NYRB Classics – The Old Devils and Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis

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Kingsley Amis, the English novelist, famed drinker and father of Martin, published twenty-three novels in a career spanning four decades. The New York Review Books Classics series reissued two of those titles in 2012: Amis’s 1954 debut and most popular novel, Lucky Jim, and his best book, The Old Devils, which was awarded the 1986 Booker Prize. Four others are due this year. This is a slight surprise, given Amis’s name recognition and the fact that the series excels at reintroducing titles and authors otherwise lost from view. But, as ever, the presentation is handsome, and this goes a long way toward justifying these new editions. Very good introductory essays from Keith Gessen, author of All the Sad Young Literary Men, for Lucky Jim, and John Banville for The Old Devils, don’t hurt either. Nothing by John Banville hurts. Ever.

Lucky Jim follows the exploits of James Dixon, a lecturer at a university in one of the “smaller and poorer provincial cities” in England, the very sort of place Amis feared ending up prior to the success of his first novel. The book was mentioned in conjunction with the Angry Young Man movement in postwar England, but Dixon doesn’t come across as much of a rebel to the contemporary reader. As early as a 1975 interview with the Paris Review, Amis conceded that rebellion had assumed more serious forms, and that Dixon appeared conventional. Dixon will, however, resonate with today’s young academics, the lecturers and adjuncts desperate to get a foothold on the tenure track. When Dixon considers the likelihood of his continued employment at the university, he is heartened by the thought that his supervisor, Professor Welch, wouldn’t have asked him to create a special course if he was to be fired. His comfort is short-lived when he remembers that “as recently as last week…he’d heard Welch talking to the Professor of Education about ‘the sort of new man’ he was after. Dixon had felt very ill for five minutes.” Pursuing the matter directly is no better. Welch says only “Yes, I’ve no doubt you are,” when Dixon confesses that he’s wondering what will become of him at the end of the academic year. Matters don’t even improve appreciably when an article of Dixon’s (title) is accepted for publication by a new academic journal. The enterprise quickly unravels, and Dixon concedes to himself, at least, the utter uselessness of his research, no surprise given his less-than-scintillating subject matter – “The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450-1485.”

Dixon’s personal life is beset by indignities, as well. His interest in Christine Callaghan as a romantic prospect is initially thwarted by her relationship with Bertrand Welch, artist and son of Dixon’s department chair. The younger Welch outshines Dixon at the party where he first meets Christine. Dixon’s frustration and pettiness are on full display:

“Bertrand stared at him…He returned Bertrand’s stare. He wished there were some issue   on which he could defeat Bertrand, even at the risk of alienating his father. Any measure short of, or not necessitating too much, violence would be justified. But there seemed to be no field where he could employ a measure of that sort. For a moment he felt like devoting the next ten years to working his way to a position as an art critic on purpose to review Bertrand’s work unfavorably. He thought of a sentence he’d read in a book once: ‘And with that he picked up the bloody old towser by the scruff of the neck, and, by Jesus, he near throttled him.’ This too made him smile, and Bertrand’s beard twitched, but he said nothing to break the pause.”

But Dixon is not to be denied. The wife of a colleague tells him that, “Your attitude,” toward Christine, “measures up to the two requirements of love. You want to go to bed with her and can’t, and you don’t know her very well. Ignorance of the other person, topped with deprivation, Jim. You fit the formula all right, and what’s more, you want to go on fitting it. The old hopeless passion, isn’t it?” Passion, yes, but not entirely hopeless. The novel’s later stages unfold in the manner of a romantic comedy. Bertrand’s charms fade. Christine warms to Jim who, happily, escapes a future in academia.

Next to The Old Devils, though, Lucky Jim seems anxious to please, fetching up one gag after another. The Old Devils is a more measured affair, quiet and assured. Amis trains his sights on a group of men (Malcolm, Charlie and Peter) and their wives (Gwen, Sophie and Muriel) in Wales. They are old friends all, and all near or beyond retirement age. The normal, staid rhythms of life are disrupted by the return after many years of Alun Weaver – poet and hackish purveyor of Welshness to the English – and his wife Rhiannon. Both Alun and his wife have tangled associations with the group, in part due to romantic affairs concluded years before. All parties resume roles familiar within the group. There is some resentment of Alun, but he quickly takes a self-deprecating tone, perhaps to head off even harsher charges. On balance, though, Amis treats him generously, with great understanding despite his pretensions.

