Feeling Uncertain

  • John McDermott


One respect in which the English novel differs from its European counterpart is its ability to be funny about things that are serious. Moral, even metaphysical, issues are explored within contexts so attentive to the surface of social realities that analysis is never allowed to be more than implicit in a more or less amused presentation of human foibles. What Amis has to say about Anthony Powell applies equally to himself: ‘we can think ourselves lucky to have a group of novels which … combine wit and sadness and farce and charm, which, without a hint of keening or gesticulation, are entirely serious’. Amis’s novels are thoroughly English in their examination of values and behaviour and their portrayal of the forces that work against the impulse to be decent. In each of his first three novels the central character is challenged in some aspect of what he does and what he believes: Jim Dixon speaks up for himself and gets lucky; John Lewis stops feeling uncertain about what he really wants and establishes himself in a milieu where the certainties, though dull, are stable; and Garnet Bowen, having tried it (and tried it on) there, works out why he likes it here. In each case the important discovery is effected in terms of a relationship with a woman (or, rather, women — since one of the choices made by all three involves commitment to one particular woman and the abandonment of another).2


Central Character Moral Intensity Definite Article Possessive Pronoun Great Tradition 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Wordsworth, ‘A Poet’s Epitaph’; used also as epigraph to John Wain’s Hurry On Down (London, 1953).Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    A. C. Ward, Longman Companion to Twentieth Century Literature (2nd ed.), 1975.Google Scholar
  3. 7.
    Lodge, Language of Fiction (London, 1966 and 1984).Google Scholar
  4. 11.
    Dixon’s faces have caused a good deal of bother. Naomi Lebowitz, ‘Kingsley Amis: the Penitent Hero’, Perspective, X (Spring 1959) p. 131, argues that both the faces and Jim’s public roles are essentially ‘a protective effort to feel the solidity of existence’.Google Scholar
  5. Ted E. Boyle and Terence Brown, ‘The Serious Side of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim’, Critique, IX.1 (1966–71, pp. 100–7), join forces to reprove the lady for failing ‘to differentiate sufficiently between Jim’s public pose as ingratiating junior instructor and his private honest reaction — the faces’.Google Scholar
  6. Bruce Stovel, ‘Traditional Comedy and the Comic Mask in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim’, English Studies in Canada, IV.1 (Spring 1978) pp. 69–80, identifies the faces as modern equivalents of comic masks, and points out that they make us laugh. All this (apart, of course, from the laughter which we had suspected all along) rather surprises those of us who had always assumed that, unable or afraid to spit, speak out or take violent action, Dixon had to do something, and he remembered the magical and therapeutic powers of infantile face-pulling. Amis himself describes the faces as ‘the covert protest and tension-reducers of a man in enemy territory without effective allies’ (‘Real and made-up people’, TLS, 27 July 1973, p. 874).Google Scholar
  7. 16.
    Amis, Paris Review, 6 (Winter 1975) p. 45; Wain, ‘Along the Tightrope’, Declaration, p. 101, and Lumley’s comment: ‘I never rebelled against ordinary life; it just never admitted me, that’s all’.Google Scholar
  8. 17.
    Larkin, ‘Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album’, The Less Deceived (London, 1955).Google Scholar
  9. 20.
    ‘Lewis’s language has the following characteristics: a recursive clause structure; an unusual degree (in one sentence) of repetition of lexical items; reflexive pronouns; balancing of negative and positive statements; pronominal “it” as a frequent anaphoric referent’ (Norman Macleod, ‘This familiar regressive series: Aspects of style in the novels of Kingsley Amis’, in Aitken, McIntosh, Pálsson (eds) Edinburgh Studies in English and Scots (London, 1971)).Google Scholar
  10. 21.
    John D. Hurrell, Critique, II.1 (1958) pp. 39–53.Google Scholar
  11. 22.
    W. Somerset Maugham, letter to Elizabeth Jennings, 29 March 1956, Washington University Libraries, St. Louis, Mo., quoted in Ted Morgan, Somerset Maugham (London, 1980) p. 509;Google Scholar
