‘The Old Devils’ – Kingsley Amis

Fact File:

  • Published in 1986 (32 years after ‘Lucky Jim’)
  • Won the Man Booker Prize for that year
  • Martin Amis’s favourite
  • Set in Wales
  • So much alcohol the pages felt wet
  • Numerous affairs
  • One C-word
  • 384 pages

Summary in short:

A poignant and witty novel about the alcohol-sodden lives of a group of friends in Wales which are shaken up by the return of two old acquaintances, Alun Weaver, an irritating yet wittily-relieving pseudo-artist and B-list Lothario and his wife Rhiannon, the passive beauty and former flame of Peter and Malcolm.

In long:


My thoughts:

What I like most about Kingsley Amis is his ability to juggle comedy and poignant realism. Admittedly, ‘The Old Devils’ is only the 3rd book of his that I have read but in all three (‘Devils’, ‘Lucky Jim’ and ‘Take a Girl Like You’) I have particularly noticed this empathy to human pitfalls. For instance, when Charlie tells Peter to “cheer up and enjoy the music”, Peter says he doesn’t enjoy music because “when I look back, you know, music’s like chess or foreign coins or what, folk tales. Something that only interested me when practically everything else interested me as well.” Initially, this made me chuckle (well, snort), but when I thought about it a little, it also made me sad because here is a man who can never (or thinks he can never, which is essentially the same) enjoy music because he has missed the boat. That ship has sailed, and a whole raft of experiences is lost because he happened to choose different interests. This is hardly Peter’s fault and is an inevitable part of life – there will always be drawers unopened, books unread and friends unmet – but the flippant, conversational tone of this message (“you know”, “or what, folk tales”) renders it all the more poignant as it is a throwaway comment. In his ‘Desert Island Disks’, Martin Amis confirmed that his father was terrified of dying, a fear shared by many writers and artists and this is apparent in the entire tone of the novel.

The character development is really interesting. I’m not sure if I missed something, but when, around 300 pages in, I found out that Charlie has a deep fear of the dark, I was rather taken aback. Rather than make an announcement in the narrative, Amis slipped it in the dialogue. Clearly the characters knew about Charlie’s condition but the reader is only brought up to speed later and almost accidentally which has the curious, paradoxical effect of simultaneously making us feel more distant from their established relationship yet closer to the characters in understanding. Here was a fat but not the fattest of the bunch (as he is charmingly introduced) alcoholic whose alcoholism is revealed as a self-administered tranquiliser for coping with the terrors of the night and who cries for his brother when having to walk unaided down 200 yards of unlit street. Similarly, Peter, the orbicular man who justifies Charlie’s size, blames himself for an old girlfriend’s ovarian cancer and is tormented by his continuing love for Rhiannon. These confessions/revelations are not just conveniently revealed during the period of friendship Amis is narrating, but are precipitated by Alun and Rhiannon’s return. These are my favourite bits as they are windows to a shrivelled soul. Like seeing a written ‘g’ which is just a little bit more flamboyant than necessary or noticing a flash of ankle under a teenager’s outgrown pair of trousers– glorious relics of perfect human fallibility, monuments of our own magnificence that break the façade of uniformity.

The back of my copy has a quote from Anthony Burgess who, in the Observer, calls the book “sadly comic and comically sad” and this eloquently summarises what I mean. From portly Peter needing to use the mirror to see how to do up his belt, to Malcolm’s lack of confidence in wearing his matching tweed hat, Amis achieves the partnership of tragedy and comedy through his commitment to portraying real characters with all the wobbly unmentionables untrimmed. Any life through the ink of such an observant writer who is deeply aware of human transience has to contain this duality. I don’t want to read about someone whose life is in perfect order because that would be boring. What I’m looking for is that trace of humanity, best revealed by characters exposing themselves (metaphorically ideally) or being exposed by a writer who is consequently unmasked as a fellow human. Fortunately, the characters’ faults are attached to them like balloons and although disaster impends like a damoclean sword (Peter’s chest pains, Malcolm inches away from discovering his wife’s lover), the characters plod on wearily to their (probably early) graves, as we do in real life, because after all, nothing really matters so everything seems comic and sad.

Depressing, no? Actually, no, curiously I didn’t find it depressing, I found it cathartic. I don’t spend my life by acting aloof and treating individuals as flickering pixels on an infinite screen. I don’t greet human endeavour with a knowing “oh isn’t that just dear, pity nothing actually matters” smile and headshake because that would make me too unbearable even for Atlas. However, undergoing the “sadly comic” thought process then finishing the book was like bursting out of water, being baptised if you will and that brings about a deeper appreciation of life akin to pressing an emotional reset button. A catharsis is like an unburdening of emotion in a controlled space, whether that be active, like writing a blog or shouting down a well (sometimes indistinguishable in content and size of audience), or passive, like reading a book or watching a play (admittedly still quite active, unless a troupe of actors happens to hold a play next to your lolling head and listless eyes) and a catharsis is exactly what I look for when reading.

Overall, a great read which I would thoroughly recommend if, like me, you sometimes like to wallow in melancholy.