by Samuel Hux (May 2019)
Kingsley Amis, Jonathan Burton (for Penguin), 2011
Years ago I introduced my colleague Alan Cooper, author of Philip Roth and the Jews, as he was about to lecture on Roth’s The Plot Against America. As near as I can recall, this is what I said:
When I was growing up in a small city in North Carolina, I used to work after school during the December holiday season for a Jewish haberdasher named Maurice Brody. Mr. Brody, whom I adored, bore that name (I never knew his original name) because he was born in the Polish stetl Brody. So you can maybe imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered (coincidence one) that my new friend Alan Cooper (born “Kupferman”) drew first breath in the same stetl as my old friend Maurice. Somehow that intensified my pleasure when I began to learn Alan’s story. Alan was not yet in his teens when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, but he matured quickly in terrible circumstances, and by 1944 was a child combatant in a Jewish underground military unit, which facilitated his survival of the war—unfortunately, a common story, as an orphan. Fearful of being swallowed up in the Russian surge he made his way across the German border—ironic escape route for a Jewish lad—where he found himself in a displaced person’s camp, which was his salvation (I use the word ironically) since he was adopted by an American official in the occupation of Germany, a Catholic gentleman (coincidence two) named Cooper, the English equivalent of the Yiddish Kipferman. Eventually, as an adult, Alan found his way back to his lost Jewish faith, but only after an unlikely sequence of transformations. In America he studied for the priesthood and would have been ordained in the New York diocese had he not been denied the cloth because it was discovered he had sexually compromised one of the functionaries at the seminary, a nun . . .
And on my introduction went until I ran out of nonsense, the only truth being the allusions to my old friend Maurice Brody. I was having a hell of a good time creating an alternative biography for my friend Alan who was about to lecture on Roth’s alternative “history” in which Charles Lindbergh, not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, won the 1940 presidential election. (I had gotten in the habit of the alternative bio after speaking at the retirement party of a lovely departmental chair when I “recalled” that she had failed in a league-of-her-own because she could not hit a curveball and before entering academe had been an exotic dancer in a bar in Bayonne, New Jersey. Great fun.)
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Roth’s novel was of course a literary exercise in the sub-genre of “What If” which historians like to fool around with to flex their narrative muscles and at the same time raise serious questions—what, for one instance, Brian Crozier was doing in his Franco when he wondered in one chapter what would have happened had the republican left instead of the franquistas won the Spanish Civil War; would Hitler have respected the Spanish refusal to allow him to occupy Gibraltar had the refusal come from a socialist-communist regime instead of from Franco? Not likely. And how would that have affected the campaigns in North Africa?
Roth’s romp through metahistory was an impressive narration—not as responsible as Crozier’s of course, and with a necessary degree of creative paranoia. I am not sure that it trumps Kingsley Amis’s alteration of history a quarter-century before, Amis’s novel entitled appropriately enough, but for more than one reason, The Alteration.
It is 441 years after Martin Luther was elected Pope, a few less after Sir Thomas More followed him to Rome as Hadrian VII, and 58 after Rudyard Kipling’s last year in office as president of the US (or, rather, First Citizen of the RNE, Republic of New England, a vast nation 1000 miles north to south, reaching 800 miles inland, bordered by the nations of Florida and Louisiana to the south and New Muscovy to the west)—1976. The Ottoman Empire and the schismatic RNE (where one William Shakespeare died in exile and excommunication) aside, the world is ruled by Mother Church and her various secular arms. Jews wear stars of David on their clothing, science is kept in bounds, electricity is frowned upon, and the making of castrati is still practiced (although not in the RNE, where such treatment is penal, not artistic, reserved for incorrigible felons and rebellious Indians). None of this should suggest a civilization dead to higher culture—Mozart is valued (especially his Second Requiem, K. 878), Beethoven, who died before the maturity of his art, is known and honored by some cognoscenti, theology is advanced by such as A.J. Ayer, Professor of Dogmatic Theology at New College, and the Jesuit father Jean-Paul Sartre; nor a civilization without pop culture—to be read by working men, schoolboys under the covers, and bishops on the sly are TR (Time Romance) and CW (Counterfeit World), vaguely pornographic fiction about an imagined world imperfectly resembling ours.
