Posts Tagged 'kingsley amis'

The chain of incomprehension.

With Shakespearean knots on my mind recently, I had my eyes open for other examples of knotty writing.

Like this one in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Glanton, leader of a gang of American mercenaries hunting Apache scalps in northern Mexico, is brooding over the campfire:

He’d long forsworn all weighing of consequence and allowing as he did that men’s destinies are given yet he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and be his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so and he’d drive the remorseless sun on to its final endarkenment as if he’d ordered it all ages since, before there were paths anywhere, before there were men or suns to go upon them.

I read that five or six times, getting madder each time, and finally decided it must contain a typo. Swapping in the word “by”, if it didn’t quite unfuddle the meaning, at least resolved the sentence into some kind of syntactical clarity:

…he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and by his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so…

But it turns out that others had already untangled McCarthy’s knotty grammar. If that offending “be” is assumed to be in the subjunctive mood, the sentence comes smooth:

…he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and [though] his charter [be] written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so…

Argh. Why not just write that in the first place? Why be deliberately obscure?

…To which a Cormac McCarthy fan might answer (sans quotation marks, of course), why not print the crossword with the answers filled in?

***

Casting around for examples of long-winded drivel to contrast with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s soliloquy on Salic inheritance in Henry V, I thought of Lucky’s speech in Waiting For Godot.

To summarize the play, two hoboes are waiting in a desolate landscape for a benefactor named Godot, who will never arrive. A self-possessed rogue named Pozzo happens by, whipping along his slave, the elderly and apparently mute Lucky. For his new friends’ amusement, Pozzo instructs Lucky first to dance, and then to “Think!” …at which the slave, at first haltingly, declaims:

Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell …

…And so on for three pages, to the increasing exasperation of his audience, onstage and off. I remain of the opinion that this speech was scribbled out by Samuel Beckett in a process of free-association, perhaps incorporating snatches of whatever printed matter happened to be at hand, and taking not much longer to compose than it would take to read aloud; i.e., eight minutes or so. But there are scholars who’ve dedicated vast energies to the exegesis of Lucky’s speech, which is, we are assured, “as carefully constructed as the play itself” – which praise may, subject to your view of the rest of the play, be self-cancelling.

There’s a story called “Dear Illusion” by Kingsley Amis. (It’s the inspiration for the ugly cover for his Collected Short Stories, shown and discussed here.) A venerable and beloved poet, doubting whether he’s deserving of the critical adulation that has belatedly elevated him to national fame, dashes off a volume’s worth of poems in a single day, “just putting down whatever came into my head in any style I thought of”, including this Luckyish gem:

Man through different shell all over turns into sea swelling birth comes light through different man all over light shell into sea. Rock waits noon out of sky by tree same turns into rock by noon out of sky underneath tree out of same rock. …

That such half-assed efforts are as widely and vaporously praised as his earlier, sweated-over ones confirms to the poet the worthlessness of his life’s work, which he publicly disavows at a gala dinner in his honour:

“With respect, Sir Robert wasn’t quite right in saying I’ve been neglected. If only I had been. … I probably wouldn’t have wasted my time for thirty-eight years writing what’s supposed to be poetry; I’d have looked round for some other way of coping with the state of mind that made me write those things.”

Later, when a sympathetic journalist tries to convince the poet that his experiment hasn’t definitively proven his lack of talent:

“Not like in geometry, no. Just a very strong presumption. Quite strong enough for me.”

“But…you may still be good even though…”

“You mean God or somebody may think I’m good. I’d certainly respect his opinion. But he’s not letting on, is he?”

***

C.P. Snow’s The Sleep of Reason deals with the same themes as Blood Meridian – the unfathomable workings of fate; the ever-immanent human lust for depravity and how swiftly it reemerges when societal constraints break down – but in a modest and unfussy style that, to my mind, underlines the central mystery more effectively than McCarthy’s freakshow of bloodstained ruffians muttering curses at the remorseless sun.

Toward the end, after getting entangled in the trial of a pair of sadistic murderers whose motives are never fully explained, Snow’s narrator attends a relative’s funeral and has his attention captured by a knotty passage in I Corinthians:

[Our ancestors] must have gone to the funeral services in the village churches, and listened to this Pauline eloquence for at least a dozen generations. Some of that gene-pool was in us. Gone stoically, most of them, I thought. As with us, phrases stuck in their memories. As with me as a child, the rabbinical argumentation washed over them.

Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin: and the strength of sin is the law.

How old was I, when I first became puzzled by that gnomic phrase? We had all listened to it, the whole line of us, life after life, so many lives, lost and untraceable now.

In the unlikely event that C.P. Snow is still being read 400 years from now, our descendants will find much in his novels to confuse them: strange customs, forgotten fashions, obsolete turns of phrase…but perhaps amid the confusion they, like me, will be arrested by the image of a long chain of simple men and simple women half-following the drone of the burial service, their eyes suddenly narrowing in puzzlement, linked across time by a moment of common incomprehension.

M.

 

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A sympathetic reaction: C.P. Snow’s The Light and the Dark.

In a subplot of Kingsley Amis’s 1978 novel Jake’s Thing, an Oxford college debates whether to surrender to the Zeitgeist and admit female students. It’s mentioned that a strange alliance is forming between the more reactionary of the men’s colleges – attached to the status quo for the reasons you’d expect – and the women’s colleges, who fear losing their student base to the more prestigious, traditionally all-male institutions.

“It’s like something out of C.P. Snow,” someone observes.

For C.P. Snow’s novels are famously About Politics. I capitalize the words to emphasize that this is not the same as being Political, as the word is usually meant: when we attend an evening of Political comedy, we don’t expect a bunch of gags about coalition building, or how to swing a recalcitrant committee member to your side; we expect to be lectured about how awful the Republicans are, with (if we’re lucky) a few jokes thrown in.

