BOOK REVIEW / Have it any way you can: He tells the same jokes he always did and airs the same prejudices, but in his best book since 'The Old Devils', Kingsley Amis shows his capacity to surprise us is undiminished

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You Can't do both - by Kingsley Amis: Hutchinson pounds 15.99

THE publishers call this novel 'autobiographical', having it both ways for a book which says, in its title, that you can't. How much is autobiography, how much fiction? With some novelists, it would be impertinent to ask, but Amis being Amis - a public figure who has published his memoirs and is now having his biography written - the question is unavoidable.

As Amis did, Robin Davies, the hero of You Can't Do Both, grows up in a suburb of South London in the 1930s, does his degree at Oxford in two chunks (part of it early on in the war, the rest after being demobbed), marries his long- standing (and long-suffering) girlfriend when she becomes pregnant in the late 1940s, and by the age of 30 is working as a lecturer in a provincial university. The first part of the novel is given over to Robin's relationship with his father, a difficult, even intractable man, frustrated in his work and prone to visit these frustrations on his son - in this resembling Amis's own father, as described in his Memoirs. For example, the novelist recalls Amis Senior's 'constant concern to prevent my getting away from him'; in the novel, Davies Senior's 'round-the-clock chaperonage' is the cause of so much exasperation to Robin that when war comes the 'few years' inconvenience' seems 'a reasonable price to pay' for having been taken 'quickly and irrecoverably away from home . . . However much he might have longed to, his father could not have clapped a padlock on his flies, stopped him swearing and smoking, etc, from a couple of thousand miles away, nor arranged with the forces paymaster to have all relevant monies directed to himself for possible onward transmission piecemeal.'

So much for autobiography. Not all the details correspond - Amis's father had East Anglian roots, not Welsh, and died in 1963, not, as Mr Davies does, in the 1940s; Amis himself was an only child, whereas Robin has older siblings; Amis taught English at Swansea, not Classics in the Midlands, and has three children to Robin's two. But these are cosmetic changes (brown-haired acquaintances made blonde, etc) not imaginative feats.

What makes the book fiction is that, rather than recounting key events or 'characters' in a life, it poses a moral problem: how far can we go in seeking our own ends? The matter is raised early on, in conversation, by Robin's friend, Jeremy, who introduces his young chum to Auden's poetry and tries to introduce him to Audenesque sexual behaviour as well. For a time it seems that this is what the book's title is getting at - that Robin will have to choose between being a het or (his word, that's to say Amis's word) queer. In the end, the Jeremy plot leads only to a cul-de-sac, as it were, serving no point except to allow Jeremy, a homosexual, to air prejudices (the author's prejudices) against homosexuals. But the agenda has been set: how badly dare we treat others to get what we want for ourselves?

Alongside Jeremy, and alongside his own father, the 14-year-old Robin is an endearing figure - book-loving, jazz-loving, thoughtful, articulate, outwardly tolerant of others' foibles, shy with girls, rather inept - but not so soft a touch that he can't look out for himself, if need be quite ruthlessly. At Oxford, in the second part of the book, the ruthlessness shows up in an unambiguously heterosexual relationship with a fellow-student called Barbara: deciding he has shown a textbook considerateness towards her the first time, he more or less rapes her the second. The question is whether he dare be so cavalier with Nancy, whom he does care about and even perhaps - though she cannot get him to say it - loves.

Nancy, at the outset, is 18, younger than him, not a student (she works in a record shop), and - as friends and her parents make a point of telling him - much too vulnerable to withstand the siege which, they rightly suspect, he has in mind for her. Despite his gloating disregard of their pleas, despite a fairly rapid seduction, despite his growing indifference to what other people think and feel, and despite a determination to 'learn to be somebody his fully alert, daytime self would despise and shrink from', Robin's relationship with Nancy survives the war. It even survives her pregnancy, which is where Robin seems at last to be forced to make the choice between Nancy or bachelorhood: 'There was indeed every good reason for sticking to her and putting her first always. And what about the million or so bad reasons for not doing so all the time, reasons aged between 16 and 45 and distributed evenly between Land's End and John O'Groats, to say nothing of their counterparts overseas?' Robin's intolerable male behaviour includes first pressurising Nancy to have an abortion, then resolving 'not to let a bagatelle like a hurried marriage interfere with what he had always done'. Nancy's quiet stoicism in the face of this marks her out as a classic Amis heroine - as also does her rising from doormat status in the last pages of the book to deliver a witheringly persuasive lecture on Robin's selfishness, dishonesty, coldness, irresponsibility and general shittiness.

Robin remains an attractive figure, as even Nancy has to admit, but only a careless or ideologically programmed reader would suppose that his 'male' values - love of the pub, fear of marriage, blokeish reflections on breasts, legs, faces, etc - are held up for simple approbation. For example, there's a passage, not unworthy of a feminist media studies essay, where Robin reflects how prolonged exposure to photographs of women has given him an impression of female beauty as 'an entirely pictorial, static thing', with the result that living women, who refuse to keep still, cause him some difficulty. Robin is nothing if not self-aware, but this does not improve his behaviour. He is a shit, as Patrick Standish in Take A Girl Like You was, but as Jim Dixon in Lucky Jim wasn't.

