It is only human nature to assume that reasonable people will agree with you. So when I finished The Old Devils I looked for reviews in the expectation that they would broadly align with my thoughts – that the novel had stolen the 1986 Booker prize from The Handmaid’s Tale, that it was the work of an embittered writer at the end of his career publicly working out many of his frustrations and grievances with the modern world and his own mortality, and that time would not have been kind to critical reception of the novel.
But I was wrong.
When it was first published The Old Devils was lauded with praise, winning the aforementioned Booker but also being widely recognised as a late-flowering of Amis’s comic genius. John Bayley wrote an extraordinary florid paean to the novel in the London Review of Books which is worth reading in full for its hyperbole, its use of obscure language (fauteuil, donnée), its name dropping (Elizabeth Bowen, William Trevor, Anthony Powell, Henry James, Patrick Hamilton, Jane Austen (“whom Amis has never much cared about”), A.N. Wilson and a “long ago purveyor of Gothic novels, Mrs Barbauld” are all name-checked) all without ever managing to put his finger on the elusive nature of Amis’s comic genius.
More recently a reviewer in the Guardian’s book column in 2010 wrote
“Kingsley Amis’s success at the 1986 Booker prize seems like the natural culmination of a long and distinguished writing career. One of the finest comic writers of his generation – century even – had done the natural thing and written a bloody brilliant book”
The Wales Art Review (? me neither) called the novel
“his greatest single creative achievement” and (together with Lucky Jim)
“Two of the greatest novels of the twentieth century without doubt”
V.S. Prichett, writing in The New Yorker described the novel as being in
“the old, robust masculine tradition of British comedy from Fielding and Smollett”.
And of course son Martin thought that the novel
“stands comparison with any English novel of the century.”
Would that weight of critical opinion sway me?
Not a vast amount happens in The Old Devils. Alun Weaver, a writer and minor celebrity, (we are told he is a writer, but he doesn’t seem to have written very much, and the extent of his celebrity is very much open to debate) returns to his native Wales with his wife, Rhiannon. Many years ago before the Weavers left Wales their friendship group had gone through the various re-configurations that happen among younger people. In particular Rhiannon had once been loved by Alun’s old friend and now enormously, comically fat Peter Thomas. Alun and Rhiannon resume life with their close knit group of friends almost as if they have never been away – there is no suggestion they would look for other social groups – which stirs up long dormant feelings amongst former lovers. That’s pretty much it. Time is spent drinking heroic amounts of alcohol that in the non-fictional world would leave people falling over drunk in a fraction of the time sustained here. not least because there seems little else to do. Amis concludes the novel with a death and a wedding, the latter between two younger characters who have been largely ignored during the previous chapters.
I have always thought of Amis as a good bad writer, one who writes clumsy, poorly constructed sentences simply as a way of drawing attention to their deliberate awkwardness. Take this sentence for example:
“As they stood, or with some minor surgery, they were supposed to be, he had striven to make them, his devout hope was that they were, the opening section of the only really serious piece of prose he had written since his schooldays.”
These are the faltering thoughts of Alun Weaver considering the opening pages of a novel he has just started, and which turns out to be, by consensus, rubbish. No doubt it took a lot of care and craft to make the sentence so unclear and scrappy, and it does admittedly reflect Alun’s thoughts and apparently his gifts as an author. But it’s still a horrible sentence, no matter how many times you read it.
Here’s another example:
All sorts of stuff, for instance what had been taking place a little earlier, seemed much as before, or at any rate not different enough to start making a song and dance about. This state of affairs might well not last for ever, but for the moment, certainly, the less it changed the more it was the same thing, and the most noticeable characteristic of the past, as seen by him, at least, was that there was so much more if it now than formerly, with bits that were longer ago than had once seemed possible.
Ultimately you can choose to read this as a gentle meditation on aging, or the cliche-ridden (song and dance, state of affairs) muttering of someone growing old disgracefully.
The humour in the novel is intended to derive from Amis’s portraits of flawed human nature. People are pompous, lecherous, complacent, stupid, and all manner of human weakness is on display for our entertainment. But I really struggled to care about these largely unpleasant people. There were several points in the novel where I was unable to work out who was speaking in a passage of dialogue, and the suddenly realised it didn’t really matter because I didn’t care.