Amis’s other great achievement here is plotting the grievances which accompany age. The novel opens with  Malcolm and Gwen at breakfast, and quickly takes in his inability to bite food with his front teeth; his doctor’s orders to curb his smoking; and a thorough evaluation of his difficulty with bowel movements. Charlie drinks to excess, daily, and in the company Amis surrounds him with, that’s a feat. Peter suffers as well. He has gained a massive amount of weight. His “getting up procedures were less taxing to the spirit than Charlie’s or Malcolm’s, but they were no less rigid. They had stopped being what you hurried heedlessly through before you did anything of interest and had turned into a major event of his day.” But they do not, on balance, bemoan their fates. Amis allows them a surprising degree of contentment. The complaints they have with one another are so well-worn that they’ve lost the ability to really irritate. Muriel and Gwen chew over Rhiannon’s shortcomings, coming down hard on her “airs and graces at her age,” but conceding “you don’t get skin like that out of a tube. And that carriage, you’re born with it or you’re not.”

The men treat Alun in a similar fashion, but both groups are peaceful, on balance. In fact, a highlight comes when Alun proposes the men take a car trip together in the service of a television show he’s contracted to produce. They fear he will play provincial Welshman to the hilt, but it’s a humble and congenial affair, until they get kicked out of a pub at the end, in a decidedly low-key manner. Along the way, they visit an old friend named Billy Moger, a one-time cricketer and sporting goods dealer, later the proprietor of a local off-license. Alun was closest to him, and none of the men have seen him in years, but they are unprepared for the “small, white-haired man,” who “moved slowly but steadily over to the group, smiling and looking from face to face. He wore a burgundy-colored silk dressing gown with small white dots and a similarly-patterned scarf high on one side of the neck, where it covered most of a reddened swelling. Alun and Laura [his wife] between them told him who everybody was, and he shook hands and spoke in a thin voice.” The visit passes without incident, but the men leave, shaken.

Most touching is their discussion afterward of how pleased Billy’s wife is by their visit. Her invitation to Alun struck him as offhanded, but the men wonder how small her hopes were. The sandwiches she offers, they conclude, might have been an opportunity to show her hospitality, but they console themselves with the idea it might not have meant too much extra effort on her part, “’bar the bread,’” Charlie says, “’Two large loaves. She got that in on the off-chance. Not negligible, I agree.’” Still Peter considers, “’how many times she must have told herself of course nobody would come. How disappointed she’d have been if nobody had. For half an hour out of twenty-four times God knows what.’” None of them is as frail as Billy, and their wives enjoy frequent social engagements, but he is years their senior. Peril lies ahead, failing health, the loss of friends. They go their way chastened, and though they soon find relief in laughter at the expense of their absent acquaintance Garth, their pleasure is muted.

Amis does deliver an occasional laugh, but even the humor here takes a subtler tone, one mingled with sympathy for the everyday hardships he shared with them. Take, for instance, Malcolm playing Dixieland jazz records while waiting for his friends to arrive. “As always, he listened intently, trying to hear every note of every instrument…Too excited to sit down, he stood in front of the Playbox and shifted his weight from one foot to the other in time with the music. At appropriate stages, he took a turn on an invisible banjo, beating out a steady equal four, did all any man could in the circumstances with a run of trombone smears and punctually signaled a couple of crashes on the Turkish cymbal.” This moment of mild abandon turns to terror when the doorbell rings: “Until he saw that yes, he had pulled the curtains, he was afraid he might have been observed from outside – some treat for the neighbors, an oldster capering about like a mad thing.” The prospect of being caught in that unguarded moment, unwelcome enough early in life, is an even greater threat to the dignity at Malcolm’s age. That Amis let him pull the curtains, that he protected him in such a vulnerable moment, says everything about the sensibility at work in the novel. He might easily have played the scene at full volume, but he goes the subtler route, much as he does when delivering the inevitable death near the book’s end.

The Old Devils is a wonderful, unexpected late flowering from a writer who was widely caricatured by the time the book appeared. Taken together, the two novels suggest greater range than is often credited to Amis. They run on the “spirit of great generosity” Martin has acclaimed in his father’s work, a case the critic Paul Fussell makes doggedly and at much greater length, in his book on Amis, The Anti-Egotist. He was a difficult figure to pin down, between his shift to the far right politically, his sometimes-offensive social commentary, and his extensive writings on drinking (his essay on the hangover is a classic, recommended for drinkers of all ages, whether as an initiation or a refresher course). Just know that, difficult as he may be at times, getting acquainted with Kingsley Amis is well worth the effort.

– John McIntyre

All original content copyright John McIntyre, 2013.

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