After reading the challenging Faulkner novel, As I Lay Dying, I fancied something a little more light-hearted next. Perusing our bookshelves, I spotted a Kingsley Amis novel called The Old Devils, which I had picked up a few months back.
I knew little about the novel, but taking a quick look at the cover, three things soon recommended it to me. Firstly, it sounded like it would be pretty funny; secondly, I saw that The Old Devils had won the Man Booker prize in 1986; and thirdly, I remembered enjoying Kingsley Amis’ début novel, Lucky Jim, many years back. So, I decided to give The Old Devils a shot.
The novel basically chronicles the lives of several retired couples living in Wales in the 1980s. Malcolm and Gwen, Peter and Muriel, Charlie and Sophie, and Percy and Dorothy have all known each other for years, and all spend their days meeting up, chatting and drinking – the men at the local pub, the women at each other’s houses. In fact, it often seems that there is not a lot left for any of them to do with their lives but drink. Here is an excerpt, where Gwen recognises this, although speaks about it being a problem for others, rather than herself:
The thing is, Charlie’s got nothing else to do and he can afford it. It’s quite a problem for retired people, I do see. All of a sudden the evening starts starting after breakfast. All those hours with nothing to stay sober for. Or nothing to naturally stay sober during, if you see what I…
As a slight aside, I have to say that I do think that the front cover of my edition is brilliant. The recently finished beer glass in the foreground (with just the dregs remaining), with the bland, dreary, out-of-focus backdrop is highly evocative and offers a very fitting visual image to front the novel.
Anyway, back to the plot. The relatively quiet day-to-day existence experienced by these couples is thrown somewhat by the arrival of their old friend and minor celebrity, Alun Weaver (CBE) and his wife, Rhiannon.
Alun Weaver is a writer of modest talent, an expert in all things related to the Welsh poet Brydan (presumably a fictionalised Dylan Thomas), and is periodically called upon by the media whenever a Welsh perspective is called for. He is also a charismatic extrovert, rampant adulterer, and first class cad.
Mind you, as the novel progresses, we learn that several of the other characters have also had relations with one another over the years – all of which leads to some rather fraught marriages and friendships, as you can well imagine.
Men that age, you’d think they’d have learnt how to behave by this time.
However, what I liked about the book is that it successfully manages to portray the complex and even contradictory attitudes that individuals have towards each other. Most of the characters show signs of recognising their own as well as each other’s frailties (whether of mind, body, resolve, etc.) and yet for the most part they do rub along together pretty well, accepting and even loving each other, in their own limited ways.
This dynamic is reflected in the tone of the book too. For the most part, this is a comic novel, with several very funny episodes, yet there are also more serious and poignant scenes, typically where two of the characters manage to cut through the banter and the clichés and to actually communicate with each other at a deeper level.
To give you a sample of Kingsley Amis’ keen observational humour, here is an excerpt where the ageing Peter is pondering the difficulties of cutting his own toe nails:
Those toenails had in themselves become a disproportion in his life. They tore the pants because they were sharp and jagged, and they had got like that because they had grown too long and broken off, and he had let them grow because these days cutting them was no joke at all. He could not do it in the house because there was no means of trapping the fragments and Muriel would be bound to come across a couple, especially with her bare feet, and that was obviously to be avoided. After experimenting with a camp-stool in the garage and falling off it a good deal he had settled on a garden seat under the rather fine flowering cherry. This restricted him to the warmer months, the wearing of an overcoat being of course ruled out by the degree of bending involved. But at least he could let the parings fly free, and fly they bloody well did, especially the ones that came crunching off his big toes, which were massive enough and moved fast enough to have brought down a sparrow on the wing, though so far this had not occurred.
There are other similar digressions on the challenges that the characters face as their bodies start to fail them, and in each case there is humour but also sorrow expressed. Such passages cannot have been easy to pull off, but I think Kingsley Amis does a very good job here.
If you liked this, you might also enjoy Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, or Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea.