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 the war between the sexes than anything else he has written, and it has very little of the rather artificial comic plotting that wearied John Updike. I would hazard a guess, however, that many American readers will be puzzled why it was a popular and for once uncontroversial choice for the 1986 Booker Prize. The Old Devils is Amis at his most mellow, most disarming, but it is still an intensely, defiantly, almost inscrutably British novel.
I say “British” rather than “English” because, although Kingsley Amis himself is very much an Englishman (indeed presents himself as almost a caricature of one these days), The Old Devils is set in Wales and is partly concerned with the concept of “Welshness”—in itself a source of potential puzzlement to the foreign reader. Politically and socially, Wales is more closely linked to England than either Scotland or Northern Ireland, but it has a long and distinctive cultural tradition of its own. Its sense of self-identity is, however, split between cultural nationalists (mainly from the North) who struggle to preserve and extend the Welsh language as a weapon against English “imperialism,” and those, mainly living in the industrialized south, who regard themselves as no less Welsh because their mother tongue is English and tend to resent the fanaticism of the nationalists.
Most of the characters in The Old Devils are Welsh of the second type. All of them, with some minor exceptions, are old. Old age, and the problems of coping with its indignities, frustrations, and regrets, is the real subject of the novel; but the theme acquires a special piquancy, and poignancy, from its Welsh setting. Amis himself taught English Literature for many years at the University College of Swansea, and the novel was apparently inspired by, and partly written in the course of, a return visit to his old haunts.
The story, such as it is, is triggered by the decision of Alun Weaver to retire from his successful television career in London as a kind of “professional Welshman” and return to his native South Wales with his wife Rhiannon. Alun was the friend of a famous poet, now dead, called Brydan (who closely resembles Dylan Thomas) and has been living off this association for years. The arrival of this couple arouses mixed feelings among their old friends, now old in a double sense, partly because it revives memories of various youthful liaisons and indiscretions, and partly because the randy and egotistical Alun immediately sets about blowing some of these embers of faded passion into life again.
The circle includes Malcolm, a sentimentalist with feeble poetic aspirations and fond memories of Rhiannon, and his wife Gwen, one of Alun’s old flames; Sophie, another old flame, and her husband Charlie, a rather childlike boozer; Peter, an overweight ex-academic once deeply entangled with Rhiannon, now married to the shrewish (and English) Muriel; and two other couples, Garth and Angharad, and Percy and Dorothy. Garth keeps boasting about his health and quizzing the others about theirs, and Dorothy gets uncontrollably and volubly drunk at every opportunity. Since all the other characters have more or less alarming physical symptoms to worry about and drink is their chief pleasure in life, this makes Garth and Dorothy particularly tiresome company. But one of the themes of the novel is the necessity of putting up with boring and exasperating friends because you have known them for years and it is too late to escape from them.
The novel establishes its “note” in the first chapter, with Malcolm gingerly eating breakfast.
He had not bitten anything with his front teeth since losing a top middle crown on a slice of liver-sausage six years earlier, and the right-hand side of his mouth was a no-go area, what with a hole in the lower lot where stuff was always apt to stick and a funny piece of gum that seemed to have got detached from something and waved disconcertingly about whenever it saw the chance.
As he is boarding a bus on his way to the Bible and Crown, the pub where he and his cronies gather every day, “his left ball gave a sharp twinge, on and off like a light-switch, then again after he had sat down.” In the pub he is so anxious to head off an anticipated question from Garth about the state of his bowels that he gives away the exciting news about the Weavers’ impending return more quickly and casually than he had intended. Also present is Charlie Norris, preoccupied with drinking his way out of his customary hangover (“His second large Scotch and dry ginger was beginning to get to him and already he could turn his head without thinking it over first. Soon it might cease to be one of those days that made you sorry to be alive”). They are joined by Peter, whose request for slimline tonic with his gin seems a pathetic gesture toward reducing a belly so vast that putting his socks on in the morning is a major operation.
An enormous quantity of alcoholic beverages of various kinds is consumed by these men in the course of an average day, and although Sophie claims that she never realized how much Charlie drank until the night (there was only one in recent memory) he came home sober, she and the other wives are not far behind their menfolk. At the same time that the men are assembling at the Bible (“You wonder why on earth you go,” Malcolm muses, “especially when you’ve got there and find it’s exactly like it always is, and then you realize that’s why you went”) their spouses, having gathered under the pretext of a coffee morning, rapidly push the cups and saucers aside and get down to the serious business of seeing off several litres of Soave and Frascati. When some of these characters get together at the seaside later in the novel, they lunch off “pickled fish with plenty of gherkin and chopped onion, the whole firmly washed down with aquavit and Special Brew and tamped in place with Irish Cream.” The main source of suspense in this novel would appear to be the question of who will die first, and whether it will be from heart failure or cirrhosis of the liver (it would be unfair to reveal the answer here).
