate as the two novels seem, the former being about young people in their 20s in the early 1960s and taking as its subject sex, both ostensibly and in fact, and the latter being about elderly people in the early 1970s and ostensibly definitely not being about sex, they actually link up in inescapable and unsettling ways.
Ending Up takes place entirely in a country house in which live five old people: Bernard Bastable, former military, slightly disgraced, divorced with a son he hasn't seen in decades; Bernard's ex-lover (this led to the slight disgrace), the libido of each man having waned on top of never having been terribly strong at the best of times, but still his more-or-less companion Derrick "Shorty" Shortell, a good-natured drunk; George Zeyer, the brother of Bernard's late wife and a professor now hopelessly laid up with a stroke and dependent on his housemates for just about everything, his legs useless now and also suffering from a form of aphasia; Bernard's sister Adela, a physically unattractive woman who has never enjoyed any sort of romantic experience and whose overall kindness leads her to run the house and not mind that her brother is, in Amis's words, a "shit"; and Marigold Pyke, the egotistical life-long friend of Adela, and the only one of them who has a family in any sort of traditional sense -- part of the plot of Ending Up revolves around a Christmas visit from her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The bleakness of all of this, or the bleakness that is apart from that which might already be inferred from the above description, comes from the pending, currently happening, or reasonably guessed-at physical dissolution of the characters, and from the fact that to some degree they all dislike each other, or all annoy each other, even the ones who are nice.
Inspired by a living situation that Amis and, in fairness, four other people, including his then-wife Elizabeth Jane Howard, had been suffering through for some time, the theme of Ending Up that Amis and Zachary Leader, as well as Craig Brown, who wrote the introduction to the NYRB edition, say defines the novel is "irritation." That is, irritating and being irritated by others. Brown rightly points out that this is something that long ruled over Amis' fiction in the way that being male seemed to somewhat preoccupy Norman Mailer. "Throughout his oeuvre," Brown writes, "irritation plays on the Amis landscape like sun on sea." And it's true: both the best of Amis' humor and many of his most insightful passages, or even simply the moments that make the reader think "Yes, I've experienced that too, and it's like that" were borne from irritation. Such as this exchange between Adela and Bernard, late in Ending Up:
'I must be off,' said Adela on the Friday morning of that week. 'They said the sooner I take the car into the garage the sooner they'll be finished with it.
'It sounds logical,' said Bernard. 'When will you be back? In case anyone comes or anything.'
'As soon as they've finished with the car I'll start for home.'
'When will you be back?'
'They've got to change all the oil, do you see, and make sure the tyres are all right, and clean things in the engine and so on.
'Yes, and so forth into the bargain I shouldn't wonder. For the love of God, when will you be back?'Bernard, meanwhile, has made it his mission to be as irritating and as destructive -- though all the while hiding that he's doing any of it, or at least any of it on purpose, while also, it should be noted, never actually hiding his disdain for anybody -- as possible. George, perhaps the character the reader most wants to protect (though not himself without his irritating side) has a dog, Mr. Pastry. He has nothing else, he has no children, his wife has died (and, we're told, in her last moments she apologized to her husband for not producing any offspring) but he's not embittered, he's ridiculously grateful to be carried downstairs which nobody had thought to do until one of Marigold's grandchildren suggested it, all he has is this dog, and one of Bernard's plots is to convince everyone else in the house that it's time to have Mr. Pastry put to sleep. Bernard wants to do this simply because it's the kind of thing he'd want to do.
