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Old 4th Sep 2004, 20:12   #1
Mike
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Default Kingsley Amis

Strangely enough though not surprisingly I felt no further forward in my understanding of this novel, the 1986 Booker Winner, than when I had first started. This isn't to say it isn't well written with some really quite funny moments, the descriptive passages in it are very good indeed. But I always felt I was missing something important; that a page had fallen from the book or something. Set as it is in early 80's Wales with its characters all in retirement drinking Wales dry as it said in the blurb. Drinking features heavily indeed with most of the dialogue in pubs, over drinks after pubs, over another scotch and soda, after another glass of wine, whilst opening a bottle of wine or even driving to a pub. Rekindling lost romance and old friendships the characters appear to stumble from one drinks party to another, so the reader unless drunk oneself soon loses all cognitive reason.

I doubt that this novel has really stood the test of time, concerned as it is with South Wales and its change from industrial heartland to tourist trap. The rise of the welsh language on signs along with its English counterparts is the basis for some quite funny passages, the characters are all born in Wales but are university educated with the main protagonist being a scholar, TV personality and one time Poet who has followed in the footsteps of an earlier Welsh poet who has now become popular and the reason for much of the local tourism. They see themselves as Welsh but the attempted return to Celtic heritage, with the rise of the language and the tourists leaves them ostracised, with sometimes hilarious consequences especially when they try to find the pubs they used to enjoy but find them either ultra modern for modern times or turned into old fashioned themed pubs. There are some quite funny passages about welsh culture & language that may not go down too well nowadays but they are funny.

All this said the dialogue and the many different characters make it hard to see what the author is trying to get across. The people in their twilight years attempt to rekindle their past but it is all so confusing and intertwined that I found it almost impossible to find out what actually what was going on. The humorous passages barely making up for the times when only a very large Scotch or at least a couple of glasses of wine would have helped with understanding. Trying to understand what was the earlier relationship between the characters muddles what little plot there is and makes the narrative slow and unwieldy. I understand the Kingsley Amis had written many many books before his death in 1995 but this in my honest opinion may have got the Booker as a lifetime achievement award. I doubt now that this is his best work, I didn't enjoy it and doubt that it will find much resonance with today's readers.
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Old 7th Sep 2004, 11:44   #2
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I agree entirely. Martin Amis considers this his father's best novel ("And then this incredible, efflorescence of The Old Devils, which I think is a masterpiece"), but as he has an intimate connection he can be forgiven for going easy on the old boy. Nonetheless unless tastes have changed remarkably in the last 18 years it's hard not to think, like Mike, that the 1986 Booker win for this one was a sort of Lifetime Achievement award rather than for the quality of the book itself (after all the 1988 and 89 winners, Oscar and Lucinda and The Remains of the Day, have certainly stood the brief test of time).

The Old Devils is a very long series of conversations in Welsh pubs, with the odd smile occasioned and even a few laughs ("They went outside and stood where a sign used to say Taxi and now said Taxi/Tacsi for the benefit of Welsh people who had never seen a letter X before") but a maddening lack of anything actually happening. There are other lines where you can see what he's aiming for but it falls short; it's as though the slightly twee and dated form of 'caustic wit' he displayed in Lucky Jim stayed with him throughout his writing life - The Old Devils being 30 years later. Maybe I am just of the wrong generation.

Martin Amis said in the interview I quote briefly above that "part of the reason I love The Old Devils is the sense of relief it gave me" - that his father wasn't quite consumed with mean-spiritedness until his death, as it sometimes seemed he would be. Nonetheless there is plenty of evidence of right-wing curmudgeonliness in The Old Devils, from anti-Europe jibes to 'jocular' talk about left-wing politicians, black people and the BBC - and nice as it would be to credit all that to Amis's imaginative empathy with made-up bigots ... well, nah.

So can our resident Amis Sr fan, youjustmightlikeit, give us any reasons to like the damn thing? Or is he in a cloakroom somewhere?
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Old 8th Sep 2004, 17:50   #3
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Just come out.

The main reason i have a fondness for Kingsley is for the individual lines and turn of phrase rather than the story. I remember reading the Old Devils about five years ago now, and i remember distinctly where i was when i read one of his lines that made me burst out laughing prompting a few funny looks from the others sat outside the pub. There was another time, again sat in a pub (this is not a trend, merely a coincidence), where the frequent chuckles were punctuated by one of those loud unexpected belly laughs, while reading the Biographers Moustache. A somewhat minor event you may say, but of all the jokes in all the world, those two laughs have stuck in the mind. The car journey at the start of Lucky Jim made me smile long and hard too. Also, the line about waking with a hangover and feeling as if a 'mouse had used his mouth not as a latrine, but as a mausoleum' did it for me. This was a man who understood what it was like to have a drink.

He may not be pc, but he can crack a joke, and these days it's refreshing to read someone speaking his mind; he's also good at social observation. I'll admit though that i've tried a couple of his and not finished, Girl 20 being one of them.

I'm off to Cornwall in a few minutes so i'm a bit pushed for time, but when i get back i'll dig out the Old Devils and find that line.
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Old 24th Jul 2008, 15:38   #4
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Default Re: 2008 Palimplist Discussions

Here's a bit of useless trivia: Aldiss was also very good friends with Kingsley Amis, and was name-checked in the latter's The Green Man.
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Old 24th Jul 2008, 15:56   #5
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Default Re: 2008 Palimplist Discussions

Ballard was also friendly with Amis, but I think they had a bit of a falling-out.
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Old 24th Jul 2008, 15:59   #6
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Default Re: 2008 Palimplist Discussions

Yes, Amis stopped liking Ballard's stuff around the time of Crash, and was not hesitant to say so. I'm a big fan of Amis, but he could be a little...oh, let's say "difficult" and "unfair".
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Old 24th Jul 2008, 16:37   #7
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Default Re: 2008 Palimplist Discussions

I haven't ready any of Amis senior's stuff, though The Green Man is sitting on my shelf. Which would you recommend?
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Old 24th Jul 2008, 17:33   #8
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Default Re: 2008 Palimplist Discussions

Lucky Jim, The Folks that Live on the Hill, Ending Up, Jake's Thing (not perfect, but worth reading), Girl 20... You'll probably also want to read his SF novel, The Alteration, and The Green Man was a disappointment when I first read it, many years ago, but it refuses to leave my head, so I should probably re-read it.
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Old 24th Jul 2008, 17:40   #9
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Default Re: 2008 Palimplist Discussions

The only Amis Srs I've (part-)read are Lucky Jim and The Old Devils, both of which I didn't like at all. I think we might have a thread for him somewhere.
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Old 24th Jul 2008, 17:50   #10
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Default Re: 2008 Palimplist Discussions

Yes, I knew even before joining that the works of Kingsley Amis were not beloved around here. I shall continue to attempt to get the word out, however.
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