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Amis’s English Usage

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 to that, from Fanny Burney onwards). Tending to support the Labour Party, they feel separate from other supporters because they have undergone a minority education designed to give them superior working conditions. Their situation is embarrassing and distasteful: they are especially wary of “culture,” presented as class ritual. The library and the teachers’ staff-room are full of menace. The roughest dance-hall or jazz-club is safer; any hostility is unconcealed, and there will always be some member of the working class to protect them.

But Micheldene is more like one of the Amis villains, the arty bullies of Lucky Jim and That Uncertain Feeling. He feels protected by an assured social status. No place could be more dangerous for him than a jazz-club in a foreign land; the policemen and Negroes have not been trained to recognize his rank. Social gatherings in England are ground for a battle he feels bound to win; he can display his advantages, his “education,” his long training in the abuse of authority and language. “Oh thanks most awfully,” he says. “Permit me to congratulate you. I’m afraid you’ll have to excuse me.” Polite, even effusive forms of speech are used for the purpose of wounding. But masters’ language brings him no victory in this part of Pennsylvania. Some grow indignant at his style: “Oh crap. Fail to see. Adversely affect…What are you trying to prove?” Worse still are those who understand the language and comment on it with amusement: “You have a lot of trouble with these matters of communication, don’t you?”

This comes from Micheldene’s self-appointed tormentor, Irving Macher, an admired young novelist still at college. He does know how to communicate and, if his language and behavior are part of an act, it is a more subtle and advanced act than Micheldene’s. His strategy for social conflict is cruel without pretending to be compassionate—like his unusual comic novel, which is about playing practical jokes on blind people. Micheldene’s conversation is a performance and Macher reviews it judiciously: “Pretty competent, sir, but overly scripted, wouldn’t you say? A little lacking in spontaneity?” To illustrate this word, Macher plays evil tricks on the Englishman, stealing his lecture and his mistress, sending a girl to bite him. He explains he is giving the victim “chances of behaving naturally.” Micheldene labels it: “You’re a divinely appointed scourage.” “Not at all,” says Macher. “This is what I do…No mission about it.” “Our common destiny?” “Wrong again. I’m sorry. It’s what’s happening, can’t you see? It’s how it is.” The conflict is between verbs and nouns. If insults are required, Macher will give practical demonstrations. “Yah-yan de yah-yah,” he cries. “Shoot the British.” But if communication is intended, he is ready to explain: “We don’t have group likes and dislikes. It isn’t your nationality we don’t like, it’s you.” Now the conflict is between general and particular.

The Americans in this story are, in fact, no more skilled in generalizing than Micheldene is. They accept Swinburne as representative of English vice. They act out a charade of the adverb “Britishly” and reveal that (like many British manual workers) they cannot distinguish effeminacy from classiness. Micheldene holds that this attitude reveals a deep national fear about American virility. He knows many such generalizations about Americans, and the author is concerned to expose these, rather than American fatuities about England. It is every novelist’s job to correct current generalizations. He has to create types, if he wants his work to be “realistic”; but his classification must be new and more accurate than the received opinions. That is the point of the English detective story, wherein the least-likely-person is exposed. Agatha Christie shows how a particular murder is really more likely to be committed by a nice, quiet English banker than a rough American Communist. Prejudices are re-arranged.

Amis seems to suggest that the most practical way to contrast England and America is by examining the language. The only agreeable male in this book is a philologist. (He is Scandinavian, as good-looking as a woman, a reasonably complaisant husband and a precise student of words. A very good type.) This man notes how Englishmen say “that” and “have,” where Americans say “this” and “do.” He takes it a little too far. “I do this” suggests that Americans pursue the dollar; “I have that” implies that the British had an empire. Even here the generalization process becomes absurd. (Still, it is necessary.) The very title is a play on usage. There are many fat Englishmen and Micheldene is one of them; it’s like Two Gentlemen of Verona or Soldiers Three, an uninformative description to be followed up with further particulars. So an English reader might think; but halfway through, the title pops out of an American mouth: “You certainly are one fat Englishman”—and Micheldene is seen no longer as a particular person but as the quintessence of fat Englishness.

His fatness is important. Amis knows it is unfair that some people should be more sexually attractive than others; unlike Macher, he finds it indecent to mock infirmity. Micheldene is in a bad way sexually. Fat and forty, he has had two wives and some homosexual experience but still can’t concentrate on the job in hand; women take him out of pity. Amis has often, even at his merriest, scratched the sore places of sex. Beneath the jollity of the strip-club lurks the mood aroused by a girls’ school at sunset, beneath the dirty story a memory of “our nasty defeats, our nastier victories.” In Roger Micheldene, the sore places are drawing to a head. His sexual inadequacy is matched by his sexual selfishness. “It would be much better if people like us made the most of what’s available,” pleads a tipsy matron; and swinish Micheldene rejects her.

It has been naively suggested that Amis doesn’t know now nasty his heroes are. The reason why they seem nastier than the other characters is because we are told more about them. It is for the same reason that we feel sympathy for them—not because the author is smugly tolerant. We like Micheldene when he is weak, when he surrenders—as he sometimes does, with women. It is the same with gulled Malvolio, or even with Kipling’s butts when the ragging goes too far. The poems explain: “We are known only as we are weak…it is by surrender that we live.”

This is quite an educative comedy, showing how difficult it is to eliminate “group likes and dislikes,” but at least helping to tidy them up a bit. Amis himself is prejudiced, in favor of the working class and of women:

Women are really much nicer than men.
No wonder we like them.

But, in the English situation at least, these “group likes” are pretty sound and socially valuable.

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