Sunday 25 May 2014

Take a Girl Like You by Kingsley Amis

Continuing my modestly ambitious project of reading all of Kingsley Amis's novels (inspired by Zachary Leader's admirable and definitive biography of Amis), I have just finished Take a Girl Like You. This is Amis's fourth novel, after Lucky Jim, That Uncertain Feeling and  I Like it Here and it is widely regarded as one of his best.

I'd go along with that, though it isn't about to unseat The Green Man as my personal favourite. (Actually, there is an interesting foreshadowing of The Green Man here. The male protagonist of Take a Girl Like You is given to panic attacks of an almost hallucinatory intensity, like this: "Some configuration of the leaves under the slight breeze formed, as he watched, a shifting face in profile, the eye blinking slowly." That will ring a bell with anyone who has read Amis's classic ghost story.)

One thing I've noticed in my Amis-reading project is the extent of his vocabulary. It's an education to read his books. You can generally count on at least one word you've never heard before. This time it is "carphology" which means the plucking of the bedclothes by a delirious patient. Here Amis uses it to refer to some frenetic modern jazz he doesn't like (Coltrane, I suspect): "carphology in sound." 

Take a Girl Like You is Amis's own favourite among his novels. It is lovingly crafted and took a long time to write, started in 1955 and set aside for I Like it Here, it was finally published in 1960.

It is also Amis's longest novel, carefully planned in terms of characterisation and structure. He made 80 pages of detailed notes in a notebook, begun while he was in Portugal (also incidentally gathering the material for I Like it Here). It's a notable step forward in Amis's craft, depicting the action from two character's viewpoints. It starts out as a pure account of Jenny Bunn and what happens to her, then follows Patrick Standish's point of view, alternating chapters between the two of them. But it remains essentially Jenny's novel (16 chapters for her, 11 for Patrick).

Jenny is a delightful character, a ravishing Northern virgin. She is largely inspired by Amis's wife Hilly (though she wasn't from the North of England) and it is a highly sympathetic portrait, although it is easy for the modern reader (and indeed the 1960 reader) to get fed up with Jenny's silly insistence on trying to retain her virginity in the face of Patrick's (and others') onslaughts and stratagems.

But, as Zachary Leader points out, it is easier to mock a desire to retain virginity than a wish for fidelity, and in the real world that was the true tension between Hilly and Amis — they loved each other but he was running around (to put it euphemistically) with every available, attractive women who crossed his line of sight.

This is a beautifully observed novel and very sympathetic to the plight of women suffering unwanted attention. For instance when Amis describes the anxious sweaty dud nerving himself himself up to try and put his arm around Jenny's shoulder, "like a golfer preparing for a tricky shot."

This brilliant observation extends to other characters, like posh Julian the flamboyant  rich rake. As he serves drinks, Jenny observes "It was funny to see him with something in his hands that was for other people."

And the character of Julian's mistress Wendy is a comic tour de force, delivered almost as a three page monologue: "Is he pissed or something? ... He's absolutely stark raving mad. Darling, what happened to him to make him behave like that, do you suppose? Do you think he was brought up in the most weird morbid sort of way by some ghastly old maiden aunt or something, you know with all harmoniums and aspidistras and antimacassars and things?"
Take a Girl Like You is also hilariously funny: "he quietened down, like somebody who knows he has let on to being a bit too interested in how they manage the floggings in prisons."

Amis himself said of the novel, "I hope they'll go on laughing, but this time... I'm saying something serious. I don't mean profound or earnest, but something serious."

And, true enough, Take a Girl Like You is wildly funny, but it is also surprisingly dark — perhaps the first sign of a tendency which would become increasingly emphatic in Amis's fiction. And, like many of his novels, it has a real sting in the tail.

The ending of the book is rather shocking, for a number of reasons which obviously I won't go into here, since I don't want to spoil it for you. I will just say that it's no surprise that Patrick Standish is capable of being a bastard — we see plenty of examples of that throughout the novel — but it is jarring to discover that the previously sympathetic Miss Sinclair, the headmistress at Jenny's school and her boss, is capable of being such a complete bitch.

Classic Amis.

(Image credits: The cover of the copy I read, the Penguin with the neat repeating graphic design by Lou Klein is from ABE. As are the great sexy Signet, the later Penguin (lecher in scholar's robes) and the Gollancz original hardcover. The lovely Quentin Blake Penguin is from Good Reads.)

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