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 room for some people. The main character of The Alteration is Hubert Anvil, a marvelous boy soprano whom the Vatican musical authorities propose to castrate for the greater glory of God and His art. Though he is also a promising composer, and such alteration may preserve the performing power by stunting the creative ones, his father and his clerical teachers reluctantly consent. Hubert’s efforts to escape his fate, aided by schoolmates, his mother, her lover (a malcontent priest), and the New England diplomatic corps, lead to a pleasant adventure story but not to freedom; he’s altered after all, though for medical, not musical, reasons.
Amis isn’t famous for his compassion, but here he affectingly catches and respects a child’s puzzlement about the threatened loss of something he knows about only from descriptions, trying to care because other people seem to:
Red was the colour of blood and fire and not of trees or the sky, of the dress of soldiers and cardinals and not of monks or servants; think of the sun, not the sea, an organ, not a choir, hard work, not indolence. Yes, but what was it like to look at something red? To know nothing whatever of women or girls and to know of them what a ten-year-old boy might know were different: as different as blindness and total colour-blindness. He went over in his mind the best part of what Anthony had said, with additions of his own. Kissing a girl—kissing Hilda van den Haag—he had forgotten how it had felt to be about to kiss her, and had to imagine it—kissing Hilda with no clothes on while it felt like playing with himself but like the wonderful ice-cream and she behaved like a very friendly cat—that would have to do for now, and perhaps parts of it were right.
It is no wonder that, knowing so little, he finally accepts his alteration without strong regret. This is sad for us but not really for him, Amis seems to suggest, like his altered world itself, which we don’t like to imagine but would probably live in more or less contentedly if we had to. Whatever is, is—if not right—at least tolerable and probably no worse than anything else. If no Beethoven, then more Mozart.
In the light of our own recent history, this seems to me an intolerable moral, though not, coming from Amis, a surprising one. He has lately been negotiating between “serious” fiction and humbler kinds like thrillers, and fantasy stories, as in The Green Man, Colonel Sun, The Riverside Villas Murder, and especially The Anti-Death League, which adumbrates the interest in science, sex, art, and religion which this novel works out more coherently. But if the democratizing of high art is a healthy enterprise, Amis’s way of doing it exposes the major premise of the kinds of popular fiction he’s concerned with: the stimulating variety of detail in a story of crime or imagined worlds leads finally back to an idea of human nature as immutably fixed and gravely flawed. To appropriate the title of his critical study of science fiction, we can draw “new maps of hell,” but the territory represented remains the old, known one that was ours—was us—all along.
Such an outlook can encourage a saving contempt for all forms of “authority” and for the self-deceptions that encourage us to assume or obey it—The Alteration is alive to the extent that it reminds us of Amis’s wonderful Lucky Jim. But its major mood is that of a tired, anti-ideological quietism which insists that secular choices are futile. The best I can say for that message is that it is conveyed in a surprisingly subdued and often affecting way.
Another marvelous boy inhabits William Trevor’s fine The Children of Dynmouth, but his marvels are less winning. Timothy Gedge, the unwanted, neglected child of a broken working-class home, at fifteen thin, ungainly, without visible talent for school or play, is an irrepressible and quite dangerous nuisance to the people of Dynmouth. He’s not only a pest but a liar, a thief, a witless practical joker, an occasional drunkard, a blackmailer, and a voyeur, whose most innocent pastimes are solitary telly-watching and going to funerals. Some of his victims seriously wonder if he’s not diabolically possessed, and you can see why.
Timothy is possessed, if only by an impossible dream of stardom, a huge conviction that, if given an audience, he could cut as potent and attractive a figure as any on the tube. He keeps his hand in by telling stupefying jokes: “‘Ever read books, Commander? Embarrassing Moments by Lucky Lastick?’ He laughed vigorously, wagging his head at the Commander. He could have sat there forever, he said to himself, telling funnies where they were appreciated.” But his main hope is to combine his interests in jokes and death in an original act for the talent show at the church fete in which he will impersonate not only Smith the wife-murderer but also three of his slain brides:
There were acts with pigeons on Opportunity Knocks, and family acts, and trick cyclists and singers and kids of three who could dance, and dogs smoking pipes, but he’d never yet seen a show that was comic and also about death. You’d have each of the brides acting like she was struggling against George Joseph Smith and all the time George Joseph Smith would be winning, only you wouldn’t actually see him, you’d have to imagine him. And when she went under the water the lights would go black and George Joseph Smith would appear a few seconds later in the dog’s-tooth suit. He’d tell jokes, standing beside the bath with the bride in it. You’d know she was in it because a bit of her wedding-dress would be draped over the side, only of course she wouldn’t be there at all because it was a one-man act. “Ah well, best be getting back to work,” George Joseph Smith would say when he had them bringing the house down.
