The Old Devils
Kingsley Amis’s first novel, Lucky Jim (1954), did more than inaugurate a British version of the campus novel already established by Mary McCarthy and other American writers. It made its author, willy-nilly, the standard-bearer for a whole new school of British novelists, who refused the mythopoeic streams of consciousness of the great modernists, and the somewhat specialized social and spiritual preoccupations of their successors, like Greene and Waugh, in favor of an observant and irreverent rendering of the texture of ordinary life, especially provincial life, in Britain, as the nation sluggishly tried to free itself from the constraints of the prewar class system.
This fiction was the prose equivalent of the poetic “Movement” of the Fifties, to which Amis also contributed, and Lucky Jim was dedicated to the most gifted and original of the Movement poets, Philip Larkin. Amis, indeed, had more in common with Larkin than with novelists like Alan Sillitoe and John Braine with whom he was journalistically linked under the heading of the “Angry Young Men.” It was not really anger that fueled Amis’s writing, but rather an acute sensitivity to affectation and hypocrisy in social and personal behavior. This he was able to convert into farcical comedy and a very distinctive prose style, superficially inelegant, but in fact full of artful and amusing rhetorical device. Kingsley Amis belongs to a very British tradition of novel writing that goes back to Dickens, Smollett, and Fielding, which uses irony and humor to explore serious subjects, such as madness and death. Even in the lighthearted and high-spirited Lucky Jim there is the troubling theme of Margaret’s hysteria, and as Amis went on publishing novels (which he has done with remarkable regularity) they have become progressively darker in tone, their comedy steadily blacker.
Comedy and humor, however, do not always travel well, and one has the impression that readers in other countries, including the United States, are some-what baffled by Amis’s work and the esteem in which it is held in Britain. In this respect he is again representative. “If the postwar English novel figures on the international stage as winsomely trivial,” John Updike uncharitably declared in a review of Jake’s Thing (1978), “Kingsley Amis must bear part of the blame…his ambition and reputation alike remain in thrall to the weary concept of the ‘comic novel’…there is no need to write ‘funny novels’ when life’s convolutions, set down attentively, are comedy enough.” More recently, Kingsley Amis met even stronger resistance in America: his Stanley and the Women (1984), widely acclaimed in England, could not for some time find an American publisher, allegedly because a feminist cabal among New York publishers, outraged by the novel’s misogynism, conspired against it; but one can’t help feeling there must have been some pretty strong literary reservations among male editors as well.
Amis’s latest novel, The Old Devils, may get a more sympathetic reception, for it is much more evenhanded in its treatment of …