A stiff upper lip's uncool
Fiction: THE BIOGRAPHER'S MOUSTACHE by Kingsley Amis, Flamingo pounds 9.99
Sunday 03 September 1995
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.
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Notting Hill Carnival: Woman shares selfie after being ‘punched in face for telling man to stop groping her’
- 2 Keira Knightley topless: Usually conservative actress does own take on #Freethenipple campaign for Interview Magazine
- 3 Oil tanker with $100 million cargo goes missing off Texas coast
- 4 George Galloway attacked on Notting Hill street by man 'shouting about the holocaust'
- 5 Brother and sister, Christopher Buckner and Timothy Savoy, arrested for 'committing incest after watching 'The Notebook''
Strictly Come Dancing 2014: Gregg Wallace joins line-up as final celebrities revealed
Great British Bake Off 2014: Ofcom receives 13 complaints about Baked Alaska episode
Best movies on Netflix UK and US: 32 films that will end your endless scrolling
Strictly Come Dancing 2014: Meet the contestants
Friends reunion: Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow and Courteney Cox perform mini sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live
Robin Williams Emmys tribute led by Billy Crystal criticised for including 'racist' joke about Muslim woman
The Rotherham child abuse scandal is a tale of apologists, misogyny and double standards
Scottish independence TV debate: Pumped-up Alex Salmond bounces back in bruising second round against Alistair Darling
Do you realise just how foolish the UK looks?
Ukip Douglas Carswell defection: Tory MP jumps ship to join Nigel Farage
When elitism grips the top of British society to this extent, there is only one answer: abolish private schools
- < Previous
- Next >