At a dinner given in honor of his eighty-fifth birthday, I heard Leonard Woolf say that there were two compensations for old age, First, after seventy you become subjectively better: minor ailments vanish and you feel more tonic. Secondly, after eighty you become objectively better: people who once disliked or ignored you now make a fuss of you simply because you are still there; even Queen Victoria, once hissed by the mob, became vastly popular in old age. That was an optimistic view; for a contrary view, take this typical case history given by a leading geriatrician (Alexander Leaf, Scientific American, September, 1973):
The patient, Mr. X, is eighty-one years old. A resident of the Dunhill Nursing Home, he has had two strokes, the first three years ago and the second a year ago. Since the last stroke he has been bedridden, incontinent and senile. He no longer recognizes members of his own family. For the past two years he has been eating poorly and failing generally. He was brought in last night by ambulance to our Emergency Service, where we found pulmonary congestion from a failing arteriosclerotic heart and pneumonia. Treatment was started with diuretics and digitalis for his congestive heart failure and high doses of penicillin for his pneumonia. This morning his fever is gone and he is breathing quietly.
Especially in the implication that pneumonia is no longer the moribund person’s friend, that is more gruesome than “From Marlborough’s eyes the streams of dotage flow,/And Swift expires, a driveller and a show,” if not as gruesome as some of the things in Kingsley Amis’s new novel. Leonard Woolf avoided such a fate presumably because he was continuously and busily employed, took exercise, was austere over food and drink, and was a gardener. And that’s probably the only way to avoid ending up as a miserable burden to self and others.
V.S. Pritchett is now in his seventies, active, well-loved, and optimistic; and he deals cheerfully with the topic of age in one of his new stories, “The Spree,” which begins:
The old man—but when does old age begin?—the old man turned over in bed and putting out his hand to the crest of his wife’s beautifully white rising hip and comforting bottom, hit the wall with his knuckles and woke up. More than once during the two years since she had died he had done this….
The first sentence is beautiful and there are many like it in the collection. Pritchett is a romantic writer in the simplest sense—he writes about love in its happiest aspects, and especially well about the process of falling in love. No one could fail to find his stories poetic and touching, but I confess that I am not deeply stirred by them. His world is too uncomplicated; in the end almost everyone gets off the hook, even the old man in “The Spree”; every problem seems to vanish. His women are charming objects, but they are nearly all too fey, and the stories come near to a sophisticated kind of sentimentality.
If they avoid this, it is because of Pritchett’s two great gifts. The first is his splendid craftsmanship: he knows all about narrative technique, and is a master of the casual climax (see, especially, in this collection, “The Lady from Guatemala”). The second is his journalistic skill: he is an admirable traveler in space and time, who bathes his romantic plots in a golden shower of authentic and convincing detail. In his descriptions of any background I happen to know a little about, such as the antique trade in the title story, I find him imaginatively accurate and share his obvious pleasure in perfect description. This is the best account I have read of the secret obsessions of antique dealers, obsessions in this case so powerful that they transform everything, including human beings, into antique objects of virtu: thus the dealer’s pale and childlike wife, the Camberwell beauty herself, is metamorphosed into a strange mechanical doll blowing a bugle. Perhaps this is analogous to what Pritchett is doing in his fiction: he turns his characters and their surroundings into charming artifacts, the kind of antiques that I admire through a window, but do not want to make part of my life.
Ending Up is a very different kind of book. A spare classical work in which nothing is wasted, it is presumably well founded on medical reality. Consider the five dreadful seventy-plus inhabitants of Tuppenny-hapenny Cottage: Bernard, retired brigadier (bowel cancer); Shortly, his army but non-officer boy friend of former years (alcoholism with cirrhosis of the liver); George, professor emeritus, Bernard’s brother-in-law (stroke with paralysis and nominal aphasia); Adela, Bernard’s sister (gastric ulcer and heart disease); and Marigold, her lifelong idol (incipient senility with amnesia). Medically, I suppose that includes all the most probable conditions: if there were room for another human being in the house, he or she would probably have emphysema, and I expect that George’s ghastly dog has that.
But true to life, they do not die directly of these diseases: in every case the angel with the darker draught is called Accident, who lives on the stairs, up stepladders, inside medicine cupboards where he mixes up the bottles, or hovering over the dog’s ball for pages on end until it gets stepped on. He is a small but effectual angel, often cruel but sometimes kind, as he is to Bernard: a few minutes of shock after a fall is a good exchange for months of terminal cancer. The violent ending, in which all five are carried off almost simultaneously, is however not at all naturalistic, although the details are carefully worked out. The odds against such an event must be astronomical, as in those detective stories that have five corpses in one country house weekend, including the bishop and the butler. I expect that Amis is alluding to that convention; he must be telling us that, although the characterization, language, and descriptions of the hideous clothes and furniture are as minutely accurate as the medical details, we are to read the book not as a realistic chronicle or a picture of life as lived in Britain today but rather as some kind of fable. But just what kind it is not immediately easy to see.