I would be hard-pressed to name a book more About Politics than 1951’s The Masters, which concerns the manoeuvres leading up to a vote by the dozen or so fellows of a Cambridge college to elect a new Master from among themselves. It’s a topic that would lend itself to black humour; but however low-stakes their dissensions appear, however petty their motives, Snow never treats his characters cynically. As he wrote elsewhere, in what could serve as a thesis statement for all his fiction:

Put your ear to those meetings and you heard the intricate labyrinthine and unassuageable rapacity, even in the best of men, of the love of power. If you have heard it once – say, in electing the chairman of a tiny dramatic society, it does not matter where – you have heard it in colleges, in bishoprics, in ministries, in cabinets: men do not alter because the issues they decide are bigger scale.

That passage comes from 1954’s The New Men, which is about British physicists working to develop the atom bomb during World War II, and subsequent efforts by the idealists among them to prevent the bomb from actually being used. It belongs, along with the better-known The Masters, to the Strangers and Brothers series: eleven novels written over a span of thirty years, collectively depicting a life and career arc roughly paralleling the author’s own. I’ve read three others:

The Affair (1960), set twenty years after The Masters and at the same Cambridge college, concerns an apparent case of academic fraud by a stridently left-wing scientist that divides the administration.

The Sleep of Reason (1968), set in a grimy corner of England during the 1960s sexual revolution, examines both sides of a sexually sadistic murder trial where the sanity of the defendants is in doubt. (It was Peter Hitchens’s review of The Sleep of Reason a few years back that inspired me to start collecting Snow’s books.)

The Light and the Dark (1947) I’ll be discussing below.

Our narrator and authorial stand-in Lewis Elliott takes an active part in the conflicts animating these stories. He’s usually aligned with the “radical” side, meaning he supports the modern progressive agenda, more or less, albeit with more central economic planning and less freaky sex stuff. But Elliott, like his creator, is a level-headed, good-humoured chap who keeps up friendships even with political foes.

But it’s not only the author’s fair-mindedness that keeps the novels from feeling propagandistic – Political in the typical sense. It’s that Snow isn’t much interested in rehashing topics that at the time would have seemed wearisomely familiar from op-eds and dinner party debates. Perhaps because he sees political beliefs as being formed by personality and social pressures rather than by reasoned-out arguments, or perhaps simply because he finds political debate dull as a subject for fiction, the content of those debates is usually skimmed over. His characters let fall acid remarks at parties, unburden their souls while strolling by the Cam, reveal too much under the influence of alcohol, but their words are always slightly askew of the main point. On occasion a key revelation will be so artfully, annoyingly lacking in specifics that you wonder if you’ve skipped a page.

The Light and the Dark, though less About Politics than the other books mentioned above, is somewhat more Political. It’s about Lewis Elliott’s friendship with a dashing, brilliant, emotionally troubled linguist named Roy Calvert, whose specialty is the early writings of Manichaeism, the extinct faith whose name has become shorthand for black-white thinking.

The setting is Cambridge and London in the 1930s. Calvert’s researches take him frequently to Berlin, where in his naturally gregarious way he makes friends in both low and high society: among the Bohemian fringe as well as in the ruling Nazi elite.

Back home he is reproached by some of his fellow academics for his apparent Nazi sympathies, but such sentiments are not uncommon at a time when many moderate Englishmen are still eager to believe that war can be avoided. Calvert is protected by his reputation for frivolity. At the faculty dining table he amuses himself by teasing the more hawkish fellows; with a straight face he suggests that the college’s Jewish scholars be reclassified as “Welsh by statute” to remove a potential source of friction with the Germans. And yet he’s personally unprejudiced, twits his Nazi friends openly about their “mad” Jewish policy, and at some personal risk and expense helps a family of German Jews resettle in England.

Inviting the narrator to visit him in Berlin, Calvert opens up about his hopes for the regime:

The future [said Calvert] would be in German hands. There would be great suffering on the way, they might end in a society as dreadful as the worst of this present one: but there was a chance – perhaps a better chance than any other – that in time, perhaps in our life time, they would create a brilliant civilisation.

“If they succeed,” said Roy, “everyone will forget the black spots. In history success is the only virtue.”

To us this sounds callous and nuts, but Calvert knows that it will be difficult for Elliott to refute without being hypocritical; it so closely parallels the arguments of their pro-Soviet friends.

(As a real-life example, here’s Snow’s contemporary, the poet Stephen Spender, remembering in The God That Failed what he believed as a young Communist in 1930s England:

One ceases to be inhibited by pity for the victims of revolution. … These lives have become abstractions in an argument in which the present is the struggle, and the future is Communism – a world where everyone will, eventually, be free. … It is “humanitarian” weakness to think too much about the victims. The point is to fix one’s eyes on the goal, and then one is freed from the horror and anxiety – quite useless in any case – which inhibit the energies of the liberal mind.)

Calvert, though himself intellectually subtle and temperamentally moderate, is attracted to simple and radical solutions. He is fond of a paradox (apparently a paraphrase of a famous line of the Cambridge clergyman Charles Simeon) that “the truth lies at both extremes. But never in the middle.” We see that his attraction to Nazism is connected to his religious yearnings – an atheist despite himself, he is terrified by the implications of free will, and suspects that he and others would be happier with their choices constrained. He perceives a germ of good sense at the core of the Nazi’s authoritarian philosophy which allows him to forgive their excesses.

It’s fascinating to hear such a likable character propound a tolerant view of Nazism, a view which must have been widespread in pre-war England but which now is so utterly abominated that it’s given voice only by cranks. As I’ve written before, despite its current reputation as a cesspool of drooling halfwits, had Nazism lasted longer as a governing philosophy it would inevitably, like Soviet Communism, have accumulated a vast library of subtle encomiums by anti-bourgeois intellectuals. People are capable of believing any implausible thing, and clever people are both better than the rest of us at coming up with good arguments for implausible beliefs, and more likely to be attracted to beliefs that give them the scope to demonstrate their cleverness. (The question, in this as in any other age, is whether our prevailing belief system is likely to stand up to the judgement of history, or whether we too will be revealed to have been taken in by a lot of fine-sounding razzmatazz.)

