Sunday 27 April 2014

Kingsley Amis by Zachary Leader

Early in Kingsley Amis's novel Take a Girl Like You, the hero Patrick Standish is reflecting on the enticing, eponymous heroine Jenny Bunn and thinks, "He wanted more than his share of her before anybody else had any." It's a remark which becomes even more amusing when you learn that it originated from Amis on a visit to America, when he and a bunch of friends were hurrying towards a fried clam joint. "Oh, good," declared our man. "I want more than my share before anybody else has any." Which became a catch phrase in his circle of friends.

Kingsley Amis had more than his share in life. More than his share of talent, literary success, fun, booze, money and — very definitely — women. He was, as another character refers to Patrick Standish, "A veritable king of shaft." 

On that same American sabbatical which gave rise to the fried clam remark, Amis's wife Hilly received an anonymous phone call. "You realise your husband's screwing every dame in Princeton?" said the woman. "Every one but you, evidently," replied Hilly, and hung up.

I know all this because I've just finished reading Zachary Leader's excellent biography of  Amis which I mentioned in last week's post. It's a huge book, literally a doorstop, but constantly readable and seldom less than utterly gripping. Leader is a gifted author and the book is unlikely to be bettered soon, or indeed ever.

What was particularly fascinating was the discussion of how Amis's childhood gave rise to the themes and subjects of his fiction. Often with biographies I'm tempted to skip past the early years and start in at the point where, say, Count Basie joins his first band. In this case I'm glad I'm resisted the temptation to forgo the early sections and dive in when, say, Amis began writing Lucky Jim. I would have missed a huge amount of valuable material.

Also eye opening was the discussion at the other end of Amis's life, of his final work. As I've said elsewhere Russian Hide and Seek is my least favourite Amis novel. I'd assumed the book marked the beginning of a terminal decline and that nothing after it would be worth reading. 

On the contrary, Leader (who agrees about Russian Hide and Seek) makes clear that it's just a blip in the graph and that there are some impressive and hilarious novels — and quite possibly a venomous masterpiece or two — among those that followed, which include Stanley and the Women, The Old Devils (a Booker Prize winner), Difficulties with Girls (a sequel to Take a Girl Like You) and The Folks That Live on the Hill.

Also priceless are the excerpts from Amis's correspondence, particularly the letters to Philip Larkin and Robert Conquest, which are often convulsively funny. I am now tempted to get Zachary Leader's giant volume of The Letters of Kingsley Amis. Hell, the excerpts from Amis's poems are so beguiling I'm tempted to read some of the poetry.

I said I'd finished reading Zachary Leader's biography. That's not quite true. I skipped the detailed description of most of Amis's novels. I'll go back to them after I've read the books themselves. Lots of reading pleasure in store.

(Image credits: The book covers are from Good Reads. The shot with the wine bottle is from Mans-Womans. The photo of Kingsley with his cat is from the Observer Archive. The splendid caricature by Mark Waghorne is from the artist's own Caricatures Gallery, where you can buy signed prints.)

Sunday 20 April 2014

I Like it Here by Kingsley Amis

Kingsley Amis is one of my favourite novelists and I am currently working my way through Zachary Leader's massive (one thousand page), engrossing and definitive biography of him. One side effect of reading the biography is a desire to re-read — or sometimes read for the first time — the Amis books under discussion. So I keep setting Zachary Leader aside and reaching for Amis.

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?)

Sunday 13 April 2014

Bringing Out the Dead by Joe Connelly

I only knew Bringing Out the Dead as a Scorsese movie — a very disappointing Scorsese movie with an inert script by Paul Shrader which featured Nicolas Cage as a tormented New York paramedic. 

It came from what I think of as Scorsese's wilderness years which began after the excellent Casino and now, thankfully, have ended with the even more excellent, in fact downright magnificent, Wolf of Wall Street.

I wasn't even aware, or I had forgotten, that Bringing Out the Dead was based on a novel. So when I discovered a copy of the book by Joe Connelly I was intrigued enough to buy it. I'm really glad I did.

I was gripped from the first few pages where the ambulance crew is summoned to treat a man with cardiac arrest. His family is desperately trying to give him CPR and the narrator bleakly informs us that they're wasting their time because they're performing it on a bed — you have to do CPR on a hard surface like the floor.

Joe Connelly really was a paramedic and his priceless inside knowledge infuses the novel with authenticity. He describes the way the steering wheel of the ambulance vibrates when the life support equipment is turned on in the back of the "bus".

And he writes beautifully, too. Here he is describing receiving intravenous meds: "the drugs were cold, like steel worms crawling over my elbow." And he has a nice dry wit. "The city that never sleeps had taken a pill." The book is full of a feeling of doom, very effectively evoked: "I watched these events unfold like a twister across the plain."

If there is a flaw to the novel it is that it's excessively bleak. The superb writing and the humour never quite compensate for the defeated nature of the hero and the hopeless situation all around him. The story is too unremittingly nightmarish — and too focused on a single individual — to constitute an urban MASH. But that doesn't stop this being a notable and impressive novel... particularly impressive since it's a first novel.

And vastly more memorable than the movie — though I'm going to give that a second chance now, on the strength of this outstanding book.

(Image credits:  rather thin pickings at Good Reads. The orange cover at the beginning of the post — the edition I read — is from Amazon.)

Sunday 6 April 2014

Starred Up by Jonathan Asser

At first glance, from the trailers, Starred Up appeared to be just one more thuggish, thick ear British gangster movie, albeit one with a very odd title. But then I read an interview in Sight & Sound with the screenwriter, Jonathan Asser.

Starred Up is a prison movie and Asser had worked for years in education, at Feltham Young Offenders Institution, and then Wandsworth Prison. Suddenly I was interested in the film. It was a rare instance of someone writing from a position of knowledge.

And it turns out Starred Up is a great film. Certainly one of the best of the year. I can't recommend it too highly... though it is unremittingly brutal, so be warned. 

The title refers to young offenders who are so violent and unmanageable that they are 'starred up', i.e. transferred to an adult prison. In this case, the young offender has a reason for wanting to be sent to a grown up jail. (Incidentally, the original title was 'L Plate' — sardonic prison slang for a life sentence.)

When Asser wasn't working in prisons he was writing poetry. And the visual quality of his poems suggested to an astute reader that he should try a screenplay. He took a shot at it, and after years of encouragement and mentoring he developed the brilliant script that is Starred Up. Perhaps the most crucial piece of advice was to change the nephew/uncle relationship to a son/father one. (A classic principle of screenwriting: always concentrate situations and make them more powerful.) Now the film suggests that its hero has deliberately plunged into the hell of adult prison in search of his father...

Besides the outstanding script, Starred Up is also superbly directed, by David Mackenzie who made one of my favourite films of 2009, the offbeat and cynical Spread (you'll never forget the end title sequence!). And the cast of Starred Up is also first rate, including Jack O'Connell as the young inmate and Ben Mendelsohn, who was so great in Killing Them Softly, as his dysfunctional dad.

The film depicts a situation of violence, cruelty and utter hopelessness, yet it manages to find a glimmer of hope. It is extremely powerful. After the (very moving) conclusion there was spontaneous applause from audience at the Thursday night screening I attended — in Wandsworth, appropriately enough.

(Image credits: The black and white poster is from IMDB. The photo of Jonathan Asser beside the poster is from Film 4. The photo of O'Connell and Mendelsohn is from Coreplan. The colour poster is from Letterboxd.)