Monday, October 31, 2011

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 31: You Who Are Not Accursed

Last night, I was quietly angry inside my brain about the idea that a writer, or any kind of artist, is no longer “relevant”. I despise this way of thinking because not only do I not know what it could mean, but I seriously doubt those who use it regularly know, either. Never mind for a second what it means for a writer to be irrelevant; what does it mean for a writer to be relevant? Relevant to whom? There are a lot of very good, even great, writers that nobody reads anymore, and this is the reading public’s loss entirely. Somebody once said to me that they’d never read E. L. Doctorow because they didn’t think he was relevant anymore. So you don’t even have to read the person to reach this conclusion. And what had led to this in the first place? Because Doctorow writes mainly about old-timey days?

Among the many, many writers to whom the “not relevant” label could be, and no doubt has been, applied is Kingsley Amis. Father of the, according to some, no longer relevant Martin Amis, Book Prize-winning author of The Old Devils, his place in some sort of canon assured with the publication of his first book, Lucky Jim, one-time Communist who eventually swung pretty hard to the right, assumed to be a bigot and homophobe by those who don’t read him because he’s no longer relevant or something, enough of a drunk to be admired on this count by Christopher Hitchens, friend of controversial but much-revered (and apparently, and surprisingly, still relevant) poet Philip Larkin and historian of the Soviet nightmare Robert Conquest, and one of the very few writers who can make me laugh out loud, Kingsley Amis was once very big, but through a mixture of various things, political persuasion likely among them, as well as – to be fair – the widely held opinion that his later books weren’t up to snuff, his literary star was plummeting well before his death in 1995, and despite the very surprising (because outside of me I don’t think anyone was asking for such a thing) and very massive double-hit of the 1200 page The Letters of Kingsley Amis and the 900+ page The Life of Kingsley Amis (the former compiled by, and the latter written by, Zachary Leader), there are currently no signs of a resurgence in interest. This must be regarded by anyone with an interest in the comic novel as Too Bad, to say the least.

None of which matters to us today, though, I suppose. Fortunately, Kingsley Amis, who specialized in cynical, even bitter, drunken comedies of manners, was also something of a dabbler in genre fiction. His interest in reading it generally far outweighed his interest in writing it – in later years, he expressed a preference for Dick Francis novels over pretty much anything else – but along with his still-classic non-fiction overview of science fiction (his genre of choice, it must be said) New Maps of Hell, Amis made every attempt to dish it out, as well. With, to be frank, very mixed results. Of the three major genres whose waters he tested – science fiction, mystery, and horror – SF got most of his ink, and earned him the most genre credibility. He turned out at least one stone classic of SF, The Alteration, and several other novels and short stories of varying respectability (one of his science fiction novels, Russian Hide-and-Seek, which I haven’t read, also has the distinction of being considered his worst book, at least according to Martin Amis and Margaret Thatcher). Amis’s mystery fiction has to be his least successful, and most disappointing to me on a personal level. One of them, the one that’s most like a real book, The Riverside Villas Murder, has a murder plot reveals Amis as simply trying to fit a puzzle together in the most convoluted manner possible, though it works pretty well as a non-genre Amis book about growing up. Another, Crime of the Century, doesn’t have that going for it (it’s my least favorite Amis novel, mainly because it’s not funny, and is barely a novel).

Amis’s horror fiction, meanwhile, is something else again. There’s not very much of it – unless there’s a short story I’m missing, he only has three: the novel The Green Man, itself considered a classic at about the level in its genre as The Alteration is in SF, and two short stories, which are what bring us here today. They are “To See the Sun” and “Who or What Was It?”. Had I known what “To See the Sun” was, I’d have read it a long time ago. It’s a vampire story, what the back cover of my copy of Amis’s The Collected Stories calls “a brilliant Amisian version of the Dracula legend.” The cover does not identify which story that is, though, and when my investigations revealed that, against all logic, the story “All the Blood Within Me” was not the one, I apparently gave up all hope, or most of it. I mean, the word “blood” is right there…no other titles have “blood” in them. Who, exactly, is jerking me around here? Of course, I hadn’t remembered that, in vampire lore, the sun is also a pretty big deal, so way back when this nightmare was playing out I just gave up. The older, more determined me who you see before you is more determined, and is not about to let some stupid table of contents fool me again. I’ve had the book for about twelve years, by the way.

