Inspiring Older Readers
One Fat Englishman by Kingsley Amis
I’ve read very little Kingsley Amis – I certainly loved Lucky Jim when I first encountered it and I have that to thank for leading me on to John Wain, Malcolm Bradbury and some of the other late 1950s novelists who were just beginning to challenge the stuffy establishment expectations of the domestic novel. The sardonic sensibility at work in these books seemed to auger the gradual eclipse of a repressive social hierarchy and they offered a direct challenge to a conservative literary elite that was nervously looking over its shoulder at the emergence of a new generation of writers. Unlike the so-called ‘angry young men’ or the gritty working class social realism of the ‘kitchen sink’ authors, the weapon favoured by these essentially middle and lower-middle class graduates was humour and an acute but rather gentle satire.
So, when I recently stumbled over a 1963 edition of Amis’ One Fat Englishman, around about his fourth novel I think, I thought I might give it a whirl to see what it was like. Up to this point, despite my positive experience with Lucky Jim, I’d steered well away from Kingsley Amis because I knew that by the late 1960s he’d dramatically changed his political position and switched to an ostentatious support of the political right, becoming something of a monster in pretty much all his social attitudes. But in these early years of the 1960s Amis was still a member of the Labour Party and I expected that this more liberal tone would still be at work in this book.
I have to say that the hundred or so pages I managed of One Fat Englishman provided one of the most unpleasant reading experiences I’ve had for some time. The book is a fusillade of racist, misogynist, xenophobic and plain unpleasant opinion voiced through the mouth of Amis’ central character, book publisher, Roger Michaeldene. Michaeldene is on a business trip to America, he’s corrupt, corpulent and an obsessive womaniser and the book revolves around his observations and internal monologue as he observes the people he works and socialises with.
Writing in The Guardian, the excellent David Lodge describes the ‘action’ of book in this way:
While trying to revive an affair with Helene, the wife of a Danish philologist, he grabs every opportunity to copulate with other available women. His mind and often his speech are crammed with offensive observations about Jews, Negroes, women, homosexuals and Americans in general. He eats like a pig and drinks like a fish.
The story punishes Roger for his sins by submitting him to a series of farcical humiliations, and eventually he is sent home with his tail between his legs. But he is the hero, or anti-hero, of the novel, whose consciousness totally dominates it and with whom the authorial voice is rhetorically in collusion: that is to say, his obnoxious opinions and responses are articulated through the same distinctive stylistic devices that were associated with the earlier and more amiable Amis heroes.
I’m sure there will be those who will claim that I’ve missed the point and that Amis is satirising the vile world Michaeldene moves in and helps to create – and it’s true that pretty much everyone in the novel is despicable in some way or another. But I’m not at all convinced by this and I think David Lodge has hit on something important in his assessment – the decision to make Michaeldene’s voice pretty much synonymous with that of the author makes Amis complicit in the vile views his character espouses. I very much got the feeling that Amis was revelling in the shock value of what he was making his characters say and that he was almost testing out how far he could take it.
Lodge makes the entirely valid point later in his review that Michaeldene ends up being a distressing prophetic portrait of what Amis himself was to become in real life. It’s almost as if this odious character was already living somewhere inside Amis just waiting for the opportunity to emerge – which he does with gusto in this book and the later when Amis gives himself over to the cartoon hate-filled bigot he became.
If a book had an odour you’d have to wear a peg on your nose to read this one. It stinks.