It feels like an event worthy of remark; for me, the Amis men hold respected but somewhat murky position in the English canon. I’ve never paid much attention to what I’ve imagined to be overwhelmingly male-focused (read chauvinist) work, despite a background awareness of this duo’s huge profile. So, as my first foray, I felt more comfortable in the hands of “the finest English comic novelist of the second half of the twentieth century” than “the undisputed master of what the New York Times called “the new unpleasantness”.” (Thanks Wikipedia for both of those. Feel free to admire the breadth of my research.)
In fact, now I do look into it, I am decreasingly inclined to EVER read Martin Amis. An, ahem, undisclosed source says: “Although the books share little in terms of plot and narrative, they all examine the lives of middle-aged men, exploring the sordid, debauched, and post-apocalyptic undercurrents of life in late 20th-century Britain.”
So I went for the safer Father figure, and safest of all, his Booker Prize winner The Old Devils. Surely that affords all sorts of reassurances.
It proved a good choice. This is a book with an unusual subject and characters – an ageing group of once-friends in small-town 1980s Wales. It is, in many ways, the opposite of Maine, a book I’ve read 100 times despite different covers, titles and authors. The Old Devils, by contrast, explored something new to me in literature though timeless in human experience. Kamis (as opposed to Mamis, see) looks at ageing as I’ve never seen it – digging around the impact of physical change, often numbing life experiences, tired relationships, memory, having too much time on your hands, booze (everyone is permanently boozing, as apparently was Kamis throughout his life)… And what is the impact on this disparate Welsh troop? Complete change, and no change at all. While the characters have been battered by life and circumstance, their core personalities remain the same. This human truth rings out like a bell on every page, through both comedy and tragedy.
But while on one level the novel is a sensitive and profound exploration of how ageing affects humanity, it is the situation-specific side of the story – the Soave-soaked OAPs of 80s South Wales – that provides much of the texture and humour. Amis’s incisive, cruel observation of the fronts that society and individuals put on to make their activities acceptable, and their web of motivations, are deeply comic. Everyone constantly evaluates how they should be covering up who they really are. From the husband stepping in stricken fear around his wife’s razor tongue to the coffee group talking desperately to stop the resident alcoholic taking up her hobby-horse topic with the power of a stampeding elephant (Amis’s metaphor) until she passes out, numerous social situations are minutely observed. Amis’s characters may not be sympathetic, but their selfish motivations are all too realistic and recognisable.
Kamis undoubtedly has the whiff of the chauvinist about him, but The Old Devils was a welcome introduction to the comedy and humanity of his writing. But Mamis… well, don’t hold your breath. This little anecdote from Mamis himself about his Dad reading his most famous novel was enough to have me cheering for the father whilst further rejecting the son:
“I can point out the exact place where he stopped and sent Money twirling through the air; that’s where the character named Martin Amis comes in.”
Surely the only reasonable action. Cheers, Kingsley.