The old devil’s advocate
SATIRE is so irreverent in its effects, it’s easy to forget that it is also the most conservative of the genres. The typical stance of the satirist, exemplified by 18th- century masters such as Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, is looking backwards, towards tradition and the time when things still made sense. The most common object of the satirist’s attack is anything trendy, faddish, cosmopolitan or progressive.
Most of the great satirists have been on the Right in politics or, like George Orwell, headed in that direction. ( This is not going to be a political diatribe, by the way: comedy, in contrast to satire, generally takes a socially revolutionary attitude and is no less a genre for that.) In Australia, we have many would- be satirists sticking their heads up on television and in the press, but it is significant that our only certified master in that mode, Barry Humphries, is also one of our rare artist- conservatives.
One of the surprises in Zachary Leader’s recent biography of Kingsley Amis, who was the best- known British satirical writer of the 1950s and ’ 60s — and a declared Thatcherite by the ’ 70s — is that Amis, born in 1922, had the usual flirtation with communism that was standard among writers and intellectuals in the ’ 30s and ’ 40s. That changed, and quickly, when Amis fell in with Robert Conquest in the early ’ 50s.
Conquest shared the love of Amis, and of their mutual close friend, poet Philip Larkin, for filthy humour and excessive drinking. He was also, and remains, a leading Sovietologist and was one of the first Western intellectuals to warn of the evils of communism. He was largely responsible for Amis’s abandonment of his revolutionary posturings, and it is hard not to see that transformation as the necessary prelude to the unleashing of Amis’s satirical genius with the publication of Lucky Jim in 1954.
Is Lucky Jim — the story of a young don at one of Britain’s red- brick universities, fighting for his tenure and for the girl — a right- wing book? Perhaps not, but it is certainly antiintellectual, suspicious of cultural pretensions ( especially those emanating from the Continent) and misogynistic. These are all traditional preoccupations of the satirist.
Another surprise in Leader’s enormous and enormously readable book is the extent to which Larkin influenced the attitudes that led to Lucky Jim and then reworked the manuscript. He toned down some of the social satire in Amis’s draft while sharpening the comic substructure of the plot. ( It is the traditional Shakespearean model in which a series of blocking characters have to be overcome before the young hero and his girl can be united, so Lucky Jim has conservative as well as revolutionary elements.)
Larkin and Amis shared one of the most intimate literary partnerships of the 20th century, but literary history has played fast and loose with their respective reputations. Larkin was virtually unknown when Lucky Jim made Amis a literary celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic. Nowadays, Larkin is regarded as the essential British poet of the second half of the 20th cen- tury, while people who read Amis usually mean Martin, the second of Kingsley’s three children.
Amis’s reputation may not be what it once was, but to read Leader’s book is to be reminded of his trademark irony, without which an entire tonality of contemporary British humour — found in everything from Men Behaving Badly to Nick Hornby and the younger Amis — would not exist.
Kingsley Amis’s father, a Colonel Blimp figure who worked his entire life as a clerk with the Colman mustard company, was a source of irritation to his son. He often came to visit. Here is Amis, in 1958, writing to Larkin about ‘‘ the continuous presence of my male relative’’:
‘‘ Why doesn’t he go away for good? Failing that, why can’t he go away for a very long time and then go away again almost as soon as he has come back? I can’t pass him anything or he says Danke. I can’t let him pass me anything or he says Excuse Fungus . . . When my friends call ( as one or two of them are still continuing to do for the moment) he talks to them.’’ And then there are the bullseye descriptions, as when Amis describes the father of his bride- to- be, the beautiful Hilly Bardwell, as ‘‘ an extraordinary old man like a music- loving lavatory attendant’’.
But there is a deeper irony that attends Amis’s life, rather than his books. While the aim of satire is to effect an improvement in character and behaviour, Amis was below par on both counts. The entries in Leader’s index under ‘‘ characteristics’’ give a sense of it: aggression, sexual frankness, night terrors and screaming fits, class consciousness, desire to annoy, peevishness and impatience, fear of dark, panic attacks and anxieties, mocking manner, attraction to young girls, deliberate rudeness, distrust of feelings.
This was a generation that, demobbed after World War II and finding itself, surprisingly, alive, seemed determined to squeeze every drop of booze, food and sex out of every remaining moment. These people started the swinging ’ 60s a decade early, without the social missionary zeal that accompanied the full- blown event.
Amis was incredibly promiscuous and Hilly eventually followed suit, with the predictable devastating results for their children. Like Jim Dixon, Amis was a don, first at Swansea, then Princeton, then Cambridge and other places. Effectively, he was a full- time writer posing as an academic, entirely justifying Northrop Frye’s definition of the role of writers- in- residence in English departments: ‘‘ To bite the hand that feeds them.’’ Only in Amis’s case it was more to bed the wives of the hands that fed him.
In his literary and aesthetic tastes — which shaped what came to be known as the Movement — Amis was for directness and simplicity, and against pretension, decoration or wilful complexity. Modernism and romanticism were enemies. The key thing in literary judgment was never to be found pretending to like something because you were supposed to. Preparing for an exam on Beowulf in 1946, Amis describes the old English epic to Larkin as that ‘‘ fine old relic of AngloSaxon culture; that remarkable survival of that civilisation from which our own, in however indirect a fashion, is derived; I refer of course to the anonymous, crass, purblind, infantile, featureless HEAP OF GANGRENED ELEPHANT’S SPUTUM, ‘ Barewolf’.’’
The problem with this attitude is that it can easily descend into aesthetic nihilism. The distrust of ornately expressed feelings can become a distrust of feelings themselves. Likewise, at the ground zero of satire, the dismissal of human folly can become the dismissal of the human. We see this in the last pages of Gulliver’s Travels as well as in the last pages of Leader’s biography of Amis. It is at this point that the satirical vision runs out of steam unless it is reinvigorated by comedy and romance. The Life of Kingsley Amis, by Zachary Leader, is published by Pantheon Books.
review@ theaustralian. com. au