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Mini Modern Classics (2) Kingsley Amis

In Books on April 2, 2011 by Miche Tagged: , , ,

Amis books

The second of the Mini Modern Classics series (alphabetically by author) and the second story that I already own but have never got round to reading. It’s a bad habit of mine: I buy more books than I have time to read, and more DVDs than I have time to watch. Should I ever happen to find myself bed-ridden for three months, I won’t be short of entertainment.

I’ve been trying to recall when, and why, I stopped reading Kingsley Amis. I know I haven’t read any of his novels subsequent to The Old Devils (1986), though I’m sure I was still occasionally reading him in the Nineties. I never made a concious decision to stop. I just grew less fond of him: of the old man retreating into bufferdom, as portrayed by interviews and the odd TV profile, and of the misogyny I saw in Stanley and the Women. It’s nice to be reminded what a fine, observant comic writer he could be.

Dear Illusion (1972) concerns Sue Macnamara, a “long-legged girl of thirty” (Amis was about fifty at the time) who arrives with a photographer at the home of Edward Arthur Potter, an old and much-respected poet, to interview him for a Sunday paper magazine. She’s not sure that Potter’s everything he’s cracked up to be:

“The works of Edward Arthur Potter weren’t in my syllabus, Bowes. Anyway, one big thing about those works is that they’re damned difficult. I was brought up on stuff you could make a bit of head or tail of. I suspect Potter of not being as good as he looks or sounds, but only suspect. And the critics are no help. They nearly all think he’s great, but then they nearly all think people I know are bloody awful are great too.”

Poets whose work isn’t as good as it looks or sounds recur in Amis, and they’re often pretentious windbags. But Potter turns out to be entirely unpretentious. Despite the ridiculous business of trying to have a conversation while a photographer barks directions (“Could we have the glasses up again, please?” “Could you relax and look out of the window as if you’re thinking?”), Potter correctly reads Sue’s opinion of his work, and disarmingly admits to not being sure himself whether it’s any good or not. He writes, he says, in order to continue to function as a human being.

“Of course, if you look at it in one way, it’s rather like that business they call occupational therapy, where people weave carpets to take their mind off themselves and their problems. The point there is that it doesn’t make any difference to anybody whether the carpets are any good or not. I’ve been wondering for over thirty years, on and off, if it’s the same with my poems.”

A year passes, and Sue receives an invitation to a literary dinner in celebration of the great lyric poet on the publication of his latest collection. After tinned grapefruit, some sort of fish and chicken à la Kiev, she and the other guests (“A sports commentator, a girl who made boots, a television bishop in mufti…”) sit through various speeches in praise of poetry and Potter. But when finally the guest of honour speaks, he surprises almost everybody.

There’s something unsatisfying about the way tha art-as-therapy theme develops. Pieces fall into place a bit too neatly – I can’t go into this without plot spoilers. But it’s a good read and full of wrily-observed detail. So Amis goes back onto the “read again soon” pile. Next up: Donald Barthelme.

P.S. As I picked up The Old Devils from the shelf to check the publication date, I had a sharp and sudden recollection of the day I bought it, on the way to my granny’s house to paint her kitchen ceiling on a sunny morning 25 years ago. 25 years. God almighty.

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