Sunday, 7 July 2019

The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis

This novel is considered by Martin Amis to be his father's greatest achievement, so we can rest assured it is anything but. (Kingsley's greatest achievement was his superb ghost story The Green Man.)  

But The Old Devils is good. As with Ending Up, it deals with elderly people nearing the end of their lives — although it doesn't have the intense clarity of Ending Up, thanks to the large cast of characters and their complex web of relationships. 

Some of these characters are vivid enough to begin to emerge from the haze around the time philandering poet Alun Weaver enters the story upon his return to Wales. But although a few of them are sufficiently distinctive to intermittently fix themselves in the reader's mind — Peter (fat), Charlie (alcoholic) — others stubbornly remain a mystery. 

Usefully, though, all three of those characters appear in this nimble trio of sentences: 

"Charlie appeared. He was followed by someone who at first looked to Alun like an incredibly offensive but all too believable caricature of Peter Thomas aged about eighty-five and weighing half a ton. At second glance he saw that it was Peter Thomas."

Which gives some idea of how Amis is operating in his classic comic mode in this novel.

Here he is giving an account of a hangover: "He felt as if about two-thirds of his head had recently been sliced off and his heart seemed to be beating somewhere inside his stomach, but otherwise he was fine."

Even more acute is his depiction of the psychological consequences of heavy boozing (of which there is a great deal in this book) — "he felt that everything he had was lost and everyone he knew was gone." 

There's also a fond moment when Charlie thinks the drink has caused him to lose his mind and that the sounds emanating from a man have no meaning...

Then he realises it's just an American tourist trying to speak Welsh to him.

You'll find some other classic Amis gags here — such as the insulting reference to a Welsh person as a "violator of siblings"; and great use of language as in the description of "uncommonly horrible china dogs." 

Or his evocation of a modern high tech shower with "a massive control-dial calibrated and colour-coded like something on the bridge of a nuclear warship."

The Old Devils is often a very dark novel but Amis includes some impressively contrasting moments of affirmation. The wedding at the end of the book is often cited...

But I personally preferred, indeed rather adored, the scene of the male old devils listening to trad jazz records: "through a roaring fuzz of needle-damage the sounds of 'Cakewalkin' Babies' emerged."
Amis goes on to describe "an oldster capering about on his own like a mad thing." And the effect of the music on Malcolm — who previously seemed a bit of a twat — is really quite moving, especially when he has to wipe his eyes.

If you haven't read anything by Kingsley Amis, don't start with this novel. Instead grab the aforementioned The Green Man. 

But once you've read that, you may want to take a crack at this highly regarded late offering.

And if you do, you might find this (by no means complete) list helpful:

Malcom (infatuated with Rhiannon) married to Gwen (who is shagging Alun, and horrible to Rhiannon); Peter (fat, sympathetic) married to Muriel (incredibly nasty);
Alun (poet) married to Rhiannon (toothless, indulging Malcolm, mother of Rosemary); Charlie (alcoholic) married to Sophie (shagging Alun); Dorothy (toxic bore).

Happy reading!

(Image credits: The main image is my scan of my own copy of the New York Review Books edition which, despite some annoying typos, is the one I'd recommend. The other covers are from Good Reads. You may notice that receptacles for booze are a popular theme.)

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