The English Novel, 1740-1820
The open road winds down from Wilson’s farm
To neat lawns and a gilt-edged paradise
Where Pamela walks out on Darcy’s arm,
And Fanny Goodwill bobs to Fanny Price.
– Kingsley Amis
Until last summer Kingsley Amis was an author I felt I should have read. Note the “should have.” I was never possessed by an urge to actually read anything of his. I just felt like knowledge of his works was something I should have in my quiver. Lucky Jim upset all the type of people I think should be regularly upset so I finally gave in and picked it up sometime in July. I’ve read two more of his novels since along with a collection of essays on science fiction, a decent amount of poetry, and thumbed through a roguish reference book on English usage. There’s another of his novels and his collected poems on my “to read” stack. I really should have gotten around to his stuff earlier.
The reviews of One Fat Englishman fall into one of two categories: those where the reviewer says that he thought the book was okay but not nearly up to the standard set by Amis in his other novels or those where the reviewer says that he thought the book was okay but not nearly up to the standard set by Amis in his other novels until for whatever reason the reviewer picked up the book for a second reading some years after the first and realized he badly misjudged this sardonically cutting and brilliant work. I’ve read it twice in the span of a month and enjoyed it thoroughly both times so I’m only a reliable judge of literary worth half of the time. Reader beware.
The novelist David Lodge explains his about face in The Guardian:
In 1963, knowing nothing about Amis except through his writings, I was puzzled to know why he had taken such pains to create this vividly unpleasant character. In my memory, most reviewers were equally baffled and disappointed. Recently I picked up a second-hand copy of the first edition of One Fat Englishman, which prompted me to reread it. In the light of Amis’s subsequent literary development, and all the biographical information that has emerged since his death, it seems a much more comprehensible and interesting novel – also much funnier, in its black way, than I remembered.
It now seems obvious that Roger Micheldene was in many respects a devastating and prophetic self-portrait. The character’s promiscuous womanising and inordinate drinking certainly had autobiographical sources. For the novel’s American setting, Amis would have been drawing on his experience as a visiting fellow at Princeton University in 1958-9, when, he informed Philip Larkin in a letter on his return: “I was boozing and fucking harder than at any time – On the second count I was at it practically full-time – you have to take what you can get when you can get it, you sam [sic].”
The title comes from Italy where Amis dozed off while sunbathing on a beach. It was 1962 and his wife Hilly had just found out about his affair with Elizabeth Jane Howard whom he met at a literary festival in a forum about sex in literature (I don’t blame you if you think I’m making that up.) While he slept, Hilly wrote in lipstick across his tanning back “1 FAT ENGLISHMAN I FUCK ANYTHING.” The two were divorced by the time the novel was published. He married Howard in 1965 and divorced her in 1983.
The protagonist or anti-protagonist or the man we follow through the narrative is Roger Micheldene, a bastard in every nonliteral way. He eats and drinks too much, cares not one wit about anyone but himself although he deludes himself into thinking he loves a woman when what he loves is the thought of possessing her, scorns all, and behaves abominably like a spoiled child for one hundred and forty-two pages. I agree with David Lodge that there are autobiographical connections but I think much of the Roger character is a projection of what Amis sees himself inevitably becoming rather than what he is. Lucky Jim, of which I plan on writing about in the next few weeks or so – I want to reread it first, but I’ve got a stack of books on deck and a capricious sense of what order they’re in so it may be later – worked because Jim, as a young man, was a sympathetic vehicle for Amis’s jaundiced views of British society. The young are supposed to repudiate the status quo especially. Even through Jim’s mocking anger his disgust can be seen as idealism if paired with the implied ability to make a change for the better that youth carries with it. Not so the mocking anger of a middle-aged man like Roger. From him it’s arrogance and narcissism. Amis wrote Lucky Jim and continued on drawing attention to the silly airs the world puts on but the world stayed the same and so did he, except he got older. Like Roger, he commented but fixed nothing. I don’t know how accurate a picture Amis had of himself but Roger seems to be a critique of what he saw the man in the mirror becoming.
Thankfully, Amis is outrageously funny so Roger’s horribleness is page turning pleasure. The book is in third person but exclusive to Roger’s perspective so Amis is able to satirize American society of the early 1960s through his protagonist’s words and point of view while doing the same to the British via Roger’s actions. One particularly amusing scene pits Roger vs. Arthur, an elementary school age child of a woman Roger obsesses over, in a game of Scrabble. The British man repeatedly draws only vowels while the American child racks up points on simple word after simple word so, as on the international stage, the older worldly Brit is shamed by the upstart Yank due to lack of resources. The Americans do all manner of self-destructive in-the-moment things to the disgust of Roger who has no awareness of the self-destruction he wreaks on his own life through long developed habits. The Americans play stupid parlor games and childish pranks but the games infuriate Roger and one prank sends him into a tantrum leaving him in both cases acting like the real child. An American novelist makes a game of annoying Roger to rage. Our hero finds the attention immoral without realizing that he treats everyone as a toy.
In the end he has his moment of regret beyond the usual regret for inconvenience he may have caused himself but it passes. He goes on into life as he was in the beginning of the book, no better for what transpired. “It’ll all be the same in a few weeks,” says Roger’s object fixe about the state of her marriage after she and her husband have discussed her latest affair. Nothing changes.
I reread the book to try and figure out why it works as a novel. It’s a character study. There’s very little plot beyond moving a Roger and a cast through a series of events that have the potential to change them but don’t. There’s a McGuffin barely nodded at that’s mentioned in the beginning, forgotten about and found at the end but it’s just a funny metaphor for what all of the characters are doing to themselves. I wanted to go over the pacing again. It’s very tight with every scene revealing something new about the characters or intensifying something already known.
Oddly, I noted the paragraph length. In the post Potter world we get a lot of short paragraphs as if the AP guide and internet posts conspired to reduce ours to little goldfish attention spans. Not so here. I’ve come to call the dense paragraph, or at least the denser than contemporary paragraph length as opposed to say, Tolstoy, the Oxford Don Blocks because I’ve noted that where I would have broken up a thought into two or three paragraphs some of the people I’ve been reading like Amis, Robert Graves, C.S. Lewis, Cecil Day Lewis – Oxford Dons all – in both their fiction and nonfiction drop these bricks. Not always, but enough to notice, and more importantly, enough to recognize that the ideas I would have broken up are well held together by clear and considered language. I’ve tried to ape that in my own writing and I’m finding it paradoxically keeps me focused while allowing for ever more tangential tangents. I’m working on it.
Roger Micheldene is awful and he does all manner of awful things that should be of consequence, but since he’s come to terms with, whether he recognizes it or not, his life as a series of reactions to misfortunes of which he is the architect, the consequences may phase him but not so much as to effect a course change. He’s absurd. Like so many books One Fat Englishman is better the second time you read it, but I should note once more that I was a fan the first go round, back before it was cool.
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