IT IS characteristic of Kingsley Amis's perversity that, just as his reputation as a misanthropic old goat seemed finally settled, he now wants to be of good cheer and spread a little happiness. You Can't Do Both, a novel which has been vigorously flagged as autobiographical, reprises themes, settings and jokes familiar in his work from as long ago as Lucky Jim, but the mood is something new. It is, in a word, forgiving, both of himself and of the many targets (such as women) he was once delighted to flay.
For the hero of the new book, Robin Davies, Amis does plunder some of his own biography with more freedom than usual. Like his creator, Robin is raised in a south London suburb in the Thirties, goes to school in the city, gets to Oxford where his university career is interrupted by the war, serves in the army, returns home, marries his girlfriend and has kids. By the age of 35, when the novel ends, he is installed as a lecturer in a red-brick university. Lucky him. Unlike his creator, Robin starts the book without the wisdom of hindsight - indeed, wisdom of any kind - and so has to do his learning on the hoof. As a boy his moral and social wellbeing is organised by his father, a stern and somewhat disappointed man whose rule stifles Robin almost beyond endurance.
Robin wriggles from under the paternal thumb once he gets to Oxford, nominally to read Classics but practically to get his end away, and here Amis broaches the main theme of the book. He sets his hero a test, much as he did with Patrick in Take A Girl Like You, to see how far he will trespass on decency in pursuit of pleasure. Robin fumbles through his first bedroom encounter with a fellow-student, Barbara, but at least behaves with exemplary tact; at their next assignment he shows no such delicacy of feeling and goes at it hammer and tongs, with the result that Barbara flees in tearful disgust. You can be a gentleman or you can be a sexual buccaneer: you can't do both. The dilemma is deepened when Robin meets Nancy, at 18. Even less worldly than himself: after a courtship that survives both the war and our hero's natural promiscuity, he has to choose between batchelorhood and settling down, a decision suddenly complicated when he puts Nancy - where else? - 'in the pudding club'.
Amis resolves the question - to be a shit or a good bloke - inside the turmoil of Robin's consciousness, where sentences uncoil to serpentine and quite immoderate length: 'Strolling along at his side, she gave him the kind of provisionally amorous glance that it was easy to visualize melting into voluptuous surrender, and at least as easy to imagine followed up by indignant and unshakeable protest that nothing of even approximately that nature had come anywhere near as much as crossing her mind, and what about Nancy?' And, just as Amis let Jim Dixon bewail the arrant tedium of studying shipbuilding techniques in the late 15th century, Robin the classics scholar is never averse to a dig at Euripides or Homer. Preparing for a particularly unwelcome meeting with Nancy's parents, 'it struck him that when confronting Polyphemus or combating Scylla, notable adversaries as they might have been, Odysseus was at least free of the menace of boredom'. It's the essential Amisian voice: the high-flown shot down by low comedy.
While much of what Amis does best is present and correct in You Can't Do Both, there is a disappointing slackness in the dialogue. His gift for mimicry seems to have dwindled to the point where all his characters talk in the same way that the author writes.
That said, this is Amis's best in a long while, and his kindest in even longer. The acid hurricane which dated from about Jake's Thing in 1978 seems to have blown itself out, and gentler breezes waft through the prose nowadays. So when Robin launches a tirade against God and religion, Amis doesn't make the Rector - to whom the speech is directed - any more pompous than he has to. Women are no longer harridans and harpies. Even Robin's dad, 'the old shag', is dignified at the end, fading with cancer but stammering out an apology to his son: I'm not sure Amis has ever written a more tender scene. 'Nice things are nicer than nasty things', this author once wrote, and here is a book that reveals how expertly he can do both.
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