The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis (1986)
As both a reader and a writer, I enjoy diverse genres of literature. I however would have to choose mid-20th century British comic fiction as one of my favorites. Besides various batches of metrical poetry, there is no other genre that brings such a grin to my face. Whether it is works of Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Burgess, Anthony Powell, or this review’s featured writer, Kingsley Amis, I just can’t get enough. I think this is due to the combination of familiarity and slight estrangement between American and British cultures. An American reader delving into the British cultural world has journeyed to foreign milieu, but does not feel completely like a stranger in a strange land. There is a notion of difference, but generally, not a feeling of bewilderment as when one picks up a Japanese or Russian novel without cultural context.
When compared with other comic writers that emerged during the interbellum and post-World War II period, Kingsley Amis is probably the most accessible to an American reader, or really any English language speaker. Although British class tension is present in a number of his works, it does not hover like a shadow over the themes as it does in other writers of the same period such as Waugh or Powell. For one thing, Amis seemed to always fight against the biases of the British establishment, whether when he was a left-leaning basher of posh pretension during the Angry Young Man period of the fifties, or when he became a pro-American conservative in the post-Vietnam era, when it was fashionable for the British literati to declare American power as anathema. Even in his non-fiction book on grammar, The King’s English, he readily prefers American English to that of his own countrymen as more natural and less stuffy. Throughout his life he believed that things should be said straight forward and without a lot of bollocks as he might say.
The Old Devils, though written in his later years, shows that Amis had not lost his wit. In addition, the novel is not just a comic gem, but it shows his most heart since his original masterpiece, Lucky Jim. He doesn’t hesitate to laugh at the foibles of his characters, but his presentation shows that he cares for them as individual creations. The story focuses on Welsh couples in their sixties in the mid-1980s as they handle the indignity of old age. Interestingly, Amis set a number of his novels in Wales. For some reason, it seems Wales gets a bit of short shrift in terms of British settings chosen by writers; perhaps, the locales of England and Scotland are both more romantic and familiar, but Amis’s prose shows that Wales shouldn’t be forgotten.
The couples, and other locals, are in a stir because Alun and Rhiannon Weaver have returned home to South Wales after years of celebrity in London. The Welsh have developed a complex view of Alun: he is both praised and viewed as somewhat of a phony. Alun is a popular poet, but much of that popularity is based off his living off the legacy of the late, more critically-acclaimed poet Brydan, and his presentation of himself as the prototypical Welshman. Basically, if a Welsh topic needs a Welsh viewpoint, the London establishment turns to Alun to pontificate on what it means to be Welsh, especially in the modern age. Though his friends and neighbors are glad that a local son has made it professionally, they are somewhat embarrassed by the bloviating of his subject matter. It doesn’t help that he is a selfish scoundrel who had affairs with the majority of his friends’ wives, and who begins to commence his bad habits again when he settles back in Wales.
His friends are a loveable but seemingly hopeless lot. They spend the majority of their day hitting up establishments to indulge their alcoholic tendencies. They are definitely not picture of good health. Charles Norris and Peter Thomas are obese, and getting fatter. Malcolm Cellan-Davies has stomach and teeth issues that are at a point of precariousness. Their wives seem to have lost whatever love they had for them; it doesn’t help that the seducer Alun is back in town. The saddest character would definitely be Peter. Fortunately, he gets somewhat of a happy ending at the conclusion of the novel; however, throughout the majority of the story, he is at the critical whims of his wife, who hasn’t been physically attracted to him in years and is at a similar emotional distance. Some critics say that Amis modeled this portrait on himself, though Amis’s personal traits are found in aspects of all the major male characters.
The characters try to come to terms with what has been largely wasted years. They seem to have stopped growing emotionally since the time of their college years. After an incident in a pub that gets the gang of old friends thrown out, the owner remarks, “You’d think [men that age] have learnt how to behave by this time.” Looking at the shenanigans that they get themselves in, it is obvious that they haven’t (and neither have their selfish wives), and it costs one of the friends his life near the end of the novel, though you’re not surprised who dies, and it’s quite satisfactory despite your feeling somewhat attached to him by the end. The story implies that even famous Alun has wasted much of his life. He is a successful poet, but there is a feeling that his fame rests on being the court jester to a condescending English audience and dull Welsh public. Does he truly embody the Welsh spirit just as Brydan, and is that something to which he should have tried to attain? Like many of the other characters, Alun runs toward his Welsh identity and tries running away from it. This crisis leads him to almost become a stereotype that he wishes to avoid, rather than becoming an individual, who happens to have Welsh heritage.
This 1986 Man Booker Prize winner is considered to be the prime achievement of Kingsley’s career by his son, the also-acclaimed novelist, Martin Amis. Though I didn’t bust out laughing as I did with his earlier works like Lucky Jim or One Fat Englishman, I don’t believe that the narrative is any less humorous. What concerns one in old age is much different than in youth, so there should be no surprise that the style differs somewhat as well. Reading his earlier works, it can be reasoned that Amis sympathized only slightly with his targets at that time. Perhaps reflecting on mortality during his older years caused him however to enshroud even the most ridiculous and foolish characters with dignity in this novel. To me, this increases the novel’s merit as a comic work, as recognition of one’s past regrets are easily more reflected upon as we age, especially when we laugh with each other rather than just at each other.