One clue may lie in what I have read of Amis’s journalism. I don’t mean only that he himself lives in a sort of middle-class commune, which includes invalids: that is relatively trivial, although it shows he knows what he is talking about. It’s more important that he has always been obsessed with music, that great comfort of middle age, preferring late eighteenth-century music (he says his favorite composer is C.P.E. Bach, not J.S.) but also admiring Mozart and others of the Viennese classical composers.
At the risk of incurring Lucky Jim’s coarse derision, I will make a guess that he has tried to model the structure of Ending Up on a baroque suite or more likely on a classical work with some movements in sonata form. Such a work is likely to be chamber music; and if so, it is presumably a quintet rather than a quartet, so the field is fairly narrow. It could be Schubert’s C major quintet, but I think it is more likely to be one of Mozart’s: the g minor (K. 516), perhaps, which is believed to be about death and except for the last movement is one of the saddest pieces in all music. In that case the characters not only represent instruments (with Marigold as first fiddle, Bernard as cello, and so on—although their bowels are sometimes used as instruments too) but also express themes or “first and second subjects.” These themes are carefully introduced and reintroduced in musical fashion in the earliest of the forty very short chapters, which can themselves be grouped into “movements” according to the dates of the narrative (October, 1972, to early January, 1973, with distinct gaps).
The first lunch party, in fourteen chapters, suggests to me a first movement in fairly strict sonata form. Can the characters’ dreadful habit of repeating themselves be thematic development, their even worse habit of continually interrupting each other counterpoint (like the stretti of a fugato)? The static episodes before Christmas seem like the two slow movements of the g minor; and just as Mozart turns the last movement into a disconcertingly cheerful dance, so Amis moves into a farcical kind of ballet in the penultimate sequence of chapters: during the appalling Christmas dinner people keep falling about in a surprising manner, perhaps more suitable for a Totentanz. I admit I can’t make the coda of the story fit the g minor quintet: nevertheless, it does seem to resemble a musical coda. Even if the details of my theory are wrong, I am sure that any careful reader with some musical knowledge will have the sense that chamber music is being played before him, probably Mozart’s.
There are no allusions to classical music in the text. The more decayed gentlefolk are uncultivated; the lower-class Shortly is the only musician in the group but he’s a Philistine. Nor is the formal structure of the narrative reflected in any formality of language: the quintet and their younger visitors speak and think in varieties of modern British idiom (needless to say, as brilliantly caught as ever): there is nothing of Ivy Compton-Burnett here. But if the essence of classical music (and all classical art) is symmetry, Ending Up is richly endowed with this on every plane, narrative and moral. For example, the five are all horrible, but each in different degrees in a different way: Bernard’s malevolence, which starts with quiet needling and ends with elaborate and futile practical jokes, is the worst; but Shorty’s facetious vulgarity, Adela’s stupidity, George’s repetitiousness, and Marigold’s hideously cute language (“trackle-packle” in her private language means “attractive”) are all equally vile.
On the other hand, each is virtuous in his or her peculiar way. Bernard on receiving his death sentence from the specialist keeps silent with military heroism; Shorty tries to cheer up the company with an attempt at verbal wit; Adela is a conscientious house-keeper and a devoted friend; George will not be defeated by his stroke and tries to go on writing for the learned journals; even Marigold deserves credit for trying to be neat and smart. Amis is just to each of them, but nothing excuses their common vices of solipsism and lack of attention, their deep vulgarity of not listening. The book is not a satire, but it contains satire: you cannot satirize people for getting sick and old, but I think Amis means to suggest that you can reasonably expect them to be alert and polite up to the time when the relevant parts of the brain disappear.
There also seems to be some symmetry in the balance of pleasure and pain felt by each of the five. Each suffers, and not only physically; humiliation and irritation are powerfully shown to be the worst scourges of old age. But Amis subtly suggests that each of them is happy too, finding pleasures which the young and restless can hardly know, in routine work, in getting permanently drunk, or, like Bernard, in just passing the time. Almost every sentence spoken is ironical, in that it has at least two meanings, depending on who is listening or, more usually, not listening. Almost every sentence is very sad and very funny.
Why has Amis gone to all this trouble to achieve this balance of form? The answer seems to come from Bernard, who emerges most clearly as the author’s mouthpiece.
Outside, the sun was shining on various items of vegetation. Another mistaken forecast of his had been that, knowing what he knew, he would come to prize the things outside himself, like the scene before him; yet another, that he would have been able to look back on his life and—not find a meaning in it, which he had never hoped for, but see it as a whole. That might have been some compensation for having had to be Bernard Bastable, for having had to live.
The book describes the futility and meaninglessness of life as it must sooner or later appear to many old people. Despite his continual joking, and sometimes apparently callous indifference, Amis has written a very moving study of the pain of old age, and he could be thought of as offering a present to Bernard and to others in his plight. If Bernard cannot see his life as meaningful or even see it as whole, then the author can do something like that for him: he won’t offer the false comforts of religion or philosophy, but he can give a life some formal pattern, which in the end, as in music, means only itself.
When a writer you have long admired comes up with a book as good as this, it is natural to look up some of his earlier work. When I opened one of them I began to laugh aloud, until I felt the shock of memory. It may be progressive amnesia, but I could not remember laughing aloud at any new book, perhaps at any book, since I first read the library interview in That Uncertain Feeling, nearly twenty years ago.
March 20, 1975