The unhealthiness of these lives is partly connected with a lack in their marriages. Peter and Muriel have not touched each other for ten years. Charlie sleeps in a separate cot so as not to disturb Sophie when he comes drunk to bed or wakes in the night with the horrors. Malcolm is treated by Gwen with affectionate contempt, sometimes just contempt. Angharad’s once potent sexuality has been destroyed by a drastic hysterectomy and Dorothy was never known to have had any. Only Alun and Rhiannon seem still to have an appetite for life and love as well as drink, and in Alun’s case it is vitiated by a streak of selfishness that leads him to disgrace himself in the eyes of all the others.
Although the surface texture of the novel is amused and amusing, one feels that it is a very fragile integument covering an appalling abyss of pain, despair, and anxiety. There is a dark irony in the spectacle of people for whom “the evening started starting after breakfast” (all Amis’s rhetorical cunning is in that apparently redundant “starting”) who are both oppressed by the mounting evidence of their own mortality yet incapable of occupying the time left to them with anything more creative than boozing, reminiscing about the past, and grumbling about the present. Alun, admittedly, plans to write a novel in retirement, but the vanity of this ambition is exposed in one of the best sequences of the book. Charlie, urged to give his honest opinion of the opening fragment of Alun’s manuscript, tells the writer what he secretly knows already:
“The whole tone of voice, the whole attitude is one that compels bullshit. If I say it’s too much like Brydan I mean not just Brydan himself but a whole way of writing, and I suppose thinking, that concentrates on the writer and draws attention to the chap, towards him and away from the subject. Which I suppose needn’t be Wales in a way except that it always is, and somehow or other it’s impossible to be honest in it.”
The human condition as depicted in The Old Devils is not so far removed from the bleak vision of Samuel Beckett as it might seem, or as Mr. Amis might like to think. Devils are dead metaphors, and the Bible a meaningless metonym for a pub. It would seem one is not, in Yeats’s phrase, a soul fastened to a dying animal, but just a dying animal. When one of the characters dies, the reaction of the others is either devastating banality or impotent irony:
“No, he had it coming…. There wasn’t a damn thing he or anyone else could have done about it. Not a thing.”
“Oh fabulous,” said Peter, breaking a long silence. “Well, that certainly softens the blow and no mistake. Blessing in disguise, really, looked at in that light.”
Two things soften, or are intended to soften, the darker implications of the story. One is the marriage of Rosemary, the Weavers’ daughter, to William, the son of Peter and Muriel. Their wedding concludes the novel and is intended as a conventional symbol of continuity and renewal—too conventional, I must say, for this reader. The characters of the young couple are not sufficiently realized to make the hope invested in them by their parents seem more than sentimental. More persuasive—indeed, genuinely moving—are the relationships of Rhiannon with her two old admirers, Malcolm and Peter, on whom she has the effect of Eliot’s April, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain. This is slightly embarrassing for Rhiannon, especially with respect to Malcolm, but Rhiannon gamely submits to being taken by Malcolm for a sentimental outing to some site of their courting days which she has quite forgotten; while to Peter she extends a hand of forgiveness and friendship.
The Old Devils is unusual among Amis’s novels in being narrated partly from the point of view of women—principally Rhiannon, but also Gwen and Muriel for a time. The perspective shifts frequently between these three and the four principal male characters, Malcolm, Charlie, Peter, and Alun. It is not always easy to remember who is who, and married to whom, and there is presumably a point to this. As we grow older, we grow more like each other, our anxieties and desires become restricted to a narrower and narrower range (the fear of death and of loneliness, the desire for animal comfort and peace of mind). In this phase of life, ordinary, unaffected human kindness counts for a lot. It is because Alun and Garth lack this generosity of spirit that the novel ultimately comes down hard on them. Amis has always been a very traditional moralist.
And what has all this to do with Wales? In a sense, nothing. The theme of old age could be explored in any regional context, as well as in the imaginary landscape of the later Beckett. But there is an elegiac quality about the topography of South Wales, romantic scenery interspersed with the relics of decayed industry, that makes it an appropriate setting. And in this novel the subject of Wales and Welshness is locked into an ironic double bind that is characteristic of Kingsley Amis’s work. It is very hard to find in the novel an attitude to Wales that is both positive and authentic. All enthusiasm for things Welsh, all celebrations of the Welsh language or the Welsh character, are made to seem bogus—but only the Welsh are allowed to say so. From anyone else such criticism would be arrogant and unwarranted. The consequence is that, as Rhiannon says to Peter, “Wales is a subject that can’t be talked about. Unless you’re making a collection of dishonesty and self-deception and sentimental bullshit.” The same, it seems, goes for death—the skull beneath the genially smiling surface of this novel, Mr. Amis’s best for many years.