It should be noted right off the bat that “To See the Sun”, which I liked very much, is not an Amisian version of the Dracula legend. It is not a version of the Dracula legend, which is the key point. This was something of a kick in the pants, considering that my whole reason for choosing Amis to close out The Kind of Face You Slash this year is so I could loop this story back around to Dracula, which as you may recall is where we began. But no. “To See the Sun” is a vampire story, and it does take place in a Transylvania-esque part of Europe. It’s also an epistolary story, with all the information being delivered either through letters from Steven Hillier, a middle-aged man working on a book about vampire mythology, to his wife Constance, or to his friend and, I gathered, publishing associate Charles Winterbourne; and the journals of Countess Valvazor, who Steven is scheduled to meet at Valvazor Castle, where she lives, to discuss and study the vampire-rich history of her family. He does meet her, and she falls instantly in love with him – you’d assume it would go the other way, her being a beautiful countess and him being your basic middle-aged English scholar, and it does, but the Countess is the one who instigates their brief, but heated, and tragic, love affair.

A love affair which must not last, as should be obvious. The truth is, “To See the Sun” is finally pretty straightforward. Its novelty comes from having been written by Kingsley Amis, although it is quite good, just as vampire story, removed from the context of who wrote it and how many other horror stories has this person written? The Countess is a vampire, but one who has become most reluctant and remorseful after meeting Steven. The history of how she was turned, and who turned her, which is revealed towards the end, is full of all sorts of hints at many tens of decades of depravity and murder, yet somehow the Countess remains sympathetic. Pretty effortlessly, even, not least, in the end, because of, well, the ending, which it occurs to me is not unlike the ending of two vampire films from the last decade, the latter of which was accused by some online folks of ripping off the earlier film. Had anybody read “To See the Sun”, none of that would have ever happened, I bet.

Also managing to be sympathetic, but weirdly less so, is Steven, our ostensible hero, who gleefully cheats on his wife and feels a bit bad about it later. It’s necessary to point out that this is not an uncommon feature of Amis’s fiction, though as Martin Amis points out in his memoir Experience, it became something of habit of his father’s to give the women in his books the last word. This is not the case in “To See the Sun”, but it’s also very possible to hurt yourself with all that finger-wagging. Anyway, Steven’s infidelity actually brings about a cosmic good. Speaking of which, the supernatural elements of “To See the Sun” are rather intriguing. There’s some wonderfully creepy stuff involving a painting of the funeral of a prominent member of the Valvazor clan, and the tossed-away violence of the later sections is surprisingly brutal (and could not have been brought about by a normal human), but the interesting stuff comes from Amis’s treatment of the religious connection to the vampire legend. What’s interesting, to me anyway, is that Amis doesn’t dismiss it. I only find this interesting because, while Amis shed his youthful Communism, he retained the atheism, and it would have seemed much more in character for him to devise some other means of portraying the Countess’s remorse than to have her wish to come back into the good graces of the Christian God, which is what she ends up doing. Not that I’m complaining, and all this stuff is rather touching – she asks Steven to pray for her, as she’s no longer able to do it herself – but it is surprising.

More surprising, mainly due to its overall strangeness, is “Who or What Was It?”. In The Life of Kingsley Amis, Leader mentions this story (which was written, and retains its form, as a monologue delivered on the radio) mainly to wonder about the fact that, all things in the story considered, Amis doesn’t refer to himself as a drunk, Amis himself being the story’s protagonist. I think Leader might be casting about for a too-literal interpretation of not only “Who or What Was It?”, but The Green Man, too, but in any case he seems to have missed the key line in the story, if one wants to read the story the way Leader does, which is: “I drank a fair amount.”

But I see I’m getting way ahead of myself. What “Who or What Was It?” is, is The Green Man told again in miniature. Literally, that’s what it is, because it features Kingsley Amis and his wife, Elizabeth Jane Howard, stopping at a pub, or inn, that apart from the name of the place (which Amis refuses to reveal) bears some striking resemblance to the one used as the setting for The Green Man. That pub/inn was called “The Green Man”, which only explains half of that title choice, the other half being that the actual Green Man, the pagan spirit, comes to threaten the life and sanity of Maurice Allington ( “a boozer”, in Amis’s words), protagonist and proprietor of “The Green Man”, as well as his family, specifically his teenage daughter. What Kingsley Amis discovers in “Who or What Was It?” is that this pub has a proprietor named Allington, and employs with names similar to, but not exactly like, the names of corresponding characters in his novel. There’s a lot that’s different, but enough is weirdly on the mark, or just off the mark a tiny bit, that Amis decides he’d better hang around in case the Green Man comes after this Allington’s daughter.