Why alter history so? According to Kingsley Amis, for the sake of the plot. We need a world in which it is believable that the church would select a 10-year-old English boy soprano for castration, gain the approval of his father, mutilate a priest who refuses to give his signature for the operation, and force the boy, Hubert Anvil, after he has learned something of what he’ll be missing, to flee to the New Englander embassy in London for asylum—unsuccessfully, it turns out, for brutally ironic and gratuitous reasons.
When Hubert is chosen for “alteration” he is at first honored; he recognizes it as a testament to his craft, at which he is a genius. He knows what sex is, more or less, but not what it is. Then events instruct him, in a naïve and affecting way. He learns from his mother (just having fallen in love with Hubert’s major intercessor) that “The love we speak of is not the highest but it is the strongest and most wonderful, and it transforms the soul, and nothing else is like it.” From his unromantic older brother Hubert surmises that sex is like “Kissing a girl. . . with no clothes on while it felt like playing with himself but like the wonderful ice-cream and she behaved like a very friendly cat—that would have to do for now, and perhaps parts of it were right.” And at the end Hubert knows it is terrible to be forbidden a realm of experience and a psychic motivation large enough to contain a graceless, grotesque fornication he has witnessed in a wood, his mother’s willingness to risk herself in a hopeless and tragic adultery, and the impulse to paint a beautiful Eve he has seen on his brother’s wall. But at the end he must make do with devotion to his art, a trust in the will of God interpreted by the church, and the faint self-assurance that what he doesn’t really know can’t hurt him all that much by its absence. But we do know, and Hubert’s pitiful predicament is as painful to the reader as it can get, excruciatingly heart-breaking.
Hubert’s alteration and the alteration of history tell us what the novel is really about. Whether our Now is now, or some other Now is now, nothing essential changes: innocence is damned. But although I am shattered, I am not at all sure that I am supposed to be, there being something cold to frigid about Amis’s treatment. We are never far, no matter how touching the story of a protagonist fully deserving of our compassion and admiration, from a kind of manic satire with no specific and contained object. Amis, it seems to me, practices the kind of comedy Henri Bergson called a temporary anesthetic to the heart.
The penultimate scene, for instance, is coronary anesthesia at its best. Gathered together are Pope John XXVI, one fat Englishman of the people, an inventor named Maserati, and the Italian Cardinal Berlinguer. (Who now remembers the Italian Communist leader of the ‘70s, Enrico Berlinguer? Fame is oh so fleeting.) They are discussing Maserati’s failure to poison sufficient numbers of the population with doses of something called Crick’s Conductor in the water supply. “Fuck your facilities!” says the Pope to Maserati’s protest of insufficient technology. Some way must be found to reduce an expanding population if chemical “castration” won’t do it. One can’t just “Shoot them” as Cardinal Berlinguer suggests, and since “that bugger Innocent the Seventeenth” published a bull prohibiting artificial regulation, about the only thing left is a war with Islam, which if not pursued too efficiently at the beginning, ought to wipe out several million Christians. The scene is worth its every word—but it cruelly interrupts Hubert’s pathetic and stunning daydreaming of the future denied him. Coronary anesthesia indeed.
Of course, it’s much too late to be reviewing The Alternative and I have no inclination to do that anyway, having already done so for The New Republic years ago. But I find it worthwhile to recall the general tone of the reviews of Amis’s novel, and Roth’s, too, for that matter: the temptation to treat this genre we might call “alternative history in fiction” with a kind of historical-philosophical seriousness inappropriate to its nature. I have remarked elsewhere (“Taking the Historical Novel Seriously,” NER, September 2018) on the scholarly tendency to treat a book such as William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner as “a work that is less an ‘historical novel’ in conventional terms than a meditation on history. . . disguised commentary on the present, speculative essay-in-fiction-form on the nature of history, and so on.” And it may be. But Amis’s novel or Roth’s? I seriously doubt it.
