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.

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before