Auberon Waugh on the mysteries of Hughes and Amis
A week which produces novels from two such gifted and renowned ' authors as Richard Hughes* and Kingsley Amist involves the reviewer in odious considerations of precedence. On sheer industry, Mr Amis should certainly take first place, having written as many novels in five years as Mr Hughes has written in fifty. I should also judge that Mr Amis has had a far more profound influence on the mainstream development of the English novel than Mr Hughes has had, for all that Mr Hughes is treated as much the more 'important ' author of the two in English universities. Mr Amis has probably also had a greater influence on the social awareness of contemporary Englishmen, for all that his name is liable to be greeted with hoots of derision wherever people gather who aspire to fashionable opinions. Above all I feel that Mr Amis is the writer more in need of critical encouragement and even advice, since the errors which are apparent in many of his later novels strike me as being the result of a carelessness springing from a contempt for the present climate of literary criticism in general and novel reviewing in particular.
This contempt, however well justified, leads him into the errors of populism just as surely as it has led the great Anthony Burgess before him into so many of the errors of esotericism, like deliberate mystification and reader-baiting. It is a sad thing to watch the effects of frustration on the work of our most talented and intelligent novelists: the present generation of literary editors with their abject deference to the universities and their wet, leftish preferences, has much to answer for. If I put Mr Hughes before Mr Amis on this occasion it is not out of respect for the prevalent climate of critical opinion, which may even account for the long, reflective silences which have marked Mr Hughes's creative activity. It is because Mr Hughes is the older man, and on this occasion he seems to have tried harder than Mr Amis.
The list of those who have praised Mr Hughes's work in the past reads like the roll-call of some literary Agincourt: the The Wooden Shepherdess Richard Hughes (Chatto and Windus £2.75) t The Riverside Villas Murder Kingsley Amis (Cape £1,95) late Mr Arnold Bennett; the late Sir Desmond MacCarthy; the late Mr Hugh Walpole; Mr Cyril Connolly who is still, of course, "very much alive," as they say; venerable and ancient figures who dwell somewhere in the mists between time present and time past, between known truth and poetic legend, like Mr Kenneth Allsop and Mr Goronwy Rees. One needs a very tiny voice, scarcely above a mouse's squeak, to venture the opinion that Mr Hughes may have gone slightly off the rails with his latest effort, despite the fact that it has taken twelve years to write, and that it is only the second in a series which has so far taken thirty-five years and which does not yet show even the beginnings of a wholesome structure.
Obviously we must reserve judgement until the entire novel is completed, whether in three or four volumes, fifteen or thirty years time. The present time is for rejoicing in particular felicities of which there are plenty. But it is no good pretending that this volume stands up alone or in conjunction with its predecessor, The Fox in the Attic. To put the matter at its baldest, I think that Mr Hughes, at seventy-two (both he and Mr Amis have birthdays next week) has been dawdling and should get a move on. One will not be prepared to go on drawing attention to particular felicities in what remains structurally a mess for very much longer. It could be that he has bitten off more than he can chew. If so, I earnestly advise him to turn his attention to a non-fictional auto biography, which he can lard with any number of political or philosophical observations or simply to rest on thg,,, laurels of A High Wind and In Hazard. My criticism is well-intended, but on the second time through The Wooden Shepherdess I found that its faults were more apparent than its virtues. if Mr Hughes thinks he can pull off his magnum opus, which is to be known by the slightly ridiculous title of 'The Human Predicament,' let him press on with redoubled energy. If he can't, he should drop it, or he will be making fools of all his loyal friends and admirers.
The conception of 'Human Predicament' is that it should be a "long historical novel of my own times culminating in the Second World War." It is a curious mixture of sexual and emotional case history, historical reconstruction, travelogue, global and national politics and social panorama. To this reviewer, nurtured in the English (as opposed to the Russian, Bulgarian or Albanian) tradition, it does not even have the beginnings of a novel, but remains a scrapbook of short stories, vignettes, apercus, family history etc, etc, some items being noticeably more delightful and engaging than others .
At the beginning of The Wooden Shepherdess we find Mr Penry-Herbert cannot, somehow, call him Augustine) bathing naked in. a Connecticut woodland clearing. It appears that he has been thugged on the quay at St -Maio, fallen unconscious into the hold of a ship smuggling rum into America during prohibition, omitted to report his misfortunes to the authorities on landing, and lived the life of a tramp ever since. He is seen bathing by an American early adolescent girl called Ree, who is unabashed, being accustomed to heavy petting with members of the opposite sex on the slightest acquaintance. She invites him to feel her breasts but he declines, being strange to the social conventions of Connecticut, but they become friends. Meanwhile — WHAM! — Mrs Gilbert Wadamy, who is Mr Penry-Herbert's sister, has given birth to a daughter, Susan, in Dorset, who is christened. Gilbert, a Liberal MP of necrophilic tendencies, begins to worry about his prospects while Labour is in office (1924) and Baldwin (qv) looks like succeeding. So back to Connecticut where Ree, her culture pattern affronted by Mr Penry-Herbert's failure to take the initiative has begun to feel a "burning desire . . . for his lips and his fingers." Meanwhile — 00F! — the lower classes are having a perfectly rotten time in Coventry. Next a girl called Janis makes sexual advances to Mr Penry-Herbert who responds warmly, but Janis's culture pattern is affronted when he attempts. sexual intercourse. Ree, on hearing of this episode, decides to submit to Mr Penry-Herbert's most extreme demands, if ever he should make them. After an exciting car-chase by policemen as an authentic taste of the Prohibition era, Ree makes sexual advances to Mr PenryHerbert who rejects them on the conventional moral ground that she is too young, although being highly tempted by the idea. He flees to Canada, achieving some sort of connection with a sluttish older girl called Sadie on the way.