Bernard is the worst of them, though Marigold isn't much better. Along with her unearned arrogance she has certain maddening linguistic tendencies -- calling rabbits "bunnie-wunnies" and drinks "drinkle-pinkles" and the like -- and an impulse to dominate conversation that is perhaps simultaneously both conscious and unconscious. In one scene, during a pre-Christmas visit from Marigold's grandson Trevor and his wife Tracy, Tracy (who in his typical fashion Amis sketches out as humanly flawed, therefore both easily irritated and irritating) tries to become part of a dinner conversation:
'I met a girl from New Zealand a little while ago,' said Tracy just as an outsize forkful of capon was entering Marigold's mouth. 'She told me -- '
The intervention was fractionally too soon. Marigold snatched the forkful out again and said...As Marigold again grabs the conversation by the throat, Tracy waits:
Tracy did not want to have it thought...that she considered her having met a girl from New Zealand a little while ago to be in itself a worthwhile offering. She waited until Marigold had started chewing before she said, 'This New Zealand girl -- "
She was fractionally too late: Marigold did a mighty swallow.And again Marigold takes over. Finally:
There was another brief silence. Tracy did not break it. Now in the apparent position of being obsessed with the New Zealand Girl, she would not run the risk of seeming clinically insane on the subject.Ending Up was published when Amis was 52 years old, at least a good twenty years younger than any of five main characters who populate the novel, but both old enough to have given the subject of annoyance some serious consideration, and also certainly old enough to have let the novel's other subject, aging and death, almost consume him. It's a good thing to not be consumed by if you can possibly avoid it, but it turns up in Amis' work over and over again; furthermore, Amis not being someone who ever took comfort in religious faith, when dealing with the subject he often expressed anger and frustration as much as, if not more than, fear. Along with several of his novels, see also his poetry, such as "A.E.H." with its famous line "What the fact of wounds must mean," or the furious "To a Baby Born Without Limbs" (itself contained in a novel called The Anti-Death League), or "A Peep Round the Twist," the ghostly last chapter of his Memoirs. In Ending Up, Amis seems to some extent to have thrown up his hands in surrender. At one point, Marigold's grandchildren confer on what it must be like to be at an age when death is so near:
'If you live with something [one says] you may end up with it not meaning as much to you as if it only turned up now and then. You know, like background noise.'
The other disagrees:
'...Pretty noisy sort of noise at their time of life...More like foreground noise. Aircraft noise when you're living twenty yards from Heathrow only moving closer.'
Eventually in this particular novel, Amis' attitude resembles one of gleeful malice, as if to say "Since it has to happen to all of us you might as well enjoy watching it happen to others first." But Ending Up really isn't as callous as all that. There are certain touches near the end that do have an air of almost malicious irony about them, but that irony is at the same time inherently sad. "It shouldn't be like this," you can't help thinking, and as outrageous as the novel becomes, if you separate the individual pieces you know that things have gone like this for many someones many times over. Plus, the novel being as short as it is, it's easy to think back to the beginning, and Adela, who regards living in this house of miserable people as the happiest time of her life, and thinking that the house itself, and its surroundings, "what with the quiet, the nearby woods and all their wild life...was not such a bad place to end up."
How all of this relates to the plight of Jenny Bunn, the twenty-year-old stunning beauty at the heart of Amis's 1960 novel Take a Girl Like You may not be immediately apparent, but will in time. Jenny is a schoolteacher, recently moved from a small town in Northern England to a roughly more cosmopolitan town in Southern England, one that is near-ish to London. Jenny is so lovely that many people at first believe she must be French. In fact a man believes this very thing about her at the beginning of the novel, and he thinks it out loud.