Calvert never exactly renounces his sympathies; when war breaks out he falls patriotically back into line. He tries retrospectively to explain to his friend his mixed feelings:

Roy said that he had never quite been able to accept the Reich. It was a feeble simulacrum of his search for God. Yet he knew what it was like to believe in such a cause. “If they had been just a little different, they would have been the last hope.” I said that was unrealistic: by the nature of things, they could not have been different. But he turned on me:

“It’s as realistic as what you hope for. Even if [the Germans] lose, the future isn’t going the way you think. Lewis, this is where your imagination doesn’t seem to work. But you’ll live to see it. It will be dreadful.”

As usual, Snow doesn’t spell out what Calvert means. I’d guess that in his disdain for the comfortable middle way Calvert dreads the triumph of Nietzsche’s Last Man, that stunted mediocrity incapable of higher aspirations than securing the safety of his own supple and well-moisturized hide:

One no longer becomes poor or rich; both are too burdensome. Who still wants to rule? Who still wants to obey? Both are too burdensome.

No shepherd, and one herd! Everyone wants the same; everyone is the same: he who feels differently goes voluntarily into the madhouse.

“Formerly all the world was insane,” – say the subtlest of them, and they blink.

They are clever and know all that has happened: so there is no end to their derision. People still quarrel, but are soon reconciled – otherwise it upsets their stomachs.

They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health.

“We have discovered happiness,” – say the Last Men, and they blink.

–from Thus Spake Zarathustra

Nearly eighty years later we’re much further along the road to Last Manhood, and it’s a good bet that if Calvert had lived to see it he would have despised our culture of trigger warnings, social media mobs, and corporate thought policing. Whether the progressive Lewis Elliott would have adapted better to present-day pieties is unclear. In his broad-minded way he would no doubt have found much to praise about them; but I suspect he would have felt a twinge of compunction when he saw some so-called Nazi being harried from his career for threatening the highly-evolved sensibilities of the modern Left.

M.

Last year I voiced my revulsion at all the trendy talk about Nazi-punching, and more recently I expressed some sympathy for racist idiots. Nietzsche’s Last Man has been on my mind quite a bit over the last few years; witness this 2016 post about time travel, immigration, and the End of History which, I’ve come to realize, pretty much sums up everything I currently believe.

Aspects of the Novel and the limits of readers’ memories.

Midway through his famous discussion of “flat” versus “round” characters in Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster asks us to:

Suppose that Louisa Musgrave had broken her neck on the Cobb.

Forster has been evaluating the roundness of Jane Austen’s characters, so we can deduce that an incident from one of Austen’s books is being referred to; and toward the end of the next sentence, that book is disclosed as Persuasion.

I’ve read maybe a quarter of the books mentioned in Aspects of the Novel, and Persuasion happens to be one of them. Thinking hard, I reconstructed the scene: an excitable girl demands that her gentleman friend “jump her down” from the harbour wall to the pavement below; she miscalculates her jump, the gentleman misses, and (Austen females having the approximate constitution of ninety-year-old rheumatics) she spends the next few chapters on death’s door.

Aspects of the Novel was originally delivered, in 1927, as a series of lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge. Forster was confident not only that his hearers would recognize the allusion to Louisa on the Cobb, but that they would process it rapidly enough to give their attention to the fairly involved sentence that follows. Was he realistically gauging his audience’s recall – here, and on the many other occasions in Aspects where he takes for granted what I would consider a remarkable level of intimacy with these books?

Obviously, modern folks would be intimate with a different set of books than a 1927 crowd. Jane Austen remains well-known, though not so well that “Louisa Musgrave on the Cobb” will ring many bells. Henry James is still read; Oliver Goldsmith, less so; George Meredith, not at all.

No-one would today pick Walter Scott as an example of a novelist with “a trivial mind and a heavy style” whose continued fame relies on “happy sentimental memories” of having encountered him before our judgement had matured. Maybe Jack Kerouac or William S. Burroughs occupy a cultural space today comparable to Walter Scott’s circa 1927 – middlebrow relics evoking a bygone era of freedom and adventure, with enough residual literary cred that teenage readers are willing to pretend they’re not bored to death by them. But I doubt that Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty are one-tenth as widely known to modern readers as Lucy Ashton and Edgar Ravenswood would have been to Forster’s audience.

Perhaps Tolkien is a closer modern parallel to Scott. But before Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations came out, I don’t recall the names Gandalf or Aragorn being known to anyone outside nerd circles. In fact, when I try and think of literary non-title characters famous enough that a modern Forster could confidently drop their names – Tom Joad, Scout Finch, Mr. Rochester – most of them are famous at least in part because of the movies.

The 21st century schmoe remembers as many fictional characters as a 1927 Cambridge lecture-goer, but the memory slots that would once have held the members of Fagin’s gang or the murderers of Julius Caesar have been filled instead with Mos Eisley background freaks and Hogwarts house-elves.

***

The Introduction to my edition of Aspects quotes two esteemed Cantabrigians who in their youth attended the talks upon which the book was based: theatre director George Rylands, who was charmed by Forster’s undogmatic appeal to “the Common Reader”; and the critic and generally acknowledged lemon-sucker F.R. Leavis, who was “astonished at the intellectual nullity” of Forster’s ideas, and dismissed his fawning audience as “sillier dons’ wives and their friends”. Forster himself, in his Author’s Note, all but begs forgiveness for his unrigorous tone.

