Next up in our search for the Greatest Welsh Novel is The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis. John Lavin is its staunch advocate.
Can the Greatest Welsh Novel be written by a writer who isn’t technically, er, Welsh? Generally I would say not, perhaps even very obviously not but in the case of Kingsley Amis and The Old Devils things are different. Quite especially different. The twelve years Amis spent in Swansea (and his corresponding tenure at the University there) is one thing. The fact that he described himself as being most at home and at his happiest anywhere when in South Wales another. However, the two most obvious and incontrovertible facts are Lucky Jim and The Old Devils themselves. Two of the greatest novels of the twentieth century without doubt, and Amis’ only two unequivocally great books to boot. Both of them inspired by, written about and largely written in South Wales.
Lucky Jim was forged within the corridors of Swansea University, where Amis worked as assistant English lecturer when he and his young family were living first in a series of rented rooms and eventually ‘in a house within a stones throw of that Cwmdonkin Drive that Dylan Thomas had been the Rimbaud of’ (The Old Devils, incidentally, contains an amusing and somewhat unflattering portrait of a Dylan Thomas-like poet named Brydan). The Old Devils was written after the demise of Amis’ marriage to Elizabeth Jane Howard (who had apparently never taken to Swansea), when the author began to return to Wales regularly to reconnect with old friends. And somehow, just as that initial time in Swansea had produced Amis’ first period of intense creative productivity, so too did this return to South Wales call to a halt what had had been a long fallow period for Amis, populated by dismal books like Russian Hide and Seek and Jake’s Thing – works that offered the reader little more than grim evidence of a brilliant mind lost to drink. Not only, in fact, did Amis’ return end this dismayingly last orders-like sinking of his talent but it also resulted in his greatest single creative achievement. A book about regret and the implacability of time. A book, certainly, about drink. But a book, also, which examines South Wales with forensic skill and a great deal of humour and affection.
The South Wales Amis shows us is seen through the eyes of his characters. Recently retired academics and professionals, who like Amis himself appear to have grown increasingly conservative with age, these people are – even if not specifically – the characters from Lucky Jim grown old. Perhaps, in fact, this is a reason for the books success. Returning to Swansea appears to have reacquainted Amis with the mainline to his generation. Because the sparkling, pretension-stripping humour which so characterised his debut novel is back with considerable force. When a novel, and a novel that speaks to and for a different generation than your own, makes you laugh out loud on upwards of ten occasions, then that novel is surely something very special indeed. When it also does this in an elegiac tone that appears to suggest that all of the wit, rage and brilliance that so defined Lucky Jim was a terrible, vain waste of time, then you also know that you are in very complicated company indeed.
Because The Old Devils is Shakespearean is scope. It is funny, yes, but also complex and philosophical and at its core, swollen with tears. ‘Swing low in your weep ship,’ began The Information, the novel Amis’ son, Martin, wrote in his father’s final years and in the aftermath of his own divorce. ‘With your tear scans and your sob probes.’ The Information deals with male regret and male emotional constipation (‘Cities at night contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing’) but Amis junior could just as easily have been describing his father’s deeply autobiographical The Old Devils.
Indeed sadness and regret watermark these pages but they do so especially in Amis’ handling of the relationship between the kind, beautiful Rhiannon and both her husband Alun and her former lover, Peter. For Rhiannon read Hilly, Kingsley’s first wife, whom he left to marry the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard. Here is the final verse from the poem he wrote to her, ‘Instead of an Epilogue’, at the end of his Memoirs, (published six years after The Old Devils and four years before his death in 1995):
In ’46 I met someone harmless, someone defenceless,
But till then whole, unadapted within;
Awkward, gentle, healthy, straight-backed,
Who spoke to say something, laughed when amused;
If things went wrong, feared she might be at fault,
Whose eye I could have met for ever then,
Oh yes, and who was also beautiful.
Well, that was much as women were meant to be,
I thought, and set about looking further.
How can we tell, with nothing to compare?
There are elements of Amis in both Alun – in his philandering and his love of being brilliantly rude but not, of course, in his literary charlatanry – and Peter, who gives up Rhiannon for a short fling with the stunningly beautiful Angharad:
Well a girl like that, you can understand it in a way, and understand it even better if you allow for the bloke being a selfish shit who’s rather thrilled to be the object of it.