Such books are not really comparable to the already mentioned “What If?”—the relevant chapter in Brian Crozier’s Franco: A Biographical History. For the question what if Franco had allowed Hitler geographic access to British Gibraltar, what would have been the possible consequences for the North African campaign and the consequences of that for the Sicilian invasion and so on—this is not a far-fetched inquiry. Although Franco was resistant to paying off his military debt to Hitler it is not outlandish to imagine that he might have given in to Hitler’s pleas.
But the propositions behind Roth’s and Amis’s histories of the not-happened are outlandish. I don’t mean the horror of an antisemitic triumph in the U.S. (Roth’s plot) or the notion of innocence damned (Amis’s). I mean the historical possibility of the fictional specificity of Lindbergh reaching the White House or the even more outlandish Luther being elevated to the Vatican, no matter how amusing it is to contemplate Kipling as a president. Or—for God’s sake!—Sartre as a Jesuit! Or the logical positivist Ayer as a dogmatic theologian! Amusing is the right word.
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I think the compositional motive behind “alternative history in fiction” is not to compose an essay-in-fiction-form on the nature of history but to have a hell of a lot of fun creating the outlandish—even if this means I am demoting the novelists to the level of my amusing myself while joshing my pal Alan. Which isn’t exactly what I’m doing. . . for while not a creative writer myself, I’m sure (who isn’t?) fictional artists enjoy making things up, and it occurs to me that the artist may find it more fun not when creating a story out of whole cloth, his creation totally original, but rather when what’s made up is “resisted” by what we know actually happened. The metaphor of the author as a god-like figure is an old one, and maybe it is more god-like to change—that is to say alter—reality. That seems to me a kind of god-like fun.
Resistance from what actually happened? Consider Robert Harris’s Fatherland. It’s 1964 and Adolph Hitler, the victor in World War II, is celebrating his 75th birthday and expects a visit from the American president Joseph Kennedy. The Holocaust is a secret and Reinard Heydrich means to keep it so. The protagonist is a detective from the Kripo (criminal police), an arm of the SS, who is intent on discovering and exposing the truth. That’s a great deal for Keats’s “willing suspension of disbelief” to overcome!
Warning: a digression follows. But a warning is not an apology. Thinking about one thing—Amis’s peculiar art—simply leads to something else . . . and it’s a sin to shut the mind down. Imagining Sartre as a priest or Ayer as a believer or Kipling as an American politico, and so on, are not the most radical images of the unlikely. Rather . . .
Francis Crick in his Life Itself: Its Origin and Nature (1981) estimates (God knows how!) the chances of life having not just evolved but originated on earth at one out of 28 followed by 28 zeroes—or maybe it was 27 . . . I forget which and cannot find my copy. But it hardly matters. The point is that given such odds any particular individual being here is a statistical improbability reaching toward the impossible. Sartre being a Jesuit is not the extreme absurdity: Sartre being, existing, is that.
I don’t remember exactly when it hit me, but hit me it did . . . that when my parents Mac and Maggie were making love nine months before I popped up (or out) if Maggie had coughed, thereby skewing the alignments of the screwing, just as Mac was achieving the “shudder in the loins” (Yeats), then it would have been some other of the 1.2 billion sperm cells ejaculatorily released instead of my familiar cell that reached the egg. Now, maybe Mac and Maggie would have named the result “Samuel” since that was the name of my grandfather in whose house “we” lived—but it would not have been “me.” Alter history as itsy-bitsy as a cough and the same non-existence would have “happened” to Ayer, Sartre, Kipling, Luther, and so on—even though “life itself” did happen to happen. In a paradoxical sense, then, reality—so unlikely—is the biggest fiction there is.
These several speculations (and a digression) are not my only reasons for revisiting The Alteration.
