Kingsley Amis was one of the most gifted of British novelists and he remains a firm favourite of mine. His career began with the resounding success of the riotous Lucky Jim in 1954.
Ending Up comes from 20 years later and has a very different mood to it. Lucky Jim was bright, optimistic, fizzing with energy and all about beginnings — setting off on the adventure of adult life.
As the title suggests, Ending Up is at the other end of things. It's about a collection of oldsters (a classic Amis term) who share a rather shambolic house called Tuppenny-hapenny Cottage where they are going to finish their confused, cantankerous, careworn days together.
This may sound like boring or depressing material but in fact the book is addictively, effortlessly readable and grips like a thriller.
In his excellent biography of Amis, Zachary Leader accurately describes Ending Up as "a feast of malice and ill humour, one of the best and most artfully constructed of Amis's novels."
Leader also has some interesting things to say about the real world sources of Amis's fictional characters in this book, such as his mother-in-law Kit Howard, an unlikable woman if ever there was one. Amis described walking past her room as "shooting the rapids" — like everyone else, he was scared of being called inside.
Amis was living in a house in Hertfordshire with Kit, his wife Jane, her brother Colin, and the painter Sargy Mann. At one point Jane idly wondered what it would be like if they all stayed there and grew old together... Kingsley Amis took note of the idea and Ending Up was conceived.
And very carefully conceived, too. Amis devised a meticulous plan for his story. which included 45 "ways to be annoying," all of which appear in the novel. He also drew floorplans of Tupenny-hapenny cottage and sketched a rudimentary timeline.
But it's in his carefully drawn characters where Amis really excels. Some of them are indeed annoying, but his central figure Bernard is pure evil.
I suppose you could merely say he's a complete bastard, but I think that fatally understates the case. Bernard lives to torment the other inhabitants of the house. He is terminally ill, and knows it, but this in no way excuses his behaviour or softens the reader's attitude to him. (At least, not this reader's.)
So it is a tribute to Amis's considerable talent that he actually makes us feel sympathy for Bernard towards the end of the book.
But this emotional reaction was nothing compared to my utter delight when one of his evil schemes was thwarted. (Bernard was trying to deprive George, a bedridden invalid, of the beloved dog who keeps him company. I told you he was pure evil.)
Oddly, it is Marigold who foils George. I say oddly because Marigold, who was based on Kit Howard, is a dotty old racists with her own bizarre idiom (she refers to "blacks" — black people — as "blackle packles", for instance).
The other denizens of the house are the brave and resourceful George, felled by a stroke and struggling to overcome it; the alcoholic but likable Shorty and the hardworking, unappreciated and unloved Adela (a cruelly reimagined version of Amis's then wife, the distinguished novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard).
Adela is Bernard's sister and he is particularly nasty where she's concerned: "He limped off to the kitchen in confident hope of an opportunity to ridicule and distress her."
In case this suggests that the book is a downer and too negative, let me quickly reassure you. It's actually hilarious, full of classic Amis moments:
"Eighteenth-century timber-frame was what she called the style of the house when asked, and sometimes when not."
"Outside the sun was shining on various items of vegetation."
" 'Yes,' said Tracy. She thought for a moment and added, 'Yes.' "
And then there's Tracy's horror at the thought of old people "fucking like a stoat at over seventy"...
In his valuable introduction to the New York Review Books edition, Craig Dickson describes how "Throughout his oeuvre, irritation plays on the Amis landscape like sun on sea."
There's much more here than irritation here, though, or even brilliant comedy.
The ending of the book is a breathtakingly succinct multiple tragedy in which Amis dispatches his characters in a few short pages as if a savagely avenging fate had come calling for them.
This terse, dark, hilarious little book is a masterpiece.
(I've also posted about these other novels by Kingsley Amis: That Uncertain Feeling, I Like it Here, Take a Girl Like You and The Anti-Death League.)
(Image credits: The cover of the New York Review Books edition is my scan of my own copy. The other covers — including the Czech language one featuring an image of Amis himself — are from Good Reads. Thank you, Good Reads.)