20 Books of summer, Book review, humour, Kingsley Amis, You Can't Do Both

You Can’t Do Both, by Kingsley Amis, 1994

‘You Can’t do Both’ was published in 1994, a year before Amis’s death. It is strongly autobiographical, in particular the central scene when the main characters, Robin Davies and his girlfriend, Nancy, decide at the last moment not to go through with a planned illegal abortion. It is constructed in four long chapters, each representing a phase of Robin’s life – schoolchild, undergraduate, young man, and married life. The third phase is key and formative – Robin is still in his early twenties, returning from active service in the Second World War and trying to resume normal life while his parents age and die.amis

In its review of this novel when it was first published, the Independent claimed “Amis throws off his reputation as a misanthropic old goat.” Distance as always gives perspective, and reading the novel now my immediate reaction was that if this is Amis being unmisanthropic and un-old-goatish, goodness help anyone reading the earlier novels, which must have been monstrous (personally I don’t think they were that much worse – I think the reviewer saw a change of tone where there wasn’t one).  Davies, the Amis-lite central character, perhaps anti-hero of this novel, is, in the words of a Goodreads reviewer, “seriously an insufferable git.” He tolerates other people, at best, and has few real friends. He is constantly on heat, and while his sexual conquests are at first clumsy and unsuccessful, he quickly becomes, as is the way with many author-avatar figures, irresistible to women.

The humour in the novel – it is intended as a comic novel – derives in part from Robin’s Lucky Jim-like frustration with the rest of the world. Where Jim’s frustrations managed to be comic and relatable, Robin’s are simply spiteful – his misanthropy towards his harmless young niece is particularly unpleasant. Occasionally he manages to raise a wry smile – for example in Robin’s description of meeting his father for the first time after a spell in a prisoner of war camp – “There had been the kind of brief, stylised embrace between the two that might have recalled a French general half-way down a long line of winners of minor decorations”.

In essence, this novel is a long and unsuccessful attempt to justify a life ill-spent. Davies is serially unfaithful to his wife, and only begrudgingly marries her because he is unable to go through with the said abortion. The denouement, in which he is caught in-flagrante by his wife with his cousin Dilys -“Within in a couple of minutes he was hard at it…On the whole the thing was a great success” – comes without consequences for Davies, barring a well-earned slap round the face. Amis is confessing to his weaknesses, and at the same time not very subtly bragging about his success with “the ladies” – women are “the little blonde creature” or “them” (as in “never lay a finger on them till they graduate”).

If this novel was a simple portrait of an insufferable old git then it would be a great success. But I strongly suspect it is a self-portrait of someone who knows himself deep down to be insufferable, but really hasn’t come to terms with it, is in denial, and can’t understand why everyone doesn’t love him as much as he loves himself.

Finally, in reading some online reviews of this novel I came across the following analysis. https://astrofella.wordpress.com/2016/08/25/you-cant-do-both-kingsley-amis/

It’s a wonderfully careful, detailed and thorough analysis that almost persuaded me not to write my own review. It’s a little long, but when you take down and apart a Booker prize winning novelist you can justify taking your time over it.