Kingsley Amis’s “most unpleasant” hero.
It’s fair to say that in the late 1950s Kingsley Amis was riding high. In 1954, Lucky Jim had made him the leading novelist of his generation. He had held off an attempt by a new boss to have him fired for “inefficiency” from his post as a lecturer at University College of Swansea. His marriage had recovered from his wife Hilly’s love affair with one of his friends. (Amis’s mistress also abandoned him for a time, but she came back, too.) Though he mocked them in private and in public, he was identified with Britain’s twin literary insurgencies, the Movement poets and the Angry Young Men. He was much in demand as a reviewer and journalist, and he could afford monthly visits to London, where he would drink from lunch until closing time. Despite his famous capacities, he wasn’t always compos mentis by the end of such nights; after one strenuous lunch he was hit by a passing car. He spent a few hours in Charing Cross Hospital, and was taken home by his friends Geoff and Mavis Nicholson. The next morning, a young neighbor stopped by their house; he was pursuing a master’s in literature, and told the Nicholsons his favorite author was Kingsley Amis. Just then a bandaged man in his underwear staggered into the room. This, Mavis told her guest, is Kingsley Amis. The Nicholsons are the dedicatees of Take a Girl Like You. Geoff was his former student, and Mavis his mistress. Amis led a complicated life.
Lucky Jim had introduced a new type: Jim Dixon exemplified the young men rising from lower middle class through the universities in the postwar welfare state. The praise for Amis’s talents as a comic novelist was near universal. The view on his characters was mixed. In 1955, Somerset Maugham wrote in the Sunday Times:
I am told that today rather more than 60 per cent of the men who go to university go on a Government grant. This is a new class that has entered upon the scene. It is the white-collar proletariat. Mr. Kingsley Amis is so talented, his observation so keen, that you cannot fail to be convinced that the young men he so brilliantly describes truly represent the class with which his novel is concerned.
They do not go to university to acquire culture but to get a job, and when they have got one, scamp it. They have no manners, and are woefully unable to deal with any social predicament. Their idea of a celebration is to go to a public house and drink six beers. They are mean, malicious and envious … Charity, kindness, generosity, are ideas they hold in contempt. They are scum.
There was not a little class snobbery in Maugham’s judgment—his father was a lawyer for the British embassy in Paris; Amis’s a middle manager for a mustard manufacturer—and it didn’t go unchallenged. The New Statesman and Nation ran a contest for readers to reply to Maugham in the voice of Jim Dixon. A university instructor wrote to the Times to point out that the majority of students who’d ever gone to university had done so with the hopes of getting a job, and that campus literature had long portrayed the mean and the malicious. Edmund Wilson had come to Amis’s heroes’ defense, pointing to the decency beneath their boorishness. But in 1955, when Amis started writing Take a Girl Like You (its working title was Song of the Wanderer), it was bad behavior that had come to interest him most. Fifteen years after its publication in 1960, he would call its hero, Patrick Standish, “the most unpleasant person I’ve ever written about.” Yet his nastiness is all his own, not a class trait. Whether he qualifies as scum is a matter for the reader to decide.
The novel was still unfinished when Amis was invited to spend the 1958–59 academic year in Princeton. He had put it aside to write I Like It Here. The slightest of his first three books, I Like It Here is a near-autobiographical account, supplemented with a mystery plot, of the months he spent with his family in Portugal, where he went reluctantly after Lucky Jim was awarded the Somerset Maugham Prize, which stipulated travel abroad. On its release in 1958, I Like It Here was greeted as a dud, and Amis didn’t disagree: “Yes, those critics have certainly shown themselves less than fanatically keen about ILIH,” he wrote to his uncle John Davenport. “Well, it had to come, is what I keep saying to myself. I don’t feel depressed so much as faintly foolish—‘like falling down outside a pub’ as [the novelist] Elizabeth Taylor … put it to me.” He had written the book in a rush, out of a sense that he needed to get another novel in print and to exploit his time in Portugal before it slipped from his memory. “Anyway,” he told his uncle, “the next one will knock them cold: I’m all set to step into the second rank behind C. P. Snow and Priestley as a serious chronicler of our society.” He was only half joking. “I was saying, to put it very crudely,” he told an interviewer of Take a Girl Like You in 1975, “I hope they’ll go on laughing, but this time they won’t be able to escape the notion that I’m saying something serious. I don’t mean profound or earnest, but something serious.”
