The old devil’s ad­vo­cate

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Friday Tv - IMRE SALUSIN­SZKY

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.

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