Friday, 13 January 2012

KINGSLEY AMIS That Uncertain Feeling (1955)

Panther Books UK, 1975

She got up and put her arms around my neck.  Wriggling a little, she leaned against me and tried kissing me, as a motorist on a cold morning might abandon the starter button and get going with the handle.  I fired on the first swing and very soon we were swaying about, as if a gaucho had got us round the ankles with his lasso or bolas.  Then, as I now realised had been probable all along, we went and lay down on the sofa.  She put her tongue in my ear, which was noisy and disconcerting and new to me, but which I thought I could learn, given time, to accommodate within my standard practice.  Her clothes started getting seriously disarranged.  After a little while I said: 'Wouldn't this be more fun in the bedroom?'


The Novel:  Welsh library assistant John Lewis is interested in seducing (or at least 'allowing' himself to be seduced by) Elizabeth Gruffyd-Williams, the sophisticated, sexually aggressive wife of a local city councillor who has it in her power to recommend him for a promotion.  The fact that Lewis is married with two small children and doesn’t really like Elizabeth much as a person doesn’t enter in to the equation.  As Elizabeth is a woman and seems quite keen on the idea of having an affair with somebody, Lewis is more than willing to make himself available even at the risk of hurting his wife Jean and sacrificing what’s left of his already severely compromised self-respect.  

Although his first attempt to sleep with his new lover ends ridiculously –– they’re interrupted by the unexpected return of Elizabeth's husband, which forces him to hide in a closet and later escape her house disguised in a dress –– they finally do succeed in having sex on a beach following their attendance at a drunken party and a tenuously romantic moonlight swim.  While the physical experience of sleeping with Elizabeth is everything Lewis had hoped it would be, it ultimately leaves him feeling dissatisfied, cheapened and wracked with unexpected guilt over having betrayed Jean and, in another sense, himself.  By sleeping with this slightly crazed councillor's wife, he gains confirmation of what he’d rightly suspected all along –– that the idea of making love to her was always going to be more appealing than the sordid reality of this long anticipated event could ever hope to be.

Amis makes great comic mileage out of this situation, but as always in his work the laughter is underscored by deeper questions of conscience, morality and what constitutes decent, socially-acceptable behaviour among supposedly adult human beings and what, more often than not, doesn’t.  Lewis manages to escape from Elizabeth and her collection of arty, semi-fashionable friends, patching things up with his wife (she learns of the affair and gives him a thorough pasting for it), eventually taking a new job in a new town as the manager of a colliery after rejecting the promotion his lover’s cuckolded husband has unexpectedly offered him.  At a party he meets another would-be seductress named Lisa Watkins, freshly arrived from Oxford with her new husband, but this time he’s wise enough to ignore her advances.  

Making an excuse, he leaves the party with Jean and takes her to a nearby pub so they can drink with the local miners who are coming off their shifts, the implication being that he’s learned to be satisfied with small pleasures and a more prosaic life as a husband and a father.  Beer, in fact, symbolizes Lewis’s character throughout the book, with him consistently preferring it to the more exotic libations consumed by the cocktail-swilling Elizabeth and her similarly empty-headed friends. 

Although it was published more than fifty years ago, That Uncertain Feeling asks what are still relevant questions for many people attempting to maintain relationships in the digital age.  Should you have sex with someone simply because they’ve displayed an interest in having sex with you, even if the thought of doing so repels you in every way except sexually?  And if you do opt to sleep with them, should you then turn round and expect the person you're involved with to accept and forgive your infidelity simply because you were too weak to control yourself?  There’s a suggestion at the end of the book that things won’t turn out quite as rosily as one might think for the Lewises, that John's decision to switch from philanderer to loving husband may not stick in the end because it's motivated more by the need to rid himself of guilt than it is by feelings of genuine affection for his wife and children.  Boys will be boys, Amis ruefully implies, and they can never really be trusted not to become slaves to their sexual impulses.


The Writer:  Kingsley Amis was born in South London in 1922 to lower middle-class parents who could never quite come to terms with the fact that they weren't as genteel as they pretended to be.  He was drafted into the British Army in 1942, interrupting the scholarship he'd won to read English at Oxford University to serve in the Signal Corps in northern France.  He published several poems while at Oxford and also began his friendship with fellow poet Philip Larkin –– a friendship that was to endure for the rest of their lives and go on to become one of the most celebrated in all of modern English literature.

Amis married Hilary (known to everyone as ‘Hilly’) Bardwell in 1948 and moved to Swansea with her after receiving his degree, where he worked as a university lecturer for the next few years while writing his first unpublished novel.  His first published novel was the groundbreaking Lucky Jim, which appeared in 1954 and was immediately hailed as a classic by the critics, becoming a bestseller among the young, who had apparently been waiting for a book which poked fun at universities and other previously off-limits symbols of Establishment (with a capital 'E') authority.  The book subsequently became, along with John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger, one of the cornerstones of what was known as the ‘Angry Young Man’ movement – a label Amis disliked and hotly disputed whenever critics attempted to apply it to his work. 

Despite producing three children together – Philip, the future prize-winning novelist Martin, and Sally –– Amis and the long-suffering Hilly (he was by this time an alcoholic and a serial philanderer who still got upset after learning that she had been having an affair of her own) divorced in 1965 so he could marry fellow novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, who would leave him in 1980 and go on to divorce him three years later, citing ‘unreasonable differences’ as the reason for their split.  Amis proved to be a prolific, funny and increasingly curmudgeonly writer throughout his career, publishing almost one novel per year until his death in 1995, including The Old Devils which won the 1986 Booker Prize for fiction and was later successfully adapted for television.

In addition to his novels and Collected Short Stories, Amis also published a memoir, several volumes of poetry, non-fiction on subjects ranging from science fiction to his ultimately disastrous love of alcohol, a James Bond novel (titled Colonel Sun and published under the pseudonym 'Robert Markham’) as well as editing two poetry anthologies including the highly regarded The New Oxford Book of Light English Verse.  He was the most famous man of letters of his generation and was knighted for his services to British literature in 1990.  A major biography by Zachary Leader, who also edited his Collected Letters, was published by Johnathon Cape in 2006.


Click HERE to read a 2010 newspaper interview with HILLY KILMARNOCK (née BARDWELL) in which she speaks candidly about her marriage to KINGSLEY AMIS.   You can also click HERE to read an article from Modern Drunkard magazine about AMIS'S lifelong love of alcohol and what it ultimately cost him.

You might also enjoy:
ELIZABETH TAYLOR A Wreath of Roses (1949)
DAVID IRELAND The Glass Canoe (1976)

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