Such elaborate stupidity lies unsettlingly close to a strain of abysmal vulgarity in British popular humor (Timothy is a great fan of Benny Hill). If we’re sure that he hasn’t a hope of success even in a low and tasteless art, we also know that it’s not just his hostility to his negligent, sluttish mother that has generated this fantasy.
But the project does release his one real talent, for aggression and crime. To perform his act he needs things—a bathtub, stage curtains, the dog’s-tooth suit for George Joseph Smith and a wedding dress for the brides—and things can be got only from people who have them, as Timothy does not. Without evident malice, he exploits the private secrets of respectable citizens—the publican’s adulteries, the pederasty of a retired naval officer, the bank manager’s painful estrangement from his son, suspicions of murder in a wealthy household—rightly confident that they will donate the needed props to someone as close to them as he is.
Trevor very delicately handles the implications of “class” in this painful story. Timothy’s targets are more well-to-do and better bred than he, and their advantages amusingly disable them for effective resistance to such direct and unsubtle demands as his. They feel sorry for him despite their fear and anger, or at least they see how little he has to lose, and how much they do. Dynmouth, once a pleasant fishing village but now a tacky “seaside resort of limited diversions” troubled like other places by strikes and bike-gangs, can’t offer its dispossessed much except carnal pleasure (of only professional interest to Timothy) and television dreams, and such boys as Timothy have little to look forward to except a job in the local sandpaper factory.
The concerned clergyman who tries to set things right takes this commendable view of him:
The boy would stand in courtrooms with his smile. He would sit in the drab offices of social workers. He would be incarcerated in the cells of different gaols. By looking at him now you could sense that future, and his eyes reminded you that he had not asked to be born. What crime would it be? What greater vengeance would he take?
But with someone else to feel sorrow and guilt for Timothy’s moral monstrosity, we don’t quite have to—Trevor’s interest in his case is both more appalled and more curious and sympathetic than that. Granted that he’s a victim and that the world would be better if he weren’t, still both he and the world are as they are, however they got that way, and there’s singular generosity as well as pathos in Trevor’s final picture of Timothy in the town amusement park, his act thwarted, telling a puzzled deaf man of his own secret birthright as love-child of the local doctor and a genteel spinster, while on the PA system Petula Clark sings “Downtown”—“How can you lose? Things will be great.” Though they almost surely won’t be so for Timothy Gedge, the ceaseless and almost redemptive activity of self-invention goes on anyway in this novel, which succeeds in being funny, frightening, and morally poised and intelligent at once.
James Hanley’s A Dream Journey considers with painful, grinding closeness the relationship—they aren’t married and hardly can be called lovers—of Clement Stevens, a very unknown painter, and Lena, who has lived with and sustained him for many years. We meet them in postwar but not quite present-day London, the last tenants in a decaying Chelsea lodging house which Clem has not stirred out of for much too long. While he tries, or pretends, to paint in the spare room she’s not admitted to and does considerable solo drinking, Lena takes long bus rides to shop in Euston Road, where they met and once lived, and generally keeps things going. He has headaches, she is rundown and fearful of a recurrence of breast cancer.
They have no phone, receive no letters, are never visited by friends. Their difficult intimacy takes the form of long silences, laconic talk, harsh but unfocussed quarrels, a mutual but secret pity for the other. This drab, gritty present is enlivened only by memories, especially hers, of times when things were, if not better, at least different, when a few dealers were mildly interested in his promise and their misery seemed to have more purpose.