At any rate, it seems he wasn’t trying to be obscure. I wonder whether a modern lecturer would make such breezy assumptions about the Common Reader’s cultural literacy. Or would it be safer to aim at the level of the dull students imagined by Kingsley Amis in a 1967 essay on the consequences of dumbing down the education system:

You will use up less of your allotted time, and thus enable yourself to cover that much more ground, if you can say “As Eliot wrote”, instead of “As Eliot wrote…What’s the trouble? Oh, sorry. As T.S. Eliot – ee ell eye oh tee – the poet, dramatist, playwright, that is, and critic wrote…” While the thicks get what they need, the bright people doodle. [1]

Put aside whether we modern readers are more shoddily educated than our great-grandparents. Even if we’d been equally well-schooled in literature, and spent as much of our recreation time reading, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of additional novels have appeared in the past ninety years. Granting that most of those novels were worthless and quickly forgotten, the pool of “important” novels from which to choose is enormously larger now than it was then.

Picture what it was like at the other end of literary history. Taking Aristotle to task for his comment in the Poetics that “All human happiness or misery takes the form of action”, Forster forgivingly mentions that Aristotle “had read few novels and no modern ones – the Odyssey but not Ulysses“.

(…Which contradicts Forster’s earlier definition of a novel as “a fiction in prose of a certain extent”; but never mind, the Odyssey functions very much like a novel.)

Granting that the Odyssey and Iliad are novels – and that there then existed a handful of other verse epics, now lost – it was ordinary for a Greek gentleman of Aristotle’s time to have read one hundred percent of all the novels ever written in his language; and with a little more effort, that gentleman might familiarize himself with most extant plays, poetry, philosophy, and history as well. Thus it was easy to carry on a literary conversation with a fellow educated gentleman. You could be confident that when you mentioned Nausicaä doing her washing, or Hector’s frightening helmet, he’d get the reference.

By Forster’s day it was no longer possible, let alone desirable, for an educated Englishman to be familiar with every novel in his language. But avid readers had, of necessity, at least peeked into a broad sample of all the ones that mattered: there weren’t that many, and there wasn’t that much else to do. The odds of two people having read any given book were lower than in Aristotle’s day, but still high enough that Forster didn’t have to worry about the sillier dons’ wives losing the thread.

Forster in 1927 is nearer in time to us than he was to Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe; let’s say chronologically he’s at roughly the two-thirds point in the 300-year history of the English novel. But if you imagine him standing alongside a row of all the books ever published, laid end to end in order of publication, he’s surprisingly close to the beginning of the row. Because the earliest books have been around longest, and have had more time to influence the ones that came after, their importance is disproportionate to their small number; and Forster has read most of the books that, even now, matter the most; which is why we can still read him with interest. But with every passing year, the likelihood decreases that a lecturer and his audience – or any two readers of similar taste and educational background – will have peeked into the same books. The Common Reader has less and less in common.

At some point, as the frontiers of the subject recede further and further beyond the horizon, it may become impractical to talk broadly about literature in the way that Forster in 1927 still could. In an empire so vast, a single obscure province – young adult sci-fi by British women authors, say – will be spacious enough that a reader need never leave it; and the critic who presumes to generalize will, like a foreign correspondent who claims familiarity with a place based on a couple days hanging out in the hotel bar, risk exposing the breadth of his ignorance.

M.

1. “Why Lucky Jim Turned Right”, in Amis’s collection What Became of Jane Austen? And Other Questions.

Just a few weeks ago I built a long, depressing essay around a passage from E.M. Forster’s collection Two Cheers For Democracy and his favourite word, muddle. I shared my embarrassingly belated first impressions of the Odyssey last year. My negative opinion of the critic F.R. Leavis comes mainly from some sarcastic remarks directed at him by Clive James, mentioned in my 2012 discussion of the entangled afterlives of Allan Bloom, Saul Bellow, and Christopher Hitchens.

Berks and wankers: A Canadian reaction to Kingsley Amis’s English.

My father, born and raised in Alberta, pronounced schedule with a sh- sound: SHED-jool. I don’t know whether he innocently inherited this quirk from his parents or teachers or the radio announcers of his youth, or whether he deliberately adopted it at some point to be perverse; whether he used it un-self-consciously right to the end, or whether he clung to it as a badge of linguistic distinction. Knowing him as I did, I think I can say he was free of any desire to lord his fancy pronunciation over anyone. He just loved language, loved to haul out five-dollar words, and since he must have noticed that his schedule was at odds with nearly everyone else’s, I guess he simply preferred it that way, and damn what anyone else thought.

That’s why I adopted it. Pulled in two directions, by the tides of North American English usage and by my father’s influence, I wavered between SHED-jool and SKED-jool through my teenage years, then settled consciously and definitely on the oldfangled pronunciation as I entered adulthood. It was done under the same impulse, no doubt, that makes me favour fedoras and bow ties, get sentimental about long-dead Hollywood actresses, and spend my leisure time re-reading Plutarch.

I can definitely say I never had a desire to lord my fancy pronunciation over anyone. But still my friends would sneer when I said SHED-jool. “What?” I would retort. “It’s how my father says it.”

A few years ago I was having drinks with friends and we wound up talking about words that irritated us. I don’t remember how the conversation went, but I probably mentioned “little ones” (a trendy substitute for “babies” or “kids” that makes me think of Victorian paintings of prancing fairies) and the short-A pronunciation of bathed (as in “bath-ing the little one” instead of “giving the kid a bath”) as two phrases that made my jaw instinctively clench. Someone said how much they despised SHED-jool and everyone groaned in sympathy.

“I say SHED-jool,” I peeped.

“I know,” my friend replied. “And I hate it.”

So I stopped saying SHED-jool, or tried to; I slip back into it without meaning to now and then. It doesn’t come up all that often – say a couple times a year – so it may take me the rest of my life to train myself to consistently say SKED-jool. By then, possibly, some new pronunciation will have come in vogue.

