One Fat Englishman
by Kingsley Amis
Harcourt, Brace & World, 192 pp., $3.95
Bright and frightening as ever, Kingsley Amis deals in his new novel with the obligatory inspection of the United States by the English literature industry. His hero, the gross and shameless Roger Micheldene, is very low in the literature bracket, a mere commercial publisher in fact. but, for sheer Englishness, he is unbeatable. He descends upon a smart and worldly Pennsylvania community, displaying his national characteristics for admiration, with all the airy condescension of Oscar Wilde among the Leadville miners. His act flops; we English readers are glad, and then ashamed to be glad.
We can hardly expect American readers to share our mixed feelings. When a thoroughly discreditable Englishman—a statesman, maybe, or an entertainer—is feted by American anglophiles, it is quite intolerable; yet stirrings of old-time nationalism inspire a grudging hope that the fellow will not make too big a fool of himself. Micheldene’s undeserved success with American women is as satisfying as the social failure of his English snob tactics. He is like a New Yorker advertisement for smart raincoats, gin and crockery; it is not his fault that he has picked the wrong colonials to impress Like Coward, Macmillan, and the Beatles, he must be admired for his guts. There is not much story to the book, simply a malicious record of this rich, simple Englishman’s humiliation at the hands of wise Americans. But it is exceedingly funny, and also seriously concerned with the dangerous word-play involved in national prejudices and spiteful generalizations.
The national characteristics with which Micheldene is so well pleased belong primarily to the English upper classes and their imitators. Other people have local characteristics, to match their accent; but, as Amis wrote in his poem “Masters”:
Those whom heredity or guns have made
Masters, must show it by a common speech;
Expected words in the same tone from each
Will always be obeyed.
Likewise with stance, with gestures, and with face…
An important branch of “masters’ common speech” is Standard English, which is national and not local, and accompanied by standard rituals of behavior. When we say, “He’s very British,” we mean “upper-class.” Micheldene is very British in this sense, and therefore his function in this novel is to be tormented and degraded. That is a prevailing mood in Britain nowadays, well illustrated in Joseph Losey’s recent film, The Servant, wherein the superb young master is destroved by his employee. The masters are become our butts, because they have failed us, like the king’s weak heir in another Amis poem:
…his men had time
To jeer at him before the fire took them.
Micheldene is rather different from Amis’s previous heroes. In spite of the obvious unfairness of the charge that they are all the same—lovable imps of mischief, smugly aware of their urchin charm—it must be admitted that they have had certain characteristics in common. They have usually been uncertain of their class position, like so many English “heroes” (and novelists, come …