Another project of mine is my desire to try and read/review all the Booker Prize winning novels. With my birth year being 1986, it felt that the winner from that year made the most sense to begin with, so without further ado, here is the first review.
Booker Prize Winner 1986
Kingsley Amis ‘The Old Devils’
It has often been posited that there is nothing for definite in life outside of death and taxes. With the former on the horizon, what do we choose to place value in? Is it the days that end before lunchtime, that ebb and flow of retirement allowing you the freedom to do what you want, when you want it? Is it a few stiff halves, chased down with a few fingers of whiskey, each and every day? Is it the friends you’ve known for years, with their foibles, challenges and secrets?
In ‘The Old Devils’ by Kingsley Amis, Amis blends all three of these together into a novel that is laden with the sense of missed opportunities and the wiling away of the hours until time catches up with us. ‘Professional Welshman’ Alun is returning home after years in England making a career out of his work on Brydan, a poet said to be representative of Dylan Thomas. With his return, and more importantly, that of his wife Rhiannon, feathers are ruffled, beers are drunk and Wales is explored in a darkly comic story that celebrates women and Wales, whilst also wistfully looking back on the decisions of unknowing youth.
Many aspects of ‘The Old Devils’ can be viewed as stages of Amis’ life himself. The philandering Alun, who doesn’t take long to jump into bed with Sophie and Gwen, Rhiannon’s friends, most closely resembles Amis’ dalliances with the opposite gender. Charlie’s fear of the dark, or more accurately, being alone, seems to mirror that of an aging Amis, who would end up living with his first wife,and her husband in his later years. During a time following his second divorce, it cannot be considered by chance that his own returns to Swansea didn’t impact upon the overarching narrative of the story.
With the clear parallels between Amis and especially Alun, it would be worrying if the narrative turned into a way to validate or excuse the behaviours of the author through his presentation of a character. Thankfully, this never feels like it is the case. The third person narration allows us to see Alun through the eyes of others, and rarely does he seem to be anything other than a bit of a blustering old fool, even if several women in the novel can’t help themselves but jump into bed with him the first chance they get.
His capaciousness towards and interest in alcohol soaks the book, though it is explored as a coping mechanism for a life that is passing us by, rather than celebrated in any way. Outside of drinking, it often feels that the characters have little in common outside of their interconnected love lives and the fact that they used to be, so are now. Yet there are hints of genuine feeling, especially in the treatment of Dorothy by the other women in the group, who is tolerated even though she is often half cut and incredibly boring to boot.
The Alun and Rhiannon relationship forms the spine of the story, though Malcolm’s latent desires for her initially frame the narrative as we expect his narrative to play out. However, it is Peter, a man who had let himself go over the years following a dalliance with Rhiannon (leading to an abortion), who draws the sympathy of the reader, especially as the lack of marital tenderness in his relationship with Muriel becomes apparent. Amis’ portrayal of them as a couple initially presents a marriage that has lost its spark, but understand how their coupling is beneficial to both of them. This contrasts with Muriel’s derisory treatment of Peter whenever they are together after this, which is rare as if to symbolise the growing distance between the two.
Though Muriel could be viewed as a particularly unflattering presentation of a woman, with her callous and unfeeling nature, ‘The Old Devils’ does seem to try and celebrate women, even when multiple females fall to the sleazy charms of Alun. Rhiannon in particular is beautifully represented – Amis apparently based this character of his first wife – with an acceptance of the extra-curricular activities of Alun arguably her biggest flaw. Yet she draws attention from Alun, Peter and Malcolm, love smattered with lingering feelings from an unrequited youth. That she could embolden such emotions speaks to her generosity of spirit and her casual elegance.
Alun’s desire to produce a piece of writing of a similar enduring quality as that of Brydan accentuates this feeling of time being fleeting; it is clear that he desires to be remembered for his own masterpiece rather than his odes to another poet. The tension caused between Alun’s own personal view of his work and the damning feedback from his friend Charlie is one of the funnier moments of the story, especially when Alun debates internally whether to get rid of the offending manuscript or not. Unsurprisingly, the pages that have flowed from his fingertips are not destroyed so easily.
Indeed, it is this inability to communicate effectively that drives the narrative forwards. People holding onto emotions that blossomed many years earlier; relationships falling apart yet hanging on for dear life; affairs sensed, yet not admitted to. The decision of some characters to finally play their hands and open up about their internal musings allows for some closure, though secrets still lie just below the surface, as is the case with most friendship groups. Relationships that have been built and developed over fifty years are not easily altered or dissipated.
Drinks, women, friendship, loyalty; all are important themes within the story, yet it is at its heart a celebration of Wales first and foremost. Outside of the descriptions of cities, villages and the landscapes of South Wales, the fear of a homogenisation of culture that has already begun to sand the rougher edges of Welsh culture permeates throughout the novel. Provincial charm is already giving way to the grasp of big business and globalisation. Whilst looking at these concerns thirty years later, they seem overblown for the time when compared to the realities of modern existence, but the seed has been planted for change; a change Amis and his characters don’t seem to relish.
‘The Old Devils’ would be a high point for Amis on a descent into ill health and eventual death. He would pass away from cancer just under ten years after the book was published. If the book is to be seen as a somewhat allegorical novel that explores Amis’ regrets over choices he made at specific times in his life, it would be hoped that the writing of this story went some way to allaying some of those concerns. If not, at least he did better than Alun, and delivered a classic that will provoke a chuckle in years to come – when human nature is explored so adroitly, it will never age.
A personal response:
‘The Old Devils’ would beat competition from numerous books, including Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. I would not have envied the jury who had to decided which book was better, especially due to the thematics of the books being so different. Still, Atwood’s ‘…Tale’ deserves recognition as not only one of the best books in 1986, but a stunning read even today. Poetic, yet brutal throughout.