Here’s Amis’s unflattering portrait of Malcolm, one of the group of friends, dressed to impress an old flame:
“When he had got out of his very shiny bright-blue car and at a second attempt shut its driver’s door, Malcolm revealed himself to be wearing a hacking jacket in dark red, green and fawn checks that were too large by an incredibly small amount, cavalry-twill trousers he must have been uncommonly fond of, a pale green I’m-going-out-for-the-the-day-with-my-old-girlfriend cravat or ascot, and, thank goodness, a plain shirt and ordinary brown lace-up shoes.”
Is this brilliantly observant, or crudely done? Older people don’t dress very smartly, even when they are trying hard to impress. The point of view judgment in this analysis comes from Rhiannon, the old-girlfriend in question, who gives thanks for the plain shirt and ordinary shoes. Amis deploys these subtle changes of point of view with the skill of an experienced writer, unquestionably, but I am not convinced that there is much humour here, even if there is less spite than earlier later Amis either.
I appreciate I am edging round the question of whether I actually thought The Old Devils was any good. Let’s put it this way – I have my doubts. Without question the praise I have referenced earlier in the post is over the top. This is not a classic or a masterpiece or anything like it. Most of the time I managed a wry smile, at best, and much of the time I was bored. The characters are hard to like – Amis goes out of his way to make them unattractive and unappealing, and they are poorly delineated, particularly the women who Amis struggles to distinguish between other than by their physical features.
My principal source of irritation with this novel is its dishonesty. Amis had at this point in his career developed a reputation as a declining writer focused on personal themes – his serial adultery, his alcoholism, his declining health. He has sketched out a series of characters with these qualities or attributes, then ventriloquized through them on his tired personal and political hobby-horses – homosexuality, the ridiculousness of compulsory Welsh/English language public signage, faux-Welshness, trade-unionists and so on. Of course one must always be careful to distinguish between the personal views of an author and their characters, but there is a strong case for concluding that Amis shares many of the prejudices his characters articulate – he repeats these views consistently in a series of later novels, he attempts to make the characters articulating these views sympathetic and invariably shows only the reasons why they are justified in these views – opposing views are ignored. Reviewers seem relieved that this is not the openly misogynistic rant of Stanley and the Women or Jake’s Thing, but that doesn’t make it Lucy Jim either.
Finally, and for me most seriously, there is what I think of as the “shagger” issue. (apologies for the language but it seems appropriate in the context, and any euphemism wouldn’t quite meet the mark). There is a recurring character in many of Amis’s novels who is an appalling chauvinist with nevertheless a mysterious and limitless powers of seduction. He is always on the lookout for an opportunity for random sexual encounters, however inappropriate or untimely, always “up for it” irrespective of time, place or situation. He will sleep with anyone at anytime, and inexplicably has the power to persuade the women in his life, invariably married to someone else – to sleep with him with the minimum of seduction/persuasion/courtship. They just jump into bed with him – because the narrator can portray them doing so, not because these powers are in any way realistic or believable. So Alun Weaver has not been back in Wales many hours before he pops in to visit Sophie, wife of an old-friend, in the expectation of a casual encounter. The conversation is initially hostile but Alun charms his way into Sophie’s bedroom, and slowly the quotation marks are interrupted by rows of dots suggesting intimacy is underway. They only confirmation that the seduction has succeeded is the phrase “Much too late to spoil it the telephone-bell rang on the landing”, “it” in this context being Amis’s coy euphemism for sex.
This is all a long-winded way of explaining why I think the critics I cited earlier in this post were wrong, and why this novel has aged poorly. I looked at the Goodreads reviews for this novel to see if contemporary opinion of the lay reader was closer to mine. This is obviously a question of me seeking evidence for a previously determined position, because if these statistics had not confirmed my conclusions I would probably not have included them, but here they are. Goodreads reviewers gave The Old Devils an average score of 3.33 out of 5. That’s below average for most Booker prize winning novels. I sampled a number of others at random and only Anne Enright’s The Gathering scored lower at 3.07. (Full results as follows:)
The Sense of an Ending Julian Barnes 3.72
The Sea John Banville 3.51
White Tiger Aravind Adiga 3.73
Life of Pi Yann Martell 3.90
How Late it was, how late James Kelman 3.57
Paddy Clarke, Ha, Ha, Ha Roddy Doyle 3.76
Wolf Hall Hilary Mantel 3.86
The Seige of Krishnapur J.G. Farrell 3.90
A Brief History of Seven Killings Marlon James 3.87
The Milkman Anne Burns 3.61
The Sellout Paul Beatty 3.77
Lincoln on the Bardo George Saunders 3.77)
So on average the good readers of Goodreads agree with me, which is a comfort, of sorts.