'Well, I'm not,' Jenny said positively, 'I'm English.' She said it positively because thinking she was French (or Italian, or Spanish, or -- once each -- Greek or Portuguese) on the evidence of the way she looked had evidently been enough to get quite a number of new acquaintances to start trying it on with her straight away. There had been that time in Market Square at home when a man had accosted her and, on finding she was not a tart after all, had apologized by saying: 'I'm awfully sorry, I thought you were French.' What could it be like to actually live in France?The man she responded to positively is Patrick Standish, an instructor at the local boys' school. Patrick is older, in his late 20s, and rather preoccupied with sex, of which he manages to get a lot, being, as Jenny puts it, "smashing" as he is, but at once this preoccupation focuses to a laser point on Jenny. And while it is in Jenny's nature to accept a simple life (for now anyway) spent either at the school or in the boarding house where she lives with one other tenant, an actual French person and ex of Patrick's named Anna, and her landlord Dick Thompson, a foolish, seemingly doddering before his time, Communist whom Patrick loathes and enjoys tormenting and Dick's subtly angry and possibly suspicious wife Martha, when Patrick does ask her out she readily and happily says yes. The problem, as Patrick sees it, though not as Jenny sees it, or not from the same angle, is that Jenny is a virgin who plans on saving herself until marriage, so the last part of their first date is spent fending him off -- not entirely, as Jenny isn't a robot, but fending off what she's not comfortable letting happen. This is not something that Jenny is unused to:
Before long Patrick slipped his left hand under her dress in the non-important places: back, shoulders, upper arms. It was rather like one of the kids at school getting out of his seat to borrow a pencil-sharpener or pick up a writing-book when you knew that what he really wanted to do was run around the room yelling.Eventually this all leads to an argument which will set the course for the rest of the novel. Though not especially religious, waiting until marriage was not only how Jenny was brought up, but it's what she believes as an adult as well as what she wants. Patrick argues that since they both want to do it, which Jenny has admitted she does, they should do it, that this is what life is, and what being human is, and that his approach to all this is realistic and practical while Jenny's is inherited and unexamined. Crucially, Jenny holds her own in this debate -- more than that, I'd say. Not only is it crucial for the novel to be any good, but that Jenny's arguments are smart and well-made is a crucial thing coming from Amis in particular.
Kingsley Amis was married twice, though with the reputation he had you'd expect the number to be much higher. He was serially unfaithful, and his opinions about sex would likely have more closely resembled Patrick's (up to a point) than Jenny's. When he wrote the novel, Amis still with his first wife, Hillary Ann "Hilly" Bardwell, though by this time the kind of husband he was was plain to her. She read the manuscript when he finished, telling Amis "I think Patrick's an absolute shit," adding many years later when confiding to Leader "I often felt like saying 'And you're an absolute shit yourself.'"
In Leader's biography of Amis, at the end of the first of two photograph sections, there is, somewhat alarmingly, a picture of Amis in 1963, asleep on a beach with his back facing the camera. Hilly has written on his back, in lipstick: "1 FAT ENGLISHMAN. I FUCK ANYTHING."
And indeed, in Take a Girl Like You it's not merely that Patrick tries to pressure Jenny into having sex, but that when the two of them do finally settle into an apparently very happy and romantic courtship, he's unfaithful, and that inappropriateness is compounded by the inappropriateness of his choice of women, or girls as the case may be, to be unfaithful with. At least as late as 1975, fifteen years after the novel was published, Amis was saying that Standish was "the most unpleasant person I've written about." Though it hardly excuses his behavior -- and in fact Amis was also fully aware of the nastily human impulse to absolve oneself because at least one knows and feels bad that one is a shit, this being an attitude he skewered more than once -- it's not difficult to see in Take a Girl Like You Amis looking at the things he'd done and trying to figure out what was wrong with him, or to own up to them. Not in a way that did Hilly much good, or his second wife, Elizabeth Jane Howard, but no one said he should let him off the hook. Even so, at times the novel, and it's sequel (about which a bit more later) Difficulties with Girls from 1988 read like full-fledged self-takedowns. What Martin Amis dubbed his father's "mild" anti-Semitism (in Martin Amis's memoir Experience, Martin quotes his father when asked what being mildly anti-Semitic feels like: "Very mild, as you say. If I'm watching the end of some new arts programme I might notice the Jewish names in the credits and think, Ah, there's another one. Or: Oh I see. There's another one") even turns up, and is lampooned, in the figure of Jenny's father.
