Friday, January 03, 2020

the last book I read

The Folks That Live On The Hill by Kingsley Amis.

Harry Caldecote has basically done all right for himself, in a low-key sort of way. A reasonably well-known and respected man in his particular field (something involving libraries and books, never described in any detail), acceptably comfortably-off in semi-retirement, single after two marriages and divorces but with a lady with whom he has an occasional, hem hem, "arrangement", a member of a local club, regular at the local pub, all nice and cosy and well-organised.

The fly in the ointment, as it is in pretty much all Amis' books, is Other People. In Harry's case there are several of these, mostly relatives of one form or another, whom Harry feels alternately irritated by and responsible for. There's Bunty, the daughter of one of his ex-wives (i.e. his ex-stepdaughter), nice enough but a bit unassertive and currently in a relationship with a woman called Popsy who has an occasional penchant for domestic violence. There's Desmond, restaurateur, Bunty's ex-husband, pathetically desperate to woo Bunty back even though he has a new relationship on the go with a woman at the restaurant and Bunty has made it abundantly clear she's batting for the other team these days. There's Piers, Harry's actual son, generally feckless and unreliable and always on the lookout for money to fund his latest slightly shady business venture. There's Clare, Harry's sister, widowed and currently sharing Harry's house (in the fictional London neighbourhood of Shepherd's Hill). There's Freddie, Harry's brother, occasional poet, married to the frightful Désirée. And there's Fiona, related even more tenuously to Harry than Bunty (she's his first wife's niece), but nonetheless inclined to give out Harry as her emergency contact when she needs to be rescued from a state of drunken collapse in some drinking establishment or other, which happens fairly frequently.

As all of these various hangers-on bumble through their own triumphs and disasters - Freddie's poetry gets published again after a gap of 30-odd years, Popsy's campaign of violence against Bunty intensifies, Fiona pinballs from sobriety to drunkenness and back again - Harry is offered a chance to escape by the offer of a job in America, generous package and all, which would see him though to a very comfortable retirement. Obviously it involves physically relocating, which would free him from some of his perceived obligations. But can he find a way of extricating himself? Does he really want to?

This was one of Amis' last novels, published in 1990; he died in 1995. While his novel-writing career spanned 40 years, from Lucky Jim in 1954 to You Can't Do Both in 1994, my main Amis-reading career spanned probably no more than three or four years, from approximately 1987 to 1990, from reading Lucky Jim to reading this novel's immediate predecessor Difficulties With Girls and spanning about ten of his books. One of the odd things about compressing an entire oeuvre into such a short time is that you can observe the main protagonist and authorial alter ego rapidly aging with the author from Lucky Jim's eponymous twentysomething hero, all about the beer-swilling and occasional fisticuffs and the enthusiastic pursuit of women, to the later novels' protagonists who just want to be left alone to their undemanding daily routine of nipping down the pub for a few bevvies and a bit of a complain and then having a bit of a snooze, and don't want to be prised out of their comfort zone or have to do anything that might aggravate their gout. You would have to say, I think, that there was a general souring of the worldview of the characters as well - I note that I defended Amis against charges of misogyny in this old post; well, I think what I would say in 2020 is that his misogyny is just a particular aspect of a generalised misanthropy and inability to understand other people in general. One thing that you certainly could say is that while many of the men in the novels pursue sex with varying degrees of enthusiasm, and are occasionally rewarded, there is never the slightest sense that any of the women involved enjoy the experience at all and do it out of anything other than perceived obligation or some sort of husband-snagging ulterior motive. The central sexual encounter in Take A Girl Like You, for instance, which cements Patrick and Jenny's relationship, is unequivocally an act of rape. As it happens most of the female characters here are reasonably sympathetically portrayed, with the exception of Désirée, while most of the male characters are mendacious half-wits, with the exception of Harry, who, it is made clear, really does grudgingly care about people and is capable of genuine kindness, while also being something of a pompous flatulent buffoon.

It's an odd experience reading a Kingsley Amis novel for the first time in at least 25 years (not counting occasional skim-re-readings of sections of Lucky Jim). I can instantly recognise what I liked about them the first time round: the merciless skewering of pretension and bullshit, the enthusiasm for the physical act of drinking and getting drunk and the associated meticulous planning that is sometimes necessary, the comic set pieces. What I also recognise is what gradually led me to stop reading them: the accumulating bitterness, the feeling that the central protagonists were getting less and less like me and more like a succession of sad, grey, pissed old men worrying about their bladders and prostates, and, more prosaically, the feeling that I'd read all the good ones and would probably be better occupied reading other things. The Folks That Live On The Hill, while not as corrosively bitter as Jake's Thing or Stanley And The Women, and perfectly fine in its own way, certainly isn't going to change my opinion that if you just read Lucky Jim (one of the best comic novels ever written) from his early period and the Booker-winning The Old Devils from the later period, that would probably be just about all you'd need.

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