Sunday 1 June 2014

That Uncertain Feeling by Kingsley Amis

Continuing my project to read all of Kingsley Amis's novels (albeit slightly out of sequence), inspired by Zachary Leader's biography, I have now reached Amis's second book, That Uncertain Feeling.

It's the story of John Lewis, a Welsh librarian, who is torn between his wife and the Other Woman: "How reprehensible yet pleasant it would have been to make a pass at her." 

The wife, Jean, is very engagingly drawn by Amis, rather in the mode of the wife in I Like it Here — and also apparently in the mode of Hilly, Amis's real life wife. 

The Other Woman, Elizabeth, resembles some of the hilarious secondary characters in Take A Girl Like You, his fourth novel and one of his masterpieces. Elizabeth is also, in her own way, extremely engaging. So you can see why John Lewis is torn.

That tug-of-war is also between Lewis's innate decency and his Welsh working class roots and the immoral Anglicised upper class milieu in which Elizabeth operates. The book is, to quote an Amis catchphrase "full of fun" and also full of the sharp, yet tender, observations about married life and child rearing which distinguished I Like It Here

The novel is, stylistically, a step forward from Lucky Jim, showing the judicious concision and gift for eliding material with the almost cinematic cutting from scene to scene which distinguishes Amis's writing at its best. Unlike Lucky Jim, it is told in the first person, a technique which the writer would return to with The Green Man, my favourite Amis novel.

That Uncertain Feeling is marked by the keen, witty observation of character which is an Amis hallmark. Lewis's wife walks out her front door and glances quickly around "as if fearful of snipers." Or a man evading Lewis's gaze in a pub: "he turned away like an alcoholic sighting a pink rat." Great descriptions of inanimate objects, too. Such as the "ship's siren out in the bay, a low-pitched, harsh moan like an ogre breaking wind."

One interesting aspect of the book is how science fiction creeps into it. Like Amis himself, Lewis is an SF fan, a regular reader of Astounding magazine and this allows Amis to use science fiction imagery in his prose. Tormented by his longing for infidelity, Lewis thinks how nice it would be if he were like a creature on "one of the outer planets of Vega, where life... was transmitted by asexual reproduction."

This novel does, however, have a serious flaw. There is a sequence where Lewis is around at her house with Elizabeth, the other woman. They think they have plenty of time alone, but Elizabeth's husband returns unexpectedly. Lewis tries to flee the house but gets lost (it's a large mansion). After various misadventures he ends up in Elizabeth's dressing room where he finds an antique traditional Welsh woman's costume (Elizabeth has been putting on a play). Then Lewis for no discernible reason decides to put on the traditional Welsh woman's costume.

He isn't drunk, he isn't a cross dresser, he isn't crazy. Elizabeth hasn't dared him to do it (which I think would be the most plausible motivation in an admittedly thin field). He just puts this costume on, for no reason. Or rather, there is a reason — the author wants him to. It's an entirely arbitrary — and deeply unconvincing — act. And of course events conspire to force Lewis to flee the house still wearing the costume. And catch the bus home in it. And "hilarious" events ensue.

It's an unfunny episode, which falls completely flat. Because it's completely unbelievable. As John Lewis himself might say, "There's no bloody reason for it, man." And it almost sinks the whole book. Almost but not quite. It's a considerable tribute to Amis's skills as a novelist that he manages to regain lost ground. Subsequent set pieces involving some brilliant use of minor characters and very dry humour enabled me to forgive.

And, as is becoming customary with Amis, I learned a new word: amphisbaenic (spelled or perhaps misspelled "amphisboenic" throughout the Penguin edition). It means resembling a (mythical) serpent with a head at both ends. That's what Elizabeth's fancy car looks like.
(Image credits: The recent Penguin with the Nicholas Garland cartoon cover, which is the edition I read, the Penguin Modern Classic with the nice cover painting (peering through bookshelves) and the Panther up-skirts photograph are all from Good Reads. The yellow jacket Gollancz original hardcover is from an ABE seller. The US hardcover with an attractive cartoon cover is from another ABE seller. The rather cool Australian paperback, published by Horwitz, is from yet another ABE seller. Thanks to all concerned.)

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