<%-- Page Title--%> Book Review <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 125 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

October 3, 2003

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Amis Among Oiks

Jenny Turner


The Biographer's
by Kingsley Amis

You know the sort of book I mean. It was published, probably, in the '30s or '40s by a tweedy young man who seemed to be on the up. The insides, if anybody reads them, are all Belgravia drawing-rooms and clubs in St James's and crusty aristos, one of whom is usually called Bagshot.

It takes Kingsley Amis until page 9 to get a Lord and Lady
Bagshot into his new book. The place is 'the Fanes' first-floor sitting room, a place of thick light-coloured rugs, glass fronted bookcases, and paintings and drawings from earlier in the century'.

The time, strange though it may seem, is the present. And the occasion is a luncheon party, thrown by the venerable poet and novelist, Jimmie Fane.

Note that luncheon. And mind thatspelling on Jimmie. Jimmie Fane is a stickler for correctness in spelling and pronunciation. Fane, moreover, is a stickler, to a point well beyond the snob boundary, on the most arcane points of upper class etiquette.

The crucial luncheoneer is the man who wants to write Jimmie's biography, a youngish, fogeyish book reviewer called Gordon Scott-Thompson. Mind that hyphenated surname! Just look at the poor man's perfectly appalling moustache! Everything about Gordon Scott-Thompson shrieks oik, oik, oik.

An elderly upper class author, a cad and a bounder but charming with it; a man of letters in early middle age, bound in by petit bourgeois scruples. In order to understand Amis's interest in such a situation, it is worth remembering that Sir Kingsley himself started out in the '50s as a lower middle class intellectual in leather elbowed tweeds. The disquisitions on snobbism and social climbing with which his novel is filled represent, presumably, the much mulled-over conclusions of a lifetime spent dangling upon the parlous ladder of English social class.

But what was there, inside all this dismal, apathetic stodge, that Amis really wanted to say? 'By the time I reached 20, about the time of the outbreak of war, I could see that my ability was deficient,' confesses the elderly Jimmie at one point. 'No gift, true or not.' That Amis himself has already described this as 'a dignified acceptance of failure' on Jimmie's part need not prevent us from acknowledging it as such again.

But the last word belongs to Gordon's oiky father, a
cleverer critic by far than his son. 'When we say a work of literature has dated, we mean if it seems to a contemporary reader silly or affected or absurd or embarrassing or laughable, the work has failed to survive the passage of time...' The Biographer's Moustache finds itself a good half century out of date in the very week of its publication.

Source: The Guardian



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