And to say anything more would be to not only spoil “Who or What Was It?”, which is sort of a lark, but The Green Man, which isn’t. That’s a novel I read before I probably should have -- it's a novel where life is being lived around the edges of the genre, as is the case with The Riverside Villas Murder when it's working, and which did not fit my idea of "horror" at the time I read it -- but it’s hung with me ever sense, largely because of a bizarre scene involving God, in the form of a young man, speaking to Maurice Allington about various things. It’s a very unflattering portrayal of the Almighty, and more in line with what I would have expected from Amis than “To See the Sun”. Interestingly, and amusingly, some of Amis’s thoughts on all this are touched on in his introduction to The Collected Stories when he says that, after the radio reading of “Who or What Was It?” was broadcast, he received some phone calls and letters from people asking questions as though the story was true. At least one came from a friend who Amis had always taken to be reasonable, and Amis asked him how he could have believed any of it. The friend said he didn’t, really, but thought maybe Amis was suffering from DTs. Others actually did buy it, though, and Amis marvels, in a depressed sort of way, that anyone could believe what he relates in “Who or What Was It?” and not act accordingly. Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast supposedly caused some people to panic and flee by car. Amis notes that this may be evidence of stupidity, but it is also evidence of reason. If aliens are attacking, and you really believe they are, then you run. If you believe that pagan ghosts are attacking a teenage girl, you don’t simply ask “Which pub was this again?”

Anyway, strange and larky though it is, I would say I enjoyed "Who or What Was It?", more even that "To See the Sun", even though "To See the Sun", certainly as a horror story, must be considered the better. But "Who or What Was It?" is funny, partly due to its conversational style, written to mimic a man telling you a story off-the-cuff. That allows for things like this, which involves Amis trying to figure out how to tell his waiter, named Palmer, why he's so curious about the employees of the inn:

Jane had said earlier on, why didn't I just tell the truth, and I'd said, since Palmer hadn't reacted at all when I gave him my name when I was booking the table -- see what I mean? -- he'd only have my word for the whole story and might still think I was off my rocker, and she said of course she'd back me up, and I'd said he'd just think he'd got two loonies on his hands instead of one. Anyway, now she said, Some people who've read The Green Man must have mentioned it, -- fancy that, Mr Palmer, you and Mr Allington and Fred are all in a book by somebody called Kingsley Amis. Obvious enough when you think of it, but like a lot obvious things, you have got to think of it.

Well, that was the line I took when Palmer rolled up for his brandy, I'm me and I wrote this book and so on. Oh really? he said, more or less. I thought we were buggered, but then he said, Oh yes, now you mention it, I do remember some chap saying something like that, but it must have been two or three years ago -- you know, as if that stopped it counting for much. I'm not much of a reader, you see, he said.

I don't know about you, but this is just the kind of thing I need to ease myself out of horror for a while. And with that, I bid you good day.


Roderick Heath said...

"This writer/artist is no longer relevant" = "I am no longer confident that mentioning this writer/artist in a conversation will reliably make me sound intelligent and cool."

Greg F. said...

Bill, I never comment on your October posts nearly as much as I want to because I just don't know what to say most of the time since I never read horror fiction. After a while, writing, "Sounds interesting, I might have to read this one day," gets kind of boring.

But I just want to say, from someone who finds it hard to get more than 10 posts between TCM and Cinema Styles combined, that your achievement in October, every year, is quite impressive. The posts are well-written, personable and thorough, which I find amazing considering it's 31 posts over 31 days. You'd think eventually there'd be two or three one paragraph posts but no, you give each separate post the same careful attention. Bravo, to another great October! Well done!

bill r. said...

Rod - That has become my suspicion as well.

Greg - Thank you very much. That honestly means a great deal to me. What you probably can't tell is that after the first week I'm always on edge and angry for putting myself through this again! There's your interesting peak "behind the scenes"!

But seriously, thank you very much. You're a good man, even though Rod told me he thinks you're a piece of crap. I thought this was an overreaction on his part.