A stiff upper lip's uncool

Fiction: THE BIOGRAPHER'S MOUSTACHE by Kingsley Amis, Flamingo pounds 9.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE AUTHOR has recently had his authorised biography published, so this tale of a famous novelist's tussles with his biographer might be considered somewhat self-referential. But it becomes clear that to read this novel's most compulsively dreadful character J R P "Jimmie" Fane as K Amis entails a wilful distortion of the plot. Although some of Fane's character traits and ruminations have that authentic Blimpish feel, his aristocratic wife and obsession with genealogy, correct pronunciation and sucking up to the nobility ("I like people of wealth and rank ... they're the people I want to mix with and have as friends and live among and live with and marry and whose language I speak and understand") make him sound uncommonly like Anthony Powell.

Amis is a sly and a tricky writer, and what seems like laziness can often be traced to a more cunning purpose. "Victoria ... not to be confused with the sovereign of that name, turned out to refer to a district as well as a railway station and one readily accessible by bus and underground train" is a reported-speech commentary on the tedium of an old woman's conversation. However, Jimmie Fane's observations on the use of the word "girlfriend" don't pass this test: "he understood the contemporary world well enough to be aware that you were not supposed to call people things like that in it." Amis did not get a reputation as a social satirist or elegant stylist with sentences such as this.

When the hapless biographer, a washed-up literary hack called Gordon Scott-Thompson, gets down to writing his CV (his first run-in with Fane is about whether you pronounce "vitae" vee-tye or vye-tee) it includes the item "Couple of years' drudgery as sub-editor on Barnsley Echo or equivalent". Well, did he work there or didn't he? What is the "equivalent"? You are left with the impression that this is the short form of some 40- year-old joke about Barnsley. But Amis can also be acute: when his girlfriend describes something as uncool, Gordon says: "I thought everybody had stopped saying things were cool or uncool." "They had, but they're starting to again."

The titular moustache is the outward index of Gordon's fluctuating attitude to Fane. When deferent he shaves it off; when disillusioned he grows it again. Along the way Amis touches lightly on the perils of biography: whose story, finally, do you tell? What happens when you realise that you loathe your subject?

There are some graceful, if old-fashioned set-pieces, like a terrible dinner party with freeloading nobs and bad wine, and Fane's bravura performance at a restaurant (his impoverished biographer is paying): "I see they offer natives [oysters] here ... at what seems to me a ridiculously inflated price, but I've long since given up trying to make sense of these matters ... to be on the safe side I think, yes, I think I'll order 18 and then if the worst comes to the worst quantity will have to do duty for quality."

Despite his patches of flat or even bad writing, Amis still manages to conjure characters we recognise and are touched by: after 50 pages I found my hand stealing towards this book at every spare moment.