In Portugal, Princeton, and Swansea, Amis made elaborate notes for the novel, drawing parallels between its characters and those of Hamlet. In its initial conception it was meant to solve the problem of “how to get a girl for Willie.” Willie Smyth was a Latin instructor at Swansea, “pedantic, pernickety, letting nothing inaccurate or of uncertain meaning go by—not an aphrodisiac quality.” He is the original Graham McClintoch in the finished novel, but early in its conception he was pushed to the margins in favor of his more charming and appetitive roommate, Patrick Standish. Through Patrick’s obsessions with sex and death, Amis could get at something darker than he’d managed to conjure so far. As Amis wrote to Philip Larkin before leaving for Princeton: “Song of the Wanderer, without necessarily being at all good, is pleasing me and interesting me greatly as I write. It looks like being about as long as War and Peace at the moment. I hope you’ll like it. I think I have devised a character who can say more of what I think than any previous. Time will show.”
Patrick is a teacher at a boys’ school in a country town about an hour from London. What he thinks about mostly is women, and the one he thinks most about is Jenny Bunn. She has come down from her home in an industrial city in the north of England in flight from a breakup, about which we’re never told much. She’s twenty years old with a job as a schoolteacher, and, crucially, she’s a virgin, with no plans to stop being so until she’s somebody’s wife. England in the 1950s: “In those days, there were good girls and there were bad girls,” said the late Mandy Rice-Davies, the model and nightclub dancer at the center of the 1963 Profumo affair, Britain’s first modern political sex scandal. “Good girls didn’t have any sex at all, and bad girls had a bit.” Jenny is one of those good girls, an endangered species in this novel, and as for Patrick: “Trying not to be a bad man took up far more energy that he could, or was prepared to, spare from trying not to be a nasty man, a far more pressing task, especially this last year or two. Not only that: all this moral business was poor equipment for one barely into his stride on the huge trek to satiety.” Jenny is both object and obstacle in Patrick’s quest. On their first date they reach “the stage of oh please and no please and then oh and no.” Jenny enforces her noes with firm grabs of his wrists and a hard pull of the hair on the back of Patrick’s head. “That was a bit unnecessary, wasn’t it?” he says. She replies, “It seemed pretty necessary to me.”
This dynamic is sustained until the novel’s end: Will Jenny give in? Will Patrick be patient? Will he propose marriage? Will he bugger off? Or will he take what he wants by force, his nastiness finally getting the better of him? The novel’s third-person narration partakes both of Jenny’s and of Patrick’s points of view. The majority of chapters belongs to Jenny. She’s good-natured to a fault, and if the reader’s heart sinks whenever she reaches back to a lesson she’s learned from the advice columns of Women’s Domain, there’s an acute intelligence at work in the way she observes men: how they look at her, their styles of kissing, what happens when they put a record on the gramophone. After she asks Patrick to put on Dave Brubeck, prompting one of his lectures, she thinks, “There was always something they liked telling you about.” Jenny’s disposition is affectionate and hopeful. Patrick has a hard time loosening himself from a state of agitation. He constantly puts the Jenny problem through various analytic frameworks. After their first date, “he was now in a position to codify as an axiom the fact that willingness to be impressed was inversely correlated with willingness to be assaulted.” As that last word indicates, some of his thoughts about Jenny really are foul, such as “his early assumption that the Great Sculptor and Colourist, particularly in his latter capacity, had fashioned her primarily as a bedroom amenity.” He’s plagued by anxieties about whether cancer will be cured before he contracts it, anxieties only relieved by thinking about which women he’ll go to bed with before he goes to the grave. Today we’d call him a sex addict. By the last page, after chapters thick with reversals and revelations, we’d call him other things, too.