Elsewhere in the novel, Amis is happy to spread his attack outward. Jenny is, in fact, the only character to not have some form of foolishness or hypocrisy witheringly exposed. Or anyway she nearly makes it; Amis does believe she's naive to some extent, and her lack of culture, and receiving of life advice from columnists in a magazine called Women's Domain comes in for some ribbing, though of a comparatively gentle sort. Others, like Patrick and Anna are nearly devastated. In her first long conversation with Anna, the French tenant she would like to make friends with, Jenny is nervous about revealing what her father does for a living. Anna is quite culturally sophisticated, or would like to be seen that way, and has taken some pains in demystifying artists as a way, of course, of making her, Anna, appear to have lived a life that has made her so used to being around the kind of people Jenny has only read about. Anyway, Anna says artists are normal people, Jenny finally admits:
'Oh, he's a hearse-driver.'
'A hers? A her...?'
'He drive a hearse, a funeral car. For when people are being buried. He works for a very big firm in...'
With a peal of foreign laughter, Anna collapsed on the striped travelling-rug that covered her bed and drew up her slightly bulky knees. Jenny watched her with a half-smile...For a moment she thought back to what Anna had said about modes of life and artists, and wondered why hearse-drivers were not normal when artists were.Much later, Jenny wonders about her attitudes towards sex versus Patrick's:.
...[N]o doubt a rule-and-routine thing with kissing and so on had a lot wrong with it. She knew how much. On the other hand, the non-rule idea seemed by all accounts to have even more wrong with it. She could see the point of sex being frank, free, and open, as Patrick had unwisely put it to her once and as she had put it back to him again a couple of dozen times since. What was meant by the expression in practice was a frank, free, and open (and immediate and often repeated) scuttle into bed with some man; to tell them all to drop dead, however frankly, freely, and openly, did not count as that. After dwelling on the frank, free, and open enjoyment that would follow arrival in bed the story tended to fade away rather.
What Amis achieves through this kind of prose, apart from being funny, is to use his opponent's, or his character's opponent's, undeveloped and/or circular logic against them. That "tended to fade away rather" is a beautifully sharp way of showing that the other, less popular and much sneered-at opinion, one which Amis himself didn't necessarily agree with, could be argued from the same structure of thought that had earlier come from the other direction, so at the very least if you're going to make your point against someone like Jenny, you'd better do a better job than that, and don't let your prejudices lead you to underestimate her.
It's not all about scoring points, though. I believe that Take a Girl Like You and The Folks That Live on the Hill are the real masterpieces among Amis's novels (neither one makes into Martin's list of his father's writing for which he'll be remembered, and I find this stunning), and like that later novel, Take a Girl Like You exhilarates not just with its comedy or to make great swathes of popular received wisdom look properly foolish, but because it can be so emotionally acute, so terribly moving. There are many characters in the book and next to Jenny the other one with the greatest claim to our sympathy (though honestly, they almost all have their moments) is Graham McClintoch. Patrick's friend and colleague, Graham is an essentially good-natured soul (to some degree he's not unlike Shorty in Ending Up) who, it's made quite clear, is physically quite unattractive, and he knows it. Nevertheless, early on, when things between Jenny and Patrick don't seem to be shaping up, Graham asks Jenny out. She accepts, not out of pity but because she thinks he's nice, and also there is probably some pity involved. Graham asks her because he couldn't not and continue to live his life, but when he makes an advance and is gently rebuffed he immediately backs away knowing that he'll never try it with Jenny again. Then he begins talking, and this, to be honest, begins clumsily, because Amis seems to be writing it as a speech that Graham has prepared. Lots of people do lots of talking in Amis's books but rarely do their words feel as willed into existence as the beginning of Graham's explanation of what it's like to be ugly. Eventually, though, Amis, or Graham, settles into his subject, and Graham ends with this:
'...When I see someone as pretty as you I always start off by thinking that it's going to be different this time, this time she'll have to want me a little because I want her so much. That's the bit I always do fool myself about, at first. Perhaps it isn't normal, all this wanting. But I wouldn't know, would I? I haven't any way of knowing. What's sex all about? How would I know? And not knowing that means not knowing a lot of other things, too. For instance, literature. I used to be a great reader at one time, but not any more. Eternity was in our lips and eyes, bliss in our brows' bent. It's not envy. Simpler than that. What's he talking about?'This is so painful as to be almost breathtaking. And in a somewhat oblique way, it ties into what drives Patrick's furious, selfish, ultimately shameful pursuit of sex. Graham may pursue it but he can't catch it, and so it can't, or anyway in his case it hasn't, led him to do anything terrible. Patrick can catch it almost whenever he wants to, except with Jenny, and he's not used to that. Early in the novel, we learn something about what generally goes on in his brain. He's walking along the campus of the school where he teaches when:
Terror made him catch his breath; pins and needles surged in his fingers; he stopped and looked up at the sky, but that was worse and he shifted his gaze to an evergreen shrub in a raised oval bed nearby. Some configuration of the leaves under the slight breeze formed, as he watched, a shifting face in profile, the eye blinking slowly with idiotic humour, the mouth gaping as if in the painful enunciation of heavy and foreign syllables. He shut his eyes. Then it passed and he was only retrospectively frightened, soon not even that. Just nerves, he said to himself. Nothing to do with dying. And anyway, men must endure their going hence even as their coming hither, mustn't they? Ah, but then men weren't given the tip in advance about their coming hither, were they? Anyway, nothing to do with dying. Perhaps a little bit to do with going mad. That would be unusual, because he was pretty sound these days on the bonkers question. Meditations on the old last end were giving him a good deal more trouble. Well, thinking about sex as much as possible was the only way to lick that.Or to put it another way, a pretty noisy sort of noise. More like foreground noise. For the characters in Ending Up, sex stopped being much of a consideration some time ago (for Adela, like Graham, it was never much of one, through no choice of her own), and in its absence, as well as the absence of other things, in some of them a great cruelty takes hold, a desire to destroy, even on small levels, when the desire to do anything else has faded. Patrick has all the desire in the world to do non-destructive things, but the getting of those things can leave a lot in his wake. Yet it's the only way he knows to distract himself from "the old last end," but, though a young man, thoughts of it positively consume him, absolutely freeze him. And so, the pursuit, liebestod and all that. Except that it doesn't stop the cruelty or the selfishness, so that we learn finally that he will stop at nothing to put his mind at rest. His mind. Nobody else's mind, or any other part, matters until whatever he's done is finished and he bothers to reflect on the aftermath. I said before that Patrick's pursuit of sex was ultimately shameful; if anything, that's putting it lightly. Eventually Take a Girl Like You becomes genuinely alarming, and Amis leaves the reader with a gasp. And it may be that, despite all I've blathered on about, all you're really meant to leave with is the understanding, one which would have served Jenny well had she possessed it, that some of the people who seem good are in reality terrible.
Then again, maybe we'd be better off with a simple understanding of Jenny and Patrick as individuals. Take a Girl Like You leaves with plenty of information with which to do that, but to save time, if you want to, you can look to two brief passages from Amis's sequel, Difficulties with Girls. The gist of this book I won't reveal as it would tell you too much about where Take a Girl Like You ends up, and you really would be better off not knowing. Suffice it to say that in Difficulties with Girls the characters you'd expect to be back are back, and early on, in relation to a certain situation she's suffering through, Jenny thinks some things that might seem paranoid, and which she realizes might seem paranoid, but:
...if anybody had tried to tell her she was letting her imagination run away with her, well, all she could say was it had run away further than that in the past and still come a poorish second to what actually took place.Much later, Patrick is with someone who has just said that something they'd just learned about someone made them feel sad:
'Yes,' said Patrick, looking to and fro among the throng, 'life's full of little bits that aren't what we'd, well, you know, if it was up to us, et cetera, as many have remarked. Let's get a drink.'So there it is, in a nutshell.