Next we have a German section, with Hitler and his friends imprisoned in Landsberg; Mitsi, who is Mr PenryHerbert's former idol, has gone blind and IS put into a convent; Mr Penry-Herbert returns to his sister's abode in Dorset; his sister falls off her horse and is paralysed, which allows the Liberal MP to indulge his peculiar appetites on her While she is asleep; later she is surprised to discover that she has somehow conceived a son; a lady companion called Joan who moves in and becomes the focus for Gilbert's erotic fantasies grows bored with waiting for Mr Penry-Herbert to declare his love and sugars off with Mr Anthony Fairfax, an American gentleman from the South, who has become Mr Penry-Herbert's best friend.
Mr Penry-Herbert starts taking an interest in his Welsh estates which gives Us an opportunity to tickle Mr SeymourSniith up the right way with a bit of Instant radicalism so — WHAM! 00F!!
we're back in Coventry among those Perfectly delightful working folk, thinking how disgraceful it is that some people always seem to be so much poorer than Others: "Yes, the ways of the rich man are known to be full of trouble; but even the poor have their cares." Cco, pretty vitriolic that, innit Martin? Ever so Marxist, I must say. One can hear a great Ooh ! " from the assembled critics, like the noise a pantomime audience makes when the ponies are brought on stage.
So then we have the General Strike, the Great Depression, the Night of the Long Knives — in none of which -does our hero, Mr Penry-Herbert, feature very conspicuously. — he goes on an adventure course to Morocco, but survives it. In Coventry, a lady called Norah steps out of her bath and falls through the floor, illustrating the terrible fate of the working classes in Coventry at this time (about 1932, I should think).
Innee compassionate, Walter? The first part, which is a simple love tory, is excellently told. Sexual tension well maintained and the story moves i_[°rvvard at a cracking pace once it has ,„'"en stripped of its interruptions and 'isshbacks. This section would rank as a Work of art if only Mr Hughes could avoid the temptation to write prose in a coniplicated poetical metre: She felt it again (having nothing finer to sew with had left a raised seam on his scalp, like .4 sail). "It's scary," she said, then hitched herself on her elbows an inch or two even
nearer and lay like a lizard, smelling sweetly Of sun.
All of which might be judged acceptable, a native example of 'fine Writing ' to show we can do it as well as the Americans can, Tara-tara-ra-ra, but When we return to this metre on page after page it becomes absurd, like some mock-heroic doggerel . . .
. . . and Gilbert had much on his mind. Labour in Office had scarcely attempted to check Unemployment . . .
I suppose it is easy enough to mistake poetical rhythm for swinging prose but writers should be aware of the intense irritation this oversight can cause and, where necessary, buy a metronome to assist in revision. But enough of this. Let us turn to Mr Amis.
The Riverside Villas Mystery is described as "an armchair murder story, with its authentic 1930s atmosphere." Perhaps it is no more than a demonstration of Mr Amis's " extraordinary versatility " — a prolonged swank, or imaginative fireworks display and period reconstruction by an author who has grown bored with his own times. I prefer to think that Mr Amis has retained in his own character something of the vitality, innocence and gormlessness of a 1930s adolescent. Obviously, at the age of fifty, he is over the physical and emotional problems of pubescence. Hostile or cynical readers may dismiss his lengthy descriptions of adolescent masturbation as the sort of teething troubles which many novelists experience as they enter their second half-century.
Certainly, one often notices a distressing concern for schoolgirls, or cricket flannelled schoolboys at about this time.
Nevertheless, I prefer to believe that Mr Amis has a secret come; of his imagination which he is slightly ashamed of nowadays, in the sophisticated, wisecracking, satirical world which knows him best, where he broods quietly and longingly about his own childhood.
His hero, Peter Furneaux. is fourteen and broods about sex. His efforts to seduce Daphne Hodgson, the fifteen-yearold daughter of a neighbour, meet with little success, but he obtains relief of a sort in healthy, natural (we were all boys once, weren't we, vicar?), homosexual activity with a friend called Reg. Then a most attractive, understanding married woman called Mrs Trevelyan, with a taste for pretty boys, takes him in charge. She prefers the commanding position, don't you know, and Mr Trevelyan has no time for this, being a conventional, 1930s sort of chap. We also meet Peter's father, a most excellent Betjeman-Amis hybrid of the sort we have already met in the father of Take a Girl Like You, producing German-Jewish improvisations on English proper names; and a rich, suppressed homosexual Colonel who is also (this being the Agatha Christie 1930s) Deputy Chief Constable; he takes rather a fancy to Peter in his furtive, secretive way. Don't we all, eh, Kingsley?
All of which has the makings of a most excellent novel, part period pastiche, part parody, part original insight. One reads the first half in a glow of warmth towards Mr Amis, and anger against his detractors. Unfortunately, he feels bound to include a murder story of such drivelling and preposterous ineptitude as will turn all but the least discriminating against the book. Never mind. Brighter days will dawn.