In the meantime, Patrick and Jenny become entangled in one way or another with the novel’s large and precisely drawn supporting cast; these entanglements only send them back towards each other. Martha and Dick Thompson, the owners of the house where Jenny lives as a lodger, represent marital misery, cut off from Jenny and Patrick’s youth and charm. Another resident of the house is the obsequiously French Anna le Page, who has some history with Patrick, and like the novel’s men can’t help herself from making a pass at Jenny. Julian Ormerod, a wealthy Jaguar-driving figure of some mystery, kisses Jenny, then proposes to set her up in a London pied-à-terre, and quickly gives up on the idea when he realizes she doesn’t know what he means by it. Unlike Patrick, Julian knows to leave a girl alone when she doesn’t suit his “purposes,” and he teases Patrick about Jenny throughout. He also takes him to London, brings him to a strip show, and introduces him to a pair of willing divorcées. It’s either a mark against him that he goes to bed with one of them, or a mark in his favor that doing so doesn’t break Jenny’s spell on him.
Then there’s Graham McClintoch. He takes Jenny out one night, kisses her, then immediately apologizes. He goes on to explain the difference between himself and Patrick: “I’m unattractive. Not just not attractive. Unattractive. A positive quality.” This is the start of a lengthy monologue, as amusing as it is saddening:
A great British prime minister once remarked that the people were divided into two nations, the rich and the poor, and in effect that these had no knowledge of each other. One might say the same, perhaps, of those who live in parts of the world where segregation by races is practised. But these barriers, or the reasons for them, belong to a part of our history which is fortunately passing away. There is one barrier, however, which no amount of progress or tolerance or legislation can ever diminish. I’m talking about the barrier between the attractive and the unattractive, and if you think I sound as if I’ve got this learned off, so I have, pretty well.
Amis’s way of framing a bad date in world-historic terms is typical of his comedy, from the start of his career till its end. The ideas themselves anticipate Michel Houellebecq’s view of a liberalized sexual marketplace, brutally sorting winners from losers. On a smaller scale, the conflict between attraction and morality, or simply attraction and expectation, is the central dilemma of Take a Girl Like You. Patrick, making his case for the umpteenth time, puts it this way: “He isn’t ever going to turn up, Jenny, that bloke with … the honour and the bunches of flowers and the attraction.”
Does this fulfill the criteria of nonprofound seriousness Amis set for the novel? If being serious means looking at bad, even criminal, behavior straight on, I believe it does. This wasn’t something Amis could do in his earlier novels, because the sins of a character like Jim Dixon are minor and often spring from circumstances he slips into because at heart he’s a nice guy. Not so, Patrick. But Amis’s moral project exacts a cost on the novel, its characters, and its comedy. Jenny is trapped in a prewar morality that’s expiring so quickly she hardly knows herself why she’s sticking to it, and Patrick is beholden to the oncoming sixties in ways he can’t understand. Dragged across the novel’s ever proliferating subplots, their affair and its schematic dynamics can be fatiguing. But to his credit Amis puts their oh-please-no-please routine to bed with a finale that’s genuinely shocking.
Amis’s biographer, Zachary Leader, sees Take a Girl Like You as a vehicle for Amis to project the troubles in his marriage. Virginity stands in for infidelity; Amis’s tendencies to bad behavior are amplified in Patrick; and Jenny is a version of Hilly returned to her innocence. (“She said so many things that sounded like Hilly,” Larkin wrote of Jenny in a letter to Robert Conquest.) When Hilly first “yielded” to Amis (as he put it in a letter to Larkin) and later married him on becoming pregnant, she hadn’t bargained for a life of serial and constant affairs. Even as Amis persisted in his infidelities and encouraged her, to a point, in her own—their year in Princeton involved a strenuous regimen of wife-swapping with the other young couples around campus—he wasn’t without guilt. It’s an appealing formula, and when Leader spoke to Hilly she didn’t contradict it. Amis said Take a Girl Like You was his favorite of his novels. “K. has finished a long novel, and sent it in,” Hilly wrote to friends in 1959, “no one’s said they’ve liked it so far, which is nasty— I think it’s very good.” As for its hero, she told her husband, “I think Patrick’s an absolute shit.” Decades later she told Leader, “I often felt like saying ‘And you’re an absolute shit yourself.’ ”
Christian Lorentzen is an editor at the London Review of Books.
This essay appears as the introduction to NYRB Classics’ new reissue of Take a Girl Like You. Reprinted with permission.