Tuesday, February 22, 2005

kingsley amis's 'Ending Up'

You really should go out and find a second hand copy of Kingsley Amis's The Alteration.

No, wait.

I've said that.

You really should go out and find a second hand copy of Kingsley Amis's Ending Up. I've just finished it. It's funny to think, as Martin Amis puts it in his Experience, back in 1974, in Hadley Wood, Barnet, just minutes from where I myself grew up, two novels were being written.

"His study was directly beneath the bedroom I still claimed as mine on weekends and other visits. So I could hear him that morning when, after an hour at his desk, he started laughing: the sound of a man succumbing, after a certain amount of resistance, to unshirkable amusement. He was writing Ending Up, I was writing Dead Babies (and Jane [Elizabeth Howard], down the passage from me, was writing Something In Disguise). Both Amis novels were black comedies set in country houses. In his book they all died. In my book they all died except one".

Ending Up, like Dead Babies, is a savage, exuberant, hilarious book. Both novels are, to a lesser (Martin) or greater (Kingsley) effect, lost novels. Martin's is juvenilia, not satire but farce - his pen not yet enlivened by the Thatcher years. Kingsley's novel is less justly forgotten (and more seriously so, for unlike Martin's effort, it is out of print); it arrived towards the end of a golden run of novels (The Green Man, Girl, 20 and The Riverside Villas Murder - The Alteration followed two years later) which nevertheless had failed to produce either a Lucky Jim or a The Old Devils (much less, thankfully, a Stanley and the Women). During this period Amis was sublimely in control: focused, savage, pointed and hilarious.

In a way, Ending Up is a marvellous rebuke to Dead Babies, where a group of young people - revelling in their freedom from responsibility - wreak havoc in a confined space and a short, bloody weekend. His father's characters are perhaps sixty years older, and their story takes place over rather longer (although the novel barely exceeds 120 pages, each packed with wonderful, acerbic descriptions), but their behaviour is a vivid demonstration - as was Kingsley's still-burning brilliance - that age and guile beats youth, innocence and a bad haircut. Kingsley's characters behave riotously.

Bernard Bastable (surely an inspiration for Dylan Moran's droll bookseller) is an outrageous, delinquent masterpiece of cynicism, bitterness and self-absorption. His (ex-)lover, Shorty, the foil for some of the best descriptions of drunkenness I have ever encountered. George, who suffers from nominal asphasia and can't remember common nouns, is a near-genius evocation of boringness, while Marigold (who refers to everything in baby talk) and Adela (a spinster victim of her own 'extreme ugliness') are capable of provoking pity, fury and laughter in equal measures.

Dead Babies I read when I was about 16, and had a massive effect on me; the denoument shocking and delighting me like few others have ever managed since. I should perhaps refrain from labouring the comparison between the two books too much, but Ending Up, the last five pages of which sent prickles up and down my spine as I finished it on the train home tonight, shares a savage spareness, knife-sharp - brilliant.

There was apparently something in the water in Barnet in 1974.

Three years later I was born, and everything - by then - had quietened right down.


Rob said...

I read Dead Babies at about 16 as well. It’s great, really quite brutal in places. Need to read it again, and Money, although I’ve got a feeling I leant lots of my Amis paperbacks to someone (Ant?) and never got them back. Kingsley I’ve never read, we have Riverside Villas Murder somewhere though, maybe I’ll give it a go.

I still remember the ending of Dead Babies as well. This phrase: “eyes like dying swans”.

Blimey. *shudder*

jonathan said...

Yeah, I've lost copies of Martin Amis novels over the years, too. Vic's copy of 'Money' still gets picked up and enjoyed regularly at our place, even if it's just me picking it up and reading four or five pages at random. Kingsley is a different sort of writer, although similar in many ways too. His style is obviously not so florid or besotted with hyperbole, but he shares a real delight in language. Kingsley doing people talking is totally unrivalled, in my opinion. He's perhaps unfairly remembered for his sex comedies, sadly, but he's finally being reprinted again, which is good.

Riverside Villas is well worth a go, although it's one of his genre books, but no less well written for it.

Ben said...

'Money' blew me away when I read it last year. Must follow it up with one of his others, and 'Dead Babies' sounds as good a place to start.

Anonymous said...

Money is his best by a long way, that's for sure, but London Fields and Time's Arrow are awesome too. My favorite is actually The Rachel Papers which I guess is a bit like Dead Babies: not technically as good as the later novels but a really great, enjoyable read.

I liked Yellow Dog too.

jonathan said...

I liked Yellow Dog too, in places, but I have a bit of a sad admission to make. I, er, didn't really understand what was going on by the time I got to the ending.

Best try reading that one again, then :-(

Dan said...

Yellow Dog was a difficult read. Amis Jnr was said to return to form with that but I'm not sure.

jonathan said...

I kind of loved him for coming back with a book so unapologetically over-the-top. Part of me expected him to have curbed his extravagent prose or honed his satire, but Yellow Dog was a kind of grand theatrical gesture.

I read something a while back where Amis was asked what it is that people really dislike about his style. He replied, "I like to say that it reminds certain people how thick they are". Yellow Dog seemed to come out of the impulse to say 'you still can't match me', which, to a certain extent, is still true.

Uneven and lopsided though that book is, it still demands attention, which is certainly more than can be said for the latest Ian McEwan offering, say.

BB said...

You know, I still haven't read a Martin Amis. Would certainly like to try - if you have any copies left, that is. Lending that PGW all that time ago certainly had an effect, so maybe I'll really take to it.

jonathan said...

Yep, no problem, you can borrow one. We've definitely got copies of Dead Babies, Money, Time's Arrow and YD in the flat, and frankly if we've not got four or five more too then I have more thieves amongst my friends than I suspected :-)