***

In The King’s English, his idiosyncratic, cranky, and entertaining guide to English usage, Kingsley Amis divides abusers of the language into two broad classes:

Berks are careless, gross, crass, and of what anybody would agree is a lower social class than one’s own. They speak in a slipshod way with dropped Hs, intruded glottal stops and many mistakes in grammar. Left to them the English language would die of impurity, like late Latin.

Wankers are prissy, fussy, priggish, prim, and of what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one’s own. They speak in an over-precise way with much pedantic insistence on letters not generally sounded, especially Hs. Left to them the language would die of purity, like medieval Latin.

Some pronunciations Amis identifies as useful wanker-detectors, like hors d’oeuvres (“few non-wankers over the age of, say, twenty-one try to say the words in any Frenchified way”), issue (“to say ISSyou is a piece of pressi-OSSity”) and words starting with wh- (“[n]o affectation is easier to detect than a phoney HW beginning to wh- words”).

I’m innocent of over-Frenchification and I don’t think I’ve ever said ISS-you, but I have been known, when reading aloud, to say HWICH and HWAT; I’ll stop. Amis has no entry on schedule, which of course as an Englishman he would have pronounced as my father did, but I suppose a Canadian edition of The King’s English would include SHED-jool among its wanker-detectors, along with other Anglicisms like ROWT for route and LEZHer for leisure; I’ve used these too. (In the latter case, I say it that way only in mock-grandiosities like “man of leisure” or “at your leisure”, where I think it’s okay.) Herb with a sounded H is the usual British pronunciation (as against North American ERB), but no Canadian has ever complained of my affected H; however toe-MAH-toe, spoken by a North American, would strike even me as highly suspect.

I mentioned Amis’s warning about hors d’oeuvres. He provides three useful pages of common French or French-derived terms along with the non-wankerish, non-berkish way to say them. Despite Amis’s general rule that a speaker should, “when the language of conversation is English, avoid any attempt at exact French pronunciation, which can hinder the flow of talk,” I would identify at least two of his suggestions, if used by a Canadian, as wankerishly Frenchified: penchant, for which he recommends PON(G)shon(g) while mocking Americans “who say penshant, as if they thought it was an English word”, and plaque, for which Amis prescribes “plahk rather than plack”. By contrast, his VALLit for valet and a-TATCH-y for attaché would in Canada be considered much more wankerish than the Frenchified versions, if they were comprehended at all. For macabre Amis memorably advises, “Imagine yourself addressing a Scot called Macarbrough”, i.e. muh-KAH-bruh; but I think muh-KAHB is perfectly comprehensible and better reflects the original French without injecting any distracting foreign sounds into the flow of talk.

Amis justly complains that “that right of the English language, as of any other, to devise its own forms for foreign names is under constant erosion” by the forces of pedantry and political correctness. He mourns the loss of mar-SAILS for Marseilles – now shorn of its terminal S and universally pronounced in something like the French manner – and such long-established place names as Peking and Ceylon. (Since he wrote, Burma and Bombay have gone the same way.)

I would have liked some advice on what to do with foreign names containing non-English sounds. I vaguely recall a Woody Allen movie where someone’s (Diane Keaton’s?) insistence on pronouncing van Gogh with a guttural -gh sound at the end marked that character as a pretentious twit. I think self-respect demands van GO, and more or less BOCK for Bach and LOCK for a Scottish lake (with just the slightest effort to move the K sound to the back of the mouth; I was once scolded by a Scot for not trying harder, but I don’t see why I should be obliged to croak out non-English sounds while travelling in an English-speaking country). What else? There’s that hopeless German diphthong ö; I say GER-bels and GER-tuh for Goebbels and Goethe. Yet I guess I’m not quite self-respecting enough to insist on George Lewis BORE-jis for Jorge Luis Borges; I say HOR-hay lu-EES BORE-hess because I don’t want people to think I’m a total dummy. (For the same reason, I pronounce forte, in the sense of a strong suit, in the Italian style, for-TAY, even though I’m aware it derives from the French and is correctly pronounced FORT. What use is being right if everyone thinks you’re wrong?)

***

Complaining mildly of the crowding out of the older sense of gay by the newer, Amis concedes that

once a word is not only current, but accepted willy-nilly in a meaning, no power on earth can throw it out. The slightest acquaintance with changes in a language, or a minimum of thought, will show this truth.

But just thirty pages earlier, in his passage on disappearing English place names for foreign places, Amis has demonstrated that words can be thrown out quite rapidly, indeed willy-nilly, if there is a political will behind their banishment. Around the time (1997) The King’s English was published, Oriental, once the ordinary and uncontroversial term in North America for people who traced their ancestry to Asia’s Pacific rim, rapidly became taboo and was replaced with Asian. In the UK, Oriental is still used for our Asians, while Asian generally refers to people from the Indian subcontinent, whom over here we now call South Asians. Since this arrangement – the lexical monopolization of a whole continent by the natives of one or the other of its coasts – seems patently inadequate, I expect it too will be overturned in my lifetime. I’m hoping the helpful word Desi will come into wider use among English-speakers for the people and cultures of South Asia. But I’m aware of no comparable word for East Asia. Mongoloid might have done the trick if it hadn’t been made poisonous by its association with mental retardation.

Right now gay is undergoing a comparable renovation. A friend who works in a library told me about a poster that recently went up in the young adult section with the slogan, “That’s so gay is so yesterday.” In other words, the remaining negative connotations of gay – of effeminacy, uncoolness, overexcitability, trying too hard – are now to be swept away by fiat. I’m sure the campaign will be successful, although, in semi-conscious reaction against it, I lately find myself using or at least thinking gay in the “that’s so gay” sense more than I have since I was a teenager.