Mention of the latter novel, Amis's first, published exactly 40 years ago, is inevitable in the context of this, which mimickingly alludes to it in the last chapter when Robin, now a university lecturer, performs a Dixonish routine of hideous faces and obscene gestures behind his office door. Like Dixon, Robin is too cowardly or polite to declare his dissent. Compare this from Lucky Jim -

'There was the most marvellous mix-up in the piece they did before the interval,' (said Professor Welch). 'The resulting confusion . . . my word . . .'

Quickly deciding on his own word, Dixon said it to himself and then tried to flail his features into some sort of response . . .

with this from You Can't Do Both: ' 'Of course,' (said Robin's father), 'if you'd rather go off with your pals I should quite understand and you've only to say the word.' If the word had been shit or fuck, Robin would have found it no more impossible to say to his father . . .'

Like Dixon, Robin feels a young man's exasperation with old farts, and it's a tribute to Amis, who behaves these days like an old fart who's forgotten what young men feel like, that he can enter Robin's mind as sympathetically as he does: in fiction if not in life , Amis's gifts of empathy remain unimpaired. The difference is that Robin's dissent is directed chiefly at the patriarch of a single South London house, whereas Jim Dixon's, to readers of the time at least, seemed to take on a whole culture.

There are other differences, mostly to do with style. In Lucky Jim the characters spoke roughly as the kind of characters they were might be expected to speak, whereas these days the characters in Amis all speak the same, as their author does, which isn't roughly at all but with a kind of witty pedantry, saving themselves from solecisms as they go. Characteristics of late-Amis style include: liberal use of double negatives (as in 'that not very narrow stretch of road'), double qualifiers ('in wartime such arrangements, or non-arrangements, were common, or not uncommon') or sardonic negative qualifiers ('his father, being dead, was no longer in a position to formulate even the mildest satisfaction with his son'); reversal of a word's connotations from positive to pejorative ('strictly dishonourable') or vice versa ('docile enough, even perhaps verging on the well behaved'); obsessively cautious avoidance of ambiguous pronouns, even by people who are in casual conversation ('He, my old dad, he's always been afraid of sinking into the working class'); boldly abrupt sentence endings ('This mood deepened when George, having got up spontaneously to announce he would walk him to the station, did so') or, much more commonly, boldly protracted ones:

He was not the sort of boy to admit to loving his mother but quite often, like now, he experienced a surge of liking for her, not hard to feel for such a cheerful, nice- looking woman, nice-looking both in the sense of looking a nice old thing and quite pretty too, not so very old in fact, mid- forties perhaps, and with her mostly auburn hair and bright eyes declared attractive by that rigorous tribunal, an ad hoc selection of his schoolmates (who had had a look at her at speech days and other such functions).

This is not an excessively long sentence, a mere 99 words, minimalist alongside Proust and Henry James, but more than sufficient to stand out in an age of one-sentence paragraphs and sound-bites, long enough, indeed, to raise suspicions, around the two-thirds stage, that the full stop is being unnaturally deferred (not least by the parenthesis which, at the cost of some ungainliness, stretches out the word- count to almost three figures). Yet the sentence never quite loses its way: those three 'not's ('not the sort . . . not hard to feel . . . not so very old') bind it together and show a writer who still has his wits fully about him, who might be sloppy in his prejudices and propositions but never in his prepositions.

Though the novel concentrates on and gently evokes the moral atmosphere of a particular period, 1935-55, the usual timeless Amis themes are here, including an onslaught or two on God (one of them specially composed for his own funeral by Robin's father), and a close association between death and desire. More important, the usual Amis jokes are here, too: against long-winded Welshmen, people who are mean about pouring drinks or paying for them, awful restaurants (a Chinese that 'had never been known to serve any food even distantly associated with that land. Some of what they did serve was not closely associated with food from anywhere at all'), university life ('The Dean was perhaps fifty and so not much more than half the apparent age of dons'), the noisiness of children, and family life ('apathy relieved with horror'). That Amis tells the same sort of jokes as he always did might seem, to some, a sign that he has stopped trying, but there is still the effort, which he gives every sign of making, to find new ways to tell them.

In 1976 Amis's ability to rise above curmudgeonly self-parody so impressed the then literary editor of the Guardian, that severe East European-ist W L Webb, that he called on the Booker jury to award the old devil the prize, which they duly did. It won't happen again, and maybe shouldn't: Amis has long lost interest in the 'well-made' novel, and a man who has written 20 novels can't be expected to come up with something astounding in his 21st. Yet You Can't Do Both, his best book since The Old Devils, is literature of a kind, too, and its author's capacity to surprise us - and even perhaps surprise himself - is undiminished.

(Photograph omitted)