Tuesday, 22 April 2014

A Kingsley Amis Reread

I guess I first read Kingsley Amis's The Green Man some time in the early Seventies (it was published in 1969), and perhaps again not many years later. It struck me at the time as being in many ways the best of Amis's post-Lucky Jim novels, and I thought it was maybe time to reread it and see what I made of it now.
  I haven't read an Amis in quite some while. I gave up on him somewhere around the time of The Old Devils (but was pleased that it won him the (right author, wrong book) Booker), but I've had a niggling feeling for some while that he might be one to revisit - partly because his reputation seems to have survived in better shape in the US than it has in his home country (this is usually a good sign).
 So, The Green Man. The first thing to say is that it is an extremely well crafted novel, one that deftly weaves together a ghost story, a sexual comedy and the portrait of a crumbling marriage (and a man very close to crumbling), with a bit of social satire thrown in - and it really keeps you turning the pages. The narrator, Maurice Allington, is the hard-drinking, womanising landlord of The Green Man - an establishment we would now class as a high-end gastropub - in a village in rural Hertfordshire. He is also, of course, a surrogate Kingsley Amis, with very much the same outlook on life, not to mention the compulsive drinking and leching.
 The novel's weakness is in its characterisation, much of which is flimsy, and as a result some of the dialogue reads rather clunkily. But of course the tale is being told by someone for whom other people barely exist. For Maurice, nearly all other people divide into nuisances to be endured (most males) or sexual opportunities to be exploited (most females - and they too must be endured, for the sake of sexual conquest). The very lack of characterisation, then, is part of the characterisation of Maurice Allington, terrible man that he is - and yet somehow (perhaps because he is telling the tale) almost sympathetic, often engagingly funny, and refreshingly honest about himself.
 What is remarkable about The Green Man is its strikingly original rethinking of the ghost story genre. Amis makes it disturbingly believable by exploring the uncertain perceptual world in which Allington lives - one of drunken absences, corner-of-the-eye misperceptions, troubled states of mind and strange hypnagogic hallucinations due to heart problems (and drink). Locating the ghostly phenomena in this penumbra is often brilliantly effective. The visions, the horrors creep in at the edges, and are the more convincing for that.
 The ghost story has to come to a climax and find resolution - and, as with most ghost stories, the climax is the weakest part (suggestion is so much more effective than display). But happily there is a lot more going on in The Green Man than the ghost story, so it ends like what it has been all along - a fine novel, every bit as good as I remember it being. This probably means that I should reread more Amis, and perhaps I shall, in due course...


  1. Got to say Nige, what a finely written piece of criticism, especially the section near the end on the ghost story element.

  2. Well thanks Guy - good to hear from you.