In theory there’s no reason why the two meanings of gay can’t coexist, the way black the racial group coexists with black the adjective meaning grim or gloomy. But of course blacks as a group aren’t thought of as particularly grim or gloomy, so the persistence of the other meaning doesn’t threaten them. Whereas gays as a group can be kind of gay, in the “that’s so gay” sense, as a look at the dudes shimmying on the floats at the Pride Parade will demonstrate. So unless “that’s so gay” can be purged of its meaning entirely – say, turned into a synonym for ugly or bland or some other concept that isn’t associated with gays – its use will necessarily be perceived as a slur.

***

Two examples of non-linguistic wankerish behaviour. First is the milk-in-first delusion, which is the notion common among Canadians that it’s somehow classier to put the milk in first when you’re pouring a cup of tea, as the British are thought to do. The irony being that among class-conscious Brits, milk-in-first was once (and perhaps still is?) thought to be rather common; Martin Amis and his peers had an adjective, miffy, that signified hopeless middle-classness. (I’ve written about this at greater length.) The wankerish behaviour isn’t putting the milk in first, or putting the milk in second; it’s passing comment in any way on the order you or someone else put the milk in. Shut up about it. It’s milk.

Similarly, until quite recently in North America it was considered unremarkable, in fact it was the usual thing, to put ice in a glass of Scotch. This is frowned on among Scotch aficionados, particularly those who learned their drinking in the UK. That’s fine; no-one’s saying you have to put ice in your Scotch, mate. But if someone else likes to, shut up, you wanker.

M.

Stanley and the Women, and why Martin Amis didn’t like it.

I read Kingsley Amis’s Stanley and the Women with curiosity. All I knew of it was what Martin Amis had said in his 2000 memoir Experience, that it was “a mean little novel in every sense, sour, spare, and viciously well-organized”, that with its “programmatic gynophobia” his father had effectively announced the “cancellation of his own artistic androgyny”.

Although Martin suggests these failings are evident from page one, for me it wasn’t until the end of the book that Kingsley’s agenda became apparent. True, the chief villain is a woman, a psychologist who lectures Stanley, whose schizophrenic son she’s treating, on the defects of his generation’s childrearing methods:

“Of course with changing social conditions the elitist role of education is passing too.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said.

“Nowadays there’s much more emphasis on the social function, training the kids to relate to each other and preparing them to take their places in the adult world.”

“At my school we got that thrown in, just by being there. We didn’t attend classes in it.”

“No, and we can see the results, can’t we?”

I thought about it. “Can we?” She probably meant sexism and censorship and things like that.

And true, other female characters are characterized as undependable, irrational, vindictive, and self-deluding. The men, meanwhile, even the minor characters, routinely take Stanley aside to share their unflattering take on gender relations. A police superintendent, after an encounter with the security chief of a Middle Eastern embassy:

“You know, Mr Duke, from a personal point of view, speaking just for myself you understand, the Major Fuads of this world have got one thing to be said not for them at all, just about them. They do seem to have got the women problem sorted out nice and neat. Whether you like it or not.”

An Irishman Stanley finds standing in the rain, kicking and punching a wall:

“The wife’s being a little bit provoking … you know, feminine. Now whenever that happens I don’t say a word, I come straight outside wherever I may be and I do what I just been doing for two minutes, and then I go back in the full joy of spring. When I got married I told myself I could be happy or I could be right, and I’ve been happy now for twenty-two years.”

In his memoir Martin mentions a recurring theme of Kingsley’s around the time he was writing Stanley:

It made my head drop, during this time, when my father, elaborately and not entirely unmordantly, started to liken women to the USSR (department of propaganda): when they do it they say this; when you do it they say that; and so on.

A variant of this made it into the novel. Here’s Stanley on the challenge of maintaining cordial relations with his self-absorbed ex-wife:

I remembered Cliff Wainwright saying once that women were like the Russians – if you did exactly what they wanted all the time you were being realistic and constructive and promoting the cause of peace, and if you ever stood up to them you were resorting to cold-war tactics and pursuing imperialistic designs and interfering in their internal affairs. And by the way of course peace was more peaceful, but if you went on promoting its cause long enough you ended up Finlandized at best.

The hero is unshocked by opinions like his friend Cliff’s, but he generously continues to make allowances for the females around him. If most of those females are “fucky nuck cases” (to quote a barroom interlocutor), at least Stanley’s wife is a paragon of good humour and well-adjustedness. I suppose it should have been more obvious to me as I read that finally she too would go off the rails, and so she does, precipitating Stanley’s acquiescence, at novel’s end, to Cliff’s resentful maunderings:

“According to some bloke on the telly the other night,” he said, “twenty-five per cent of violent crime in England and Wales is husbands assaulting wives. Amazing figure that, don’t you think? You’d expect it to be more like eighty per cent. Just goes to show what an easy-going lot English husbands are, only one in four of them bashing his wife. No, it doesn’t mean that, does it? But it’s funny about wife-battering. Nobody ever even asks what the wife had been doing or saying. She’s never anything but an ordinary God-fearing woman who happens to have a battering husband. Same as race prejudice. Here are a lot of fellows who belong to a race minding their own business and being as good as gold and not letting butter melt in their mouths, and bugger me if a gang of prejudiced chaps don’t rush up and start discriminating against them. Frightfully unfair.”

So I see what Martin Amis means when he talks about the novel’s “programmatic gynophobia”. I can also see how, with just the perfect tilt of one’s irony antennae, one might detect in Stanley a subtle satire of discombobulated manhood. Martin floated this possibility by his father:

– And by the way. There’s a huge piece in the London Review by Marilyn Butler saying that Stanley is pro-women after all. That’s balls, isn’t it.

– Oh, absolutely.

Martin’s verdict on Stanley and its similarly-themed predecessor Jake’s Thing:

The critique of womankind that seeps its way through Jake and Stanley is certainly not without interest or pertinence (both novels are sinisterly vigorous). … My objection to these novels is simpler than that: I can feel Dad’s thumb on the scales.