Meanwhile Charlie’s fear of being on his own in the dark mirrors more or less exactly the night terrors Amis himself encountered in the latter stages of his life (leading eventually, and rather sweetly it has to be said, to Hilly and her husband Lord Kilmarnock allowing him to become their lodger). It is both the handling and the implicit acknowledgement of these vulnerabilities, self-deceptions and betrayals that make this novel the remarkable achievement that it is.
Amis is justly famous for writing about drink (his collection of essays on the subject, On Drink, is supremely funny) and one of the things The Old Devils is likewise justly famous for is drinking on an epic scale. Here is Alun and Charlie’s lunch while holidaying in Birdarthur (a thinly disguised Laugharne):
He continued satisfactory through the pub session, another couple back at the cottage, and lunch off the pickled fish and chopped onion, the whole firmly washed down with aquavit and Special Brew and tamped in place with Irish Cream. By a step of doubtful legitimacy the men thinned their glasses of the heavy liqueur with Scotch.
Amis was, as we know, a notorious drinker but while the writing on drink throughout The Old Devils is carried out with a good deal of zest and affection, it is also shot through with the inescapable knowledge that drinking on this scale is a coping mechanism. A way not so much of forgetting the reality of one’s actions as of anaesthetising oneself to them.
Indeed for all of its Conservative overtones (which are, in any case pretty self-knowledgeably crabby), this is a book written in homage to women, art and to Wales itself: three subjects which are, or should be at least, the very antithesis of conservatism. In fact, asides from the ever-prevailing Amis-ian influences of Waugh, Wodehouse, Larkin and Shakespeare, this book even admits modernism (if most decisively not post-modernism – no author-as-character incidents here, as in Money, his son’s most famous novel and the one he felt impelled to fling across a room) into the conversation – calling to mind, as it almost bizarrely does, The Waves by Virginia Woolf. An outlandish comparison you might at first say, and one I had not noticed before the recent re-reading occasioned by this piece. However, its influence is there nevertheless, from the way that Amis goes into the heads of several different characters throughout the book (look at those chapter titles, ‘Alun’, ‘Charlie’, ‘Malcolm, Muriel, Peter, Gwen, Alun, Rhiannon’) to the way that he lets his characters slip into stream of consciousness when talking (he hardly ever allows this when they are thinking, but then that would have surely been too overtly modernist for Amis).
But it is most prominently there in terms of subject matter. In its dissection of the ageing process of a group of friends, as well as in its reflections on their youth, The Old Devils summons to mind the swiftness, sadness and beauty of the life cycle. But most, of all, like The Waves, it summons to mind its implacability and inexorability. When shortly before Alun’s dramatic, fittingly hilarious death, Peter relates to Charlie how he came to leave Rhiannon for another woman and is rendered more or less immobile by the memory, the reader feels such an enormous sweep of lost, squandered time – of time squandered so easily and of life come and gone – that it really is difficult not to cry (or at the very least hard not to be stimulated into moments of both inner and outer reflection, which is surely the purpose of art):
Not swallowing the pill, keeping it under his tongue, Peter held himself rigid in his seat with his eyes shut. Now and then he winced sharply, once so sharply and with such a screwing-up of his face that Charlie thought he was going to die the next moment. Charlie also stayed still, with his hand ready in case Peter should want to hold it…. It was not really so long before Peter’s colour improved and he began to breathe more normally. After another minute he opened his eyes, smiled a little without parting his lips, as he always did now to keep his teeth out of sight, and sipped his drink.
Just as in the poem to Hilly, Amis seems to be saying, ‘How can we tell, with nothing to compare?’ In other words: we only have one life and so how can we be expected to get it right at the first time of asking? But what he is also saying, and what The Old Devils is saying with great poetic intensity, is that these mistakes hurt and that they are even a kind of suicide. Which is to say that when we hurt those that we love we hurt ourselves too, lessening our capacity for brilliance, wit, rage and above all, love.
Amis once famously said that, ‘Only a world without love strikes me as instantly and decisively more terrible than one without music’. Well, The Old Devils, which ends, pointedly, to the strands of Amis’ beloved jazz, takes its readers into a place that terrible. It is a world, he says, that we can only make ourselves, and a world that he maps without flinching. For this and for many other reasons, it is a very worthy contender for the title of Greatest Welsh Novel.
Photo Credit: Kingsley, Cigar and Bottle by Terence Donovan