Kingsley Amis (and Waugh) 

Kingsley Amis (and Waugh)

I've just re-read the Memoirs of Kingsley Amis. Most of it is really disconnected episodes about specific individuals. The reader is gradually able to put together the memoir-type story: childhood, education, major jobs/postings, career in London as writer, two marriages (then going back to wife #1--surely quite unusual, but I suspect a kind of shadow over many second marriages), kids, major distinctions.

I like Amis's novels quite a bit. Like most fans, I would emphasize Lucky Jim most of all--his first, and one on which he got so much help from Philip Larkin, it's possible Larkin should have been credited as co-author or editor. Then late in his life: Stanley and the Women; and the Old Devils (which won the Booker Prize). A lot of novels in between, which I would say are probably worth reading once. The great ones I will re-read often, and I will be on the lookout for those I have not yet read.

Lots of wit/word-play, puncturing the pretensions of those who deserve this treatment; perhaps an argument for kindness toward those who have taken enough of a beating--or who habitually take beatings. A consistent effort to get inside the mind of female characters. Is this successful? That's not really for me to judge. Many chapters in the Memoirs are named after individuals--only two after women, the novelist Elizabeth Taylor and Margaret Thatcher. Amis like Waugh can make an intelligent person want to read Ivy Compton-Burnet, Elizabeth Bowen, and the aforesaid Taylor, much more than Anthony Powell, Graham Greene, or whoever.

I think there are three fairly well-done women in Lucky Jim, and there are some twists in the later novels. In the Old Devils, the wife Peter is leaving is uglier, less charming, nastier, and even a bit older than the woman he is going to. The old story. But wife Number 1 is almost one of Shakespeare's fools, telling nothing but the brutal truth. She gets one of Amis's nastier lines about the Welsh: "Is it true there isn't even a word for 'truth' in the Welsh language?"

In Stanley and the Women: Wife #2 initially seems a haven of sanity, bookishness, quiet but thoughtful music, and love--especially in contrast to crazy Wife #1. Ah, but Wife #2 turns out to be crazy too. Ah, so this is straight misogyny? No, because the craziness of Wife #2 is a response to pressure--she may be doing the best she can in a bad situation. And this makes the protagonist think poor old Wife #1 has always showed a certain humanity and dignity in bad situations--like being married to him. So he stays with Wife #2, resolving to be nicer to Wife #1, in all (well, at least quite a bit of) humility.

True, the male psychiatrist keeps repeating like a Greek chorus: "women are mad," and there is a fair bit of evidence that women don't rely on 'reason, rules, all that," in quite the way men do.

Anyway, I keep wanting to go back for more. But there is something claustrophic in Amis. He has been quoted saying something like he supports the morality of the "ordinary bloke," or something like that, who buys a round at the pub when it's his turn, and sometimes when it's not, tries to put others at their ease or says little rather than, say, trying to make others uncomfortable with no justification. Something like middle-class decency, as defined more or less by Amis. He remains very good at puncturing people--he says often that a literary reputation is bloated or undeserved. He brings up episodes that are humiliating for a famous person, even if they have nothing to do with his books or whatever. First Malcolm Muggeridge and then himself, impotent with Sonia Orwell, comes roughly in the middle. The whole piece on Muggeridge drips with resentment, sarcasm, and malice. How could Muggeridge be a literary person? His few books made no sense. How could he be a tough-minded intellectual, who just happened to be on TV? He was a phenomenally lazy interviewer. How, above all, could Muggeridge end his life as some kind of high-minded Christian, urging people not to dwell on the lower things?

But there is a lot of: people were rude to me. People put down something about me or my life. I know the university at Swansea where I taught wasn't very good, I didn't need people telling me. In his way he has a very strict sense of how people should behave, and it's more about the pub than a formal dinner (which he tended to hate, presumably not being in much control of the conversation). He's always aware of the potential cruelty, or simply the indifference to the feelings of others, of the upper classes (as in his novel the Biographer's Moustache). He pinpoints the conversation of egotists, while admitting he's probably one himself. He's somehow always painfully middle-class--not simply fearing that something might go wrong, and he might be embarrassed even if he has not taken a mis-step, but convinced that something will go wrong, and being really drunk won't quite excuse it all. A feeling of incurable awkwardness or gaucheness that Oxford might have aggravated rather than cured in a middle-class youth.

Which brings me to Waugh. Waugh's father had more of a white-collar job than Amis's, and Waugh probably had some slightly posher forebears, but both were raised in the London suburbs, and both fathers commuted to daily jobs. Waugh seems to have overcome any awkwardness about meeting people--or his massive boredom--by being generally the loudest or the rudest person at a gathering. Amis has two Waugh stories: one about a Spectator party at which people passed around Waugh's ear trumpet, pretending to play it like a real trumpet. Waugh got angry, and said he would never come to such a party again. In the volume of Waugh's letters, Mark Amory says of Ann Fleming: "Stylish and witty, she was not in the least afraid of Waugh and when he used his large ear-trumpet more than seemed necessary she struck it with a spoon: 'The noise, Evelyn told me later, was that of a gun being fired an inch away.'"

Amis's other story about Waugh is more familiar. One lady who had known him for years said his "arse-creeping" to titled people or people who were otherwise "somebody" was disgusting. She gives an example. Instead of just admiring furniture, etc. (which, by the way, Amis would always pretty well ignore) Waugh would say: "I don't think you realize how much all your friends love what you have done here, and here, and here."

Alternating gush and rudeness? Still liking, and getting along with, spirited women who don't go along with all the dramatics? Waugh may have solved the "society" problem better than Amis did--but he also relied heavily on booze.

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