Amis (who was lucky to have been born) must have tired of being known as the author of Lucky Jim, many novels, short stories, poems, and criticism and commentary later. But I judge that may rather understate the case. For I think the names “Amis” now brings to mind not the late father but the son Martin. Not to say Kingsley is totally forgotten, but surely Martin is in the ascendant, not only for his novels but as a highly rewarded man of letters, and I’ve been delving into his 2019 collection of essays The Rub of Time. All that time I’m thinking let’s not forget dear old dad. And The Alteration is as good a place to start remembering as any. Although it’s never been considered on the level of Lucky Jim and perhaps The Anti-Death League, I’m not sure at all it shouldn’t be. It has at least been for me worth my revisit.
And there’s another reason to remember and even to honor (?) Kingsley Amis, although perhaps this gets a little too personal and taste-dependent. I have a kind of ironic affection (perhaps this should be confessed rather shamefully) for the writer you would not want your sister or daughter to marry: let me call him the charming son of a bitch, although not charming in the princely sense but in the sense that unless you’re a stuffed shirt or strict in your liberal opinions you smile at the offensive.
Perhaps the champion CSOB was Evelyn Waugh. I doubt there’s an anthology of Waugh’s remarks but I wish there were one. The most famous is probably his answer to someone who asked how a professed Christian could be so nasty to other people—that without divine intervention he’d be absolutely impossible. My favorite, however, is not a confession of shortcomings, at which he was clever, but an insult of another, at which he was expert. When Randolph Churchill had a luckily benign tumor removed, Waugh called it a doubtful achievement of medical science to discover the one part of Randolph Churchill that was not malignant and to remove it.
No slouch in the States was Robert Frost, who was most SOBish in action rather than in words. I forget who told the story. Donald Hall maybe. In the audience after his own poetry reading, Frost disliked the audience’s appreciation on the next reader, so, at the back of the hall Frost arranged some paper trash on the floor and set it afire.
V.S. Naipaul . . . but he would fill a book on bad behavior, not all verbal. One item will do. As visiting writer-in-residence somewhere outside Britain, responsible for judging contributions to a student contest, he announced at the award ceremony that he was giving only second and third prizes since there was nothing worthy of first place.
I could go on, offending some I might mention and offending others for not. But the focus here should be on, of course, Kingsley Amis. His bad behavior, mostly unspecified but widely reputational nonetheless, along with his famed alcoholic consumption, was legendary (although perhaps to a degree bloated, since literary London seldom allows its writers the right to be Tories). But there is one item which offends even me, so that I have a hard time sustaining my affection for the offender. Terry Eagleton called Amis “a racist, an anti-Semitic boor, a drink-sodden, self-hating reviler of women, gays, and liberals,” which is more or less the generic Marxist view of Tories as it were. But Anthony Julius alludes to Amis in his Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England (2010) where the “evidence” is a bit more ambiguous to say the least. Amis—so attested by people close to him—(1) disapproved of antisemitism, but nonetheless (2), claimed a “very mild” form. The second claim I distrust partly because I find it doubtful that a man as smart as Amis would not know there is no mild despicableness. But I think he might enjoy the outrageous false confession as if to say “Here, let me throw you something shocking.” I confess that I’m working on free-floating intuition here. Amis lumped together Marx, Freud, Herbert Marcuse, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and Danny Kaye as possessors of the “Jewish vice of glibness . . . [and] bullshit.” I can’t take this seriously: seems to me a perverse performance thrust in your face, but not so clever as Danny Kaye. Amis called Chaplin a “horse’s ass,” but of course that’s what Amis was. I have to laugh when I read that he dislikes Americans because “everyone there is either a Jew” (as my wife is) “or a hick” (that’s me). I laugh because I don’t believe a word.
But Amis was indeed an SOB, maybe with a compromised C. Perhaps it was necessary for his own kind of comic act; I mean his being a coronary anesthesiologist. To interrupt the scene of suffering of poor Hubert Anvil with the Pope telling Maserati to go fuck himself you have to be a son of a bitch. A very nice Kingsley Amis simply defies the imagination.
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Samuel Hux is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at York College of the City University of New York. He has published in Dissent, The New Republic, Saturday Review, Moment, Antioch Review, Commonweal, New Oxford Review, Midstream, Commentary, Modern Age, Worldview, The New Criterion and many others.
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