The Children of Dynmouth
A Dream Journey
One would not gladly bring children into a world that offered them books like St. Lemuel’s Travels, The Wind in the Cloisters, Lord of the Chalices, and the Father Bond thrillers, or treated science fiction as a kind of smut. Though the sentimentalizing of childhood is an Anglo-American vice, we do not warm to the insistence of librarians and school boards that the young shall read wholesomely or not at all; minds, like bodies, seem to grow strong only with some strain and risk. In The Alteration Kingsley Amis considers the plight of a gifted child in a world which includes the children’s books named above, and much worse things.
Suppose that history was altered in the sixteenth century, that Luther did not pursue reform but went to Rome as ordered, got himself elected Pope, and confirmed the True Church’s spiritual and political dominion over the western world, except for some bush-league Calvinism overseas. (The eastern menace of godless materialistic Islam persisted.) The present Pope, John XXIV, is a jolly Yorkshireman (“‘We fetch all our fare from England. Over these years our stomach still hasn’t accustomed itself to the local muck”’). Dissent and the passenger pigeon thrive in the small and primitive republic of New England. Mozart lived to a ripe old age but Beethoven died young and obscure, and fine pianos come from the Parisian house of Satie. Italian, not French, lends tone to English speech: one packs clothes in a valiglia, shops in smart little bottegas, argues about detensione with the Turks. Theoretical science is proscribed and no electrical devices (or gasoline engines) exist, but diesel trains zip from London to Rome via the cross-Channel bridge in seven hours, and dirigibles ply the Atlantic.
Amis plays this game more wittily than most writers about “alternative worlds” would do, and it’s a nice touch that his world knows of ours, quite inaccurately, only from the science fiction stories schoolboys read on the sly. And I’m glad to find a usually opinionated writer allowing the relative value of his world and ours to seem an open question. His is considerably less vulgarized than ours, a stable, comfortable place where duty and its rewards are clearly known; it is also a place where, for example, the Holy Office has a way of murdering and mutilating dissidents as ruthlessly as any other secret police. Perhaps dissent in the absence of overt injustice is only an intellectual disease, a sin of pride? If we shudder to learn that the papacy secretly employs the science it condemns to induce birth defects and plagues and then, these not working out, turns to Holy War to keep the population down, we notice that even nonconformist New England sterilizes its misfits and represses the Indians. The horrors of Realpolitik would survive any political alteration, Amis implies, and our distaste for our own public behavior doesn’t prove it to be merely an accident of history.
But luckily Amis’s vision has …