Of course, the author’s thumb is always on the scales, that’s how fiction happens. Books don’t write themselves, characters don’t dictate their own actions, however much it sometimes feels that way to an author in thrall to inspiration. Ultimately it’s you making your characters do and say particular things to achieve some intended effect, whether it’s to advance the plot or to make some didactic point, like Kingsley’s point that women are fucky nuck cases.

It’s no good to say that didacticism is itself a failing – Martin has himself written didactic fiction about the Holocaust, nuclear weapons (both of these things bad, let’s agree), and, over and over again, the delusions and dislocations of modern English manhood (also pretty bad). Nor is it a question of having to agree with the lesson the author is imparting. One can read Dickens or Jane Austen and be entirely unconvinced by the supposed moral conundrums faced by their characters – what are one’s obligations to a daughter who has dishonoured herself? what should be one’s attitude to a friend who marries a person of lower social station? – yet still respond to the books as literature.

Dickens and Austen are undoubtedly didactic authors – great ones. The problem with bad didactic authors like Ayn Rand or Upton Sinclair, say, is they’re clumsily didactic. Their characters say unbelievable things because their authors don’t have the skill to render any voice besides their own.

I guess that’s sort of Martin’s complaint about Stanley. It’s not the presence of his father’s thumb, it’s that he can feel it, Kingsley’s stubby digit, poking his characters in the ribs, reminding them to stick to the script. I don’t doubt that Martin Amis has subtler sensitivities than me. But I never noticed it, Kingsley’s thumb. It’s as well-hidden to me as it is in all his other novels, in every one of which, in just as ruthless a fashion, he prods his men and women along a preordained path toward a destiny he’s decided for them.

Stanley‘s women are wicked, as women sometimes are. Their creator is only showing a partial picture, of course, but that’s what a novel always by necessity is.

M.

New Maps of Hell (Kingsley Amis).

Granting a year or so between writing and publication, it’s been almost exactly a half-century since Kingsley Amis conducted his 1960 survey of science-fiction, New Maps of Hell. I wish Amis had revisited the subject later in his life; I’d be interested to see him assess his own prophetic powers from the vantage point of 1970 or so, by which time the genre had already gone a long way to correcting at least one of the deficiencies he’d identified.

That deficiency is in the area of sex. As Amis points out,

Amid the most elaborate technological innovations, the most outré political or economic shifts, involving changes in the general conduct of life as extreme as the gulf dividing us from the Middle Ages, man and woman, husband and wife, lover and mistress go on doing their stuff in the mid-twentieth century way with a kind of brutish imperturbability… The sentimental consensus that this is perhaps the only part of human nature that can never be changed…is a disappointing trait in science-fiction writers, who as a rule are almost over-excitable in their readiness to see as variables what are normally taken to be constants… Though it may go against the grain to admit it, science-fiction writers are evidently satisfied with the sexual status quo.

Just think of all those sci-fi stories from the 1950s with their alien diplomats, flying cars, and rocketships to Venus, and mom still bustling contentedly about the home (perhaps in a jumpsuit instead of a dress), giving orders to the robot butler and dialling up dinner on the auto-range, while dad jetpacks off to the office to earn his paycheque. As Amis hints, there is something stunted in the psychology of (nearly all male) writers who could extrapolate from current social trends such vivid consumerist and conformist dystopias, not to mention summon up extraterrestrials and cosmic cataclysms of the profoundest weirdness, yet fail to foresee how in the very immediate future birth control and Betty Friedan would radically remould the relations between sexes.

But Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land came out just one year after New Maps of Hell, and by the end of the 1960s Heinlein and other writers were fully exploring the sexual revolution. This is what makes Amis’ vantage point so interesting – he’s hovering right on the rim of the old sci-fi cosmos, that quaint place of housewives with their robot butlers, while the new cosmos, more sophisticated (that is, more grown-up in its attitudes toward sex, not necessarily better written), has yet to show up on his viewscreen. Or so I would argue. Would the Amis of 1970 still say that the genre had not yet “come of age”? Would he still describe it as having “thrown up a large number of interesting and competent figures without producing anybody of first-rate importance”?

Even if New Maps of Hell weren’t a fascinating time capsule, even if it weren’t written with the typical Amis dry wit (of which more below), it would still be worthwhile as an introduction to a lot of authors I hadn’t heard of, or knew only by name. I’ve already placed an order on Abebooks. I’m particularly awaiting a collection of short stories by Katherine MacLean, a largely forgotten female pioneer in the field, who (judging from the brief excerpts Amis provides) appears to have been a progenitor of the great James Tiptree Jr., aka Alice Sheldon.

***

Just because I find it amusing, here is Amis’ synopsis of Damon Knight’s famous short story “The Country of the Kind”:

[A] practising artist…[is] apparently the only one left in a world built on universal benevolence and unbreakable social graciousness, a world that is hellish because without conflict. The artist, when not engaged on impromptu sculpture, goes round breaking into people’s houses and pouring hot soup over their furniture, a gesture again unjustified and justified. By a nice symbolical touch, he has been operated on at the authorities’ direction and given an intolerable smell which cuts him off from all human intercourse. Some readers will not be able to avoid seeing in all this a comparatively sober account of the behaviour of their own arty friends…

M.

Good books in ugly covers.

I’ve just finished Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, about his early writing days in Paris. Here’s a passage that made me happy. Hemingway has just been befriended by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who brings him a copy of his newly-published The Great Gatsby to read:

A day or two after the trip Scott brought his book over. It had a garish dust-jacket and I remember being embarrassed by the violence, bad taste and slippery look of it. It looked the book-jacket for a book of bad science fiction. Scott told me not to be put off by it, that it had to do with a billboard along a highway in Long Island that was important in the story. He said he had liked the jacket and now he didn’t like it. I took it off to read the book.