  12. attributed to George VI (quoted in W. H. Auden, A Certain World (London, 1971).Google Scholar
  13. 24.
    The reviews referred to (all 1958) are, in order: New Statesman, 18 January; Commonweal, 21 March; Atlantic Monthly 201 (April). A detailed account of the reception of Amis’s books can be read between the lines of Dale Salwak’s invaluable Kingsley Amis: A Reference Guide (Boston, 1978)Google Scholar
  14. which supplements and emends Jack Benoit Gohn’s Kingsley Amis: A Checklist (Ohio, 1976).Google Scholar
  15. 25.
    Weaver, Queen’s Quarterly, 65 (Summer 1958) pp. 189–91;Google Scholar
  16. Hogan, San Francisco Chronicle, 13 February 1958, p. 35.Google Scholar
  17. 26.
    Wright, ‘Lucky Jim Abroad’, Time and Tide, 39 (18 January 1958) pp. 75–6; Spender, ‘Anglo-Saxon Attitudes’, Partisan Review, 25 (Winter) pp. 112–3.Google Scholar
  18. 27.
    Bergonzi, The Situation of the Novel (London, 1970) p. 155.Google Scholar
  19. 28.
    ‘My Kind of Comedy’, Twentieth Century, July 1961; Spectator, 8 July 1955, p. 47, and cf. Harold Hobson, Christian Science Monitor, 16 January 1958) p. 11, arguing that it is obvious that Amis dislikes abroad and foreigners because Bowen’s troubles have a deep personal ring. (Gardner actually argues that Garnet Bowen’s initials, as well as standing for Great Britain, are also significantly ‘near [Amis’s] own in the alphabet’ (Kingsley Amis (Boston, 1981) p. 50.)Google Scholar
  20. Morrison draws an interesting connection with Orwell’s ‘The English People’, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters (London: Secker and Warburg, 1975), vol. 3, p. 18: ‘travelling abroad, speaking foreign tongues, enjoying foreign food, are vaguely felt to be upper-class habits, so that xenophobia is reinforced by class jealousy’.Google Scholar
  21. 29.
    Allen, ‘The Comic Trials of Being Abroad’, New York Herald Tribune Book Review, 9 March 1958) p. 12; TLS, ‘Taking It Easy’, 17 January 1958, p. 30; Atlantic Monthly 201 (April); Philip Toynbee, ‘Not So Lucky’, Observer, 12 January 1958, p. 14; Hough, ‘Novels and Literary Commodities’, Encounter, March 1958. Allen’s idea of a pale copy of Lucky Jim got across the Channel and re-surfaced in an article charmingly called ‘Kingsley Amis ou la Tunique de Nessus’ which argued that Amis’s curse was to go through life endlessly re-creating Dixon: ‘lorsque l’aggressivité perd de son mordant … lorsqu’elle va même jusqu’à disparaître comme dans I Like It Here … le comique de K. Amis prend un caractère plus mécanique et dès lors n’atteint ni ne mérite le plein succés. Si l’on ajoute que la trame romanesque de ces deux récits devient mince et presque linéaire, on ne voit guère plus dans John Lewis et Garnet Bowen que des républiques paîles de Jim Dixon’ (S. M. Haimart, Études Anglaises, XXV, 3 (1972) p. 30.Google Scholar
  22. 32.
    Lodge, Novelist at the Crossroads (London, 1971) p. 25. If we accept this reading, it would add one more to the list of narrative genres and sub-genres in which Amis has worked, and put I Like It Here on the same shelf as, say, The Golden Notebook, A Burnt-Out Case, Pale Fire and The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. But if these novels are not chips off the writer’s block, at least they are all concerned to some degree with manners of proceeding in fiction.Google Scholar
  23. 37.
    Fuller, London Magazine OS 5 (February 1958);Google Scholar
  24. Fraser, The Modern Writer and his World (London, rev. ed. 1964), chapter 11, but he does confuse Garnet Bowen with Patrick Standish.Google Scholar
  25. 38.
    Leavis, The Great Tradition (London, 1948). Reviewing Middleton Murry’s Unprofessional Essays (Spectator, 11 May 1956), Amis speaks of ‘the moral preoccupation that is, after all, to be discovered in Fielding’. He goes on: ‘this, to be sure, is not the intense moral preoccupation which acts as an admit-bearer to Dr Leavis’s Great Tradition, but it is none the worse for that. One might go further … and add that it is probably all the better for that, considering how readily that intense moral preoccupation confuses itself — in the George Eliot of Dr Leavis, say — with intense moral fuss’.Google Scholar

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© John McDermott 1989

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  • John McDermott

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