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Snobs, toffs, shags and old farts

The Biographer's Moustache by Kingsley Amis Flamingo, pounds 9.99; D J Taylor finds unconvincing satire and insufficient roman in Kingsley Amis's new novel
Kingsley Amis's best novels tend to grow out of the tensions of his own life: the last one, You Can't Do Both (1994) was a particularly rapt evocation of the author's early battles against selfishness, lacerating and self-justifying by turns. Given the recent appearance of Eric Jacobs's biography of Amis, the omens for The Biographer's Moustache (whose theme might be summarised in Amis-speak as, "Young shag writes life of old fart") looked distinctly promising. As it turns out, the only roman a clef garnish is the appearance of the last Mrs Peter Quennell in a starring role, something Mrs Q is thought to be cross about.

Perhaps it's merely that the subject - the biographical subject, that is - is so unappetising. Jimmie Fane, the elderly man of letters on whom the fortysomething hack Gordon Scott-Thompson fixes his sights, turns out to be an unctuous old snob, an habitue of a gentleman's club named "Gray's" (geddit?) in whom linguistic pedantry has become a kind of mania: a colossal bore, but on the Amis scale perhaps not boring enough. Joanna, his much younger wife, is a shade more interesting, particularly when she and Gordon begin an affair, Gordon having given his diffident girlfriend Louise the heave-ho. Various sub-plots quiver. Jimmie's rackety past (there are three former Mrs Fanes) surfaces in the person of a cheery old lady named Madge Walker, whom Jimmie stood up in the 1940s. Scott-Thompson senior warns his son not to "mistake class for decency." Some kind of climax is reached at a country weekend, hosted by a cretinous peer, to which the Fanes, Gordon and Louise are bidden.

Irony, inevitably, lurks behind the firescreens. Having decided that Jimmie is an A1 shit - he is apparently about to ditch Joanna for a rematch with wife number two - Gordon resolves to do his biographical duty, only to find that his publishers' rapacious accountants have cancelled the contract. Joanna and Jimmie patch it up, Louise gets affianced to the noble lord and the novel ends at their posh engagement party.

While neither shift of perspective - Gordon's move from mild nob-fancying to peeved disgust, Louise's transformation from aggrieved egalitarian to ducal wife - is particularly convincing, there is much else amiss with The Biographer's Moustache. The dialogue comes in two generic flavours, toff and middle-class, and in each case is wholly undifferentiated. The social apercus seem about 30 years out of date. Even odder are the Ishiguro- like post-modern flourishes (or could it be laziness?) that enliven the closing stages, in which Gordon keeps arriving at places armed with knowledge uncommunicated to the reader.

There are occasional revealing vignettes, as when Jimmie, walking in the country with Gordon, capably deals with an autograph hunter who mistakes him for someone else. Gordon's failure to conciliate a similarly confused dinner guest echoes this scene and betrays his own lamentable want of social panache. In the end, though, there are just too many half-page conversations about what people are having to drink, and too many rambling, broken-backed sentences. Unfortunately You Can't Do Both, which looked as if it might inaugurate an Amis Indian Summer now seem to have been a solitary beacon pulsing amid the late-period gloom.