Of course, Hemingway loves the book and decides because of it to forgive Fitzgerald for being a huge pain in the ass.

I did some Googling and this must be the book cover Hemingway was referring to:

The Great Gatsby First Edition 1925

On the blog from which I borrowed this image, Sexuality in the Arts, the author describes the cover as “marvellous”. I tend toward Hemingway’s view, that it’s kind of atrocious.

One pictures Hemingway as one of those guys who doesn’t give a crap what anyone thinks of him. So it’s touching to hear him say he’s “embarrassed” by an ugly book cover. Possibly he means that he’s embarrassed on Fitzgerald’s behalf – embarrassed that Fitzgerald didn’t have the good sense to veto this ugly cover art – but that doesn’t explain why Hemingway removes the book-jacket before reading the book. I think he doesn’t want to be seen in the cafés reading a book that looks like “bad science fiction”. Hemingway is an artiste, after all. He’s got to keep up appearances.

***

Of all the books in my collection, the one I’d be most embarrassed to be seen reading in public is Kingsley Amis’ Collected Short Stories:

Kingsley Amis Collected Short Stories (Penguin 1983)

The illustrator’s name is Arthur Robbins. Robbins illustrated the covers for a number of Amis’ books when Penguin reprinted them in the early 1980s. They’re all more or less ugly:

Kingsley Amis Take A Girl Like You (Penguin 1984) Kingsley Amis What Became of Jane Austen? (Penguin 1981)

Unfortunately these ugly Penguins are the ones that turn up most frequently in secondhand book stores, at least the ones I visit. I’ve been trying to avoid them as I piece together my Kingsley Amis collection.

***

My friend Jenn hates what she calls the “short, fat” paperbacks. By which she means “mass market” paperbacks, thick and wrapped in shiny covers, the kind you find on racks near the checkout counter in Wal-Mart. I gather she finds the Wal-Martish associations embarrassing. I don’t share this particular embarrassment, but I can see where she’s coming from.

My friend Olin likes the smell of book glue, and he always subjects his books to a sniff test before purchasing. I don’t have an olfactory response to my literature – or if I do I’m not conscious of it – but again, I can see where Olin is coming from.

Some book collectors collect first editions. Others collect “sets”, preferring to display a uniform, monochrome shelf of hardcover Dickenses or Jane Austens. Me, I don’t like hardcover books; they can’t be comfortably held open to the light while lying on one’s side in bed, which is how I usually read.

There are a handful of authors that I like well enough to wish to own all their works: Philip Roth, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis. But I prefer to put together my collection from used paperbacks bought for a few bucks apiece. Greene and Waugh can both be acquired cheaply in handsome orange-bound Penguins. Roth’s novels from the ’50s through the ’70s are easily found used in Bantam paperbacks, while his more recent novels are published by Vintage in trade format.

Amis has given me more trouble. I believe all his books are available in Penguins, but unlike the Waughs and Greenes, the Penguin Amises aren’t handsome at all. Depending on when they were printed, many of these Penguins are too ugly to own.

Panther published a number of Amis’ novels in the ’70s, often with naked or half-naked girls on the covers. Although they look a little like stroke books, these are less embarrassing than the Penguins. Unfortunately they’re also harder to find:

Kingsley Amis I Like It Here (Panther 1975) Kingsley Amis I Want It Now (Panther 1969)

I own Amis’ most famous novel, Lucky Jim, in the baby-blue Penguin Classics edition:

Kingsley Amis Lucky Jim (Penguin 1992)

At least I’m not ashamed to be seen reading it. But I don’t like the baby-blue Penguin Classics. There’s something stuffy and uninviting about them. The covers murmur, “I’ve been accepted into the canon. I deal with serious themes and may be taught as part of a college curriculum.” This studious dressing looks particularly wrong on a light comic novel by Kingsley Amis. At least the naked girls on the cover of the Panthers seem to go with the contents of the books. Even the Arthur Robbins drawings on the ugly Penguins are a better fit.

***

As gaudy as the first edition of The Great Gatsby is, I would have no problem reading it in public. Why? Because everyone knows Gatsby is “literature”. Even people who’ve never read it. Even people who couldn’t tell you who wrote it. It doesn’t matter what they put on the cover. Anyone who sees you reading The Great Gatsby knows you’re a Reader of Serious Books.

It was different for Hemingway back in 1925. Fitzgerald was a new writer, not well-known outside of America. If Hemingway wanted to preserve his rep among the arty denizens of the Left Bank, they couldn’t get the idea that he read (ugh) science-fiction.

As for Kingsley Amis, the name might be vaguely familiar to literate people, but what are the odds that the waitress at the coffeeshop, or the cute girl sitting across from you on the train, will recognise I Want It Now, with its photo of a nude blonde girl sprawled across the cover, as a Serious Book? Sorry, buddy, but you’re going to have to find some other way to differentiate yourself from the ballcap-wearing herd with their iPods and Maxim magazines. Better pull out a Penguin Classic and save Kingsley Amis for when you’re at home alone.

M.

Update, Nov. 19 2017: I was reminded of this old post while re-reading Nicholson Baker’s 1988 debut novel The Mezzanine. In an aside about how novelty coffee mugs have been supplanting dainty cup-and-saucer sets in people’s kitchen cupboards, Baker observes that

you develop a fondness for each mug as an individual, and you try to give even the ones you like least a chance to contain your coffee once in a while – you feel about ugly mugs that you have been given the way you do about bad book-cover designs on paperbacks whose insides you really like – you begin to cherish that slight grit of ugliness and wrongness.

I need to cultivate a Nicholson Bakeresque affection for my ugly paperbacks. The cover of my Vintage trade edition of The Mezzanine is neither ugly nor pretty enough to summon up any emotional response.