The slow-moving story comes alive in a long middle section which shows Clem and Lena, in the same house, enduring the air raids of World War II. While they lug a huge painting up and down five flights of stairs to protect it from the bombs, Hanley weaves in the thoughts and voices of the other occupants—an RAF fighter pilot with his wife and child, an addled elderly couple who can’t quite understand their danger, the Welsh custodian and airraid warden who takes his impossible obligations seriously, a drunken sailor and his doxy. No one, happily, rises to the Miniverian heroic dignity which British domestic novels and films kept finding in the Blitz, but Hanley beautifully orchestrates the small and self-centered concerns of people driven into closeness, but not understanding or affection, by disaster.
Under pressure, Clem and Lena were given something they never had before or since, an almost Wordsworthian sense of ordinary life as heavy with intimations, glimpses of apocalyptic strangeness beyond the grasp of “meaning.” Lena, walking at night between attacks, sees a barrage-balloon suddenly descending:
In a world of suspended motion, a sudden movement, unexpected, strange. She had to stop, she had to look upwards. And then she saw it, a balloon coming down, with slow, isolated, elephantine movements in a city that seemed now so very still. It was like something out of another time, you thought of an undiscovered sphere, a new kind of mammal. And lower and lower it came, at the end of this street, to rooftop level, and so at last to barren ground. The eye was fixed steadily on it, noticed a giant shudder, something enormously swollen, watching it shiver, settle, and be still.
The suggestions of labor and birth in the last sentence lead nowhere—she herself is “barren ground” too, doomed to be childless and unable to conceive, even emotionally, the fulfilled life she dreams of with Clem. But in those bad days she was close to something extraordinary, and she never forgets.
Clem, who insists that he has forgotten (“Never think about the bloody war,” he claims just as the novel is shifting into the past, “don’t want to, whole thing’s a bad dream”), came even closer to revelation. Even then he seldom left the house, but when the bombs fall close he rushes out shouting, “I must see this”:
He stopped dead, to look up, look round, and saw light scattering light, a steeple half way through space, and vastly before him a river in tumult, flowing wild. Engines tore past him, followed by faces and faces and faces. He clambered up steps, reached a roof, leaned against stout iron railings, and now looked down, felt a tremble beneath him, a whole city rocking with outrageous power. And a life lived to see this, a great wall collapsing, a door hurling into the air, a falling girder, and a wind beginning to rise. He sensed the pressure of the earth beneath him…. And always the light sweeping past as though the wind was behind it. A life lived to see this, a city rocking. Not what you felt, and he couldn’t even think, the mind closed in. It was what he saw. And stared entranced at a blazing sky. All that light, a sea of it, from what reservoir had this flooded up, this drenching light, blazing red, and to his left a falling green, cataracts of light, red and yellow and green.
“A life lived to see this” holds its terrible irony—Clem Stevens is no Turner, such light far exceeds his powers, and his failed career proves that his life wasn’t lived to do much else. But he did see it, and the pulsing rhythms and fantastic imagery of this wonderful prose assure us that he saw it as a greater artist would have done, as a vision of essential force beyond thought or feeling, the brief opening out of a world truly worth apprehending. “God!…it’s magnificent,” he says, just as Lena said “Oh God!” when the balloon came down.
The story ends in the present, with Clem dead and Lena left to learn what she’s suspected, that he has painted virtually nothing since the war he’s tried to forget, perhaps because it showed him how meager his talent for anything but seeing really was. But Lena has her own imagination, in a way a stronger one than his. His dream was part of her life with him and therefore real, and in her memory, it seems, his stubborn devotion to an impossible art may achieve the status of a kind of art after all, though not a kind he would have understood.
If youth, for all its pain, is a classically attractive subject for fiction, old age and unredeemable failure lend themselves less easily to the genre, since the pleasure of speculating about outcomes is foreclosed. A Dream Journey, though quite conventional in method, is a hard book to learn to read, being resolutely unamusing, severely undecorated, unresponsive to expectations of “story.” It is to be liked, if at all, only on its own intransigent terms, and I see why Hanley’s long career has brought him the admiration of other novelists but not of a wide audience. But of these three novels of imagined alternatives to a difficult reality, Hanley’s is the most troubling and profound.
March 3, 1977