I Like it Here is Amis's third novel. The author himself dismisses it — 'by common consent, my worst novel.' But I disagree. The worst novel by Amis that I've read (and I have yet to read them all) was Russian Hide and Seek. The set up (an alternate history story in which Soviet Russia has taken over Britain) suggests an exciting and fascinating tale, but the book is somehow lifeless and deeply dull (Anthony Burgess agrees with me on this).
I Like it Here, by contrast, is never dull and full of life. It also had me laughing out loud more than once. It concerns an Amis-like writer who goes on holiday in Portugal with his family. He also has a journalistic assignment, some literary detective work. He is supposed to determine whether the reclusive Great Novelist living in Portugal, who has just renounced anonymity, is actually the real bloke, or an impostor.
Zachary Leader calls this a "creaky and contrived literary mystery" but I liked it, and it's essential to give the book some purpose. Otherwise it would read like a series of witty sketches of a family holiday — which is exactly what it is. Amis based it very closely on his experiences in Portugal. His annoying landlord Barley is accurately depicted here, renamed "Oates" (get it?) and so on.
The great novelist is named Wulfstan Strether and he is an enormous bore. Amis took the name Strether from a character in Henry James, whom he regarded as an overrated and deeply boring novelist, while Wulfstan was the most boring of Anglo Saxon writers — Amis frequently referred to early Anglo Saxon poetry as "ape's toilet paper" or variations thereof.
I Like it Here is impressively well written. Amis cuts from sequence to sequence with a kind of cinematic decisiveness, ruthlessly dispensing with unnecessary exposition and transitions. The writing is vivid, with excellent dialogue and it's frequently hilarious.
Here Amis is describing how the landlord Oates is warning our hero Bowen that Oates's emotionally unstable Portuguese mother-in-law ("she sometimes flies into terrible rages") will be moving into the tiny and already massively over crowded house with the long-suffering Bowen and his family:
"In Bowen's mental projection-theatre an exophthalmic hag with a knife of traditional Portuguese pattern was chasing him round and round Oates's 'garden', for some reason at Chaplin-revival speed and with corresponding intensity of gesture."
I first read this novel decades ago and I'd always thought the title referred to Bowen's reaction to Portugal. But thanks to Zachary Leader, and closer attention to the text, it's clear that the "here" Amis refers to is back home in Britain. And this story is all about the perils of going Abroad not being outweighed by the benefits.
Not a sentiment I agree with, but I enjoyed I Like it Here hugely. The only real flaw in the book is an American tourist who, in amongst some otherwise very convincingly rendered dialogue, uses the word "shan't".
If your worst novel is I Like it Here, then you are one hell of a novelist. Amis was just that.
(Image credits: The Four Square edition at the beginning of the post, with the beautiful cartoon cover by Kirby is the edition I read. The cover image is from ABE. The Gollancz hardcover is also from ABE. The American hardcover is yet again from ABE. The Panther edition with the billowing skirt is, for a change, from a blog by Michael A Charles. The foreign edition from Portugal (appropriately enough) is from Good Reads. Oh, and by the way "exophthalmic" means with bulging eyes. Surely you knew that?)