Thursday 31 January 2013

Kingsley Amis and The King's English: A Guide to Modern Usage (HarperCollins, 1997)

NB: A Friday Forgotten Book.

Thus far in this series of posts on Kingsley Amis we've had some spy fiction – The Anti-Death League and The Egyptologists – and some science fiction – the Amis-edited SF anthology Spectrum. Now it's time for some nonfiction, with a book I bought in secondhand bookshop Tome in Eastbourne, for just two quid (remarkably, all of their secondhand books are priced at two pounds):

A first edition of The King's English, published in hardback by HarperCollins in 1997, two years after Amis's death. It is, as the subtitle states, "A Guide to Modern Usage", and given that Kingsley Amis had a way with the written English word few could match in the twentieth century, you'd be hard pressed to think of a better guide. But that subtitle does make the book sound drearier, more pedagogical – not to mention considerably less witty – than it actually is. As Charles Moore points out in this 2011 Telegraph review (The King's English was reissued by Penguin that year): "...what does shine throughout is Kingsley’s love of his language. He is exact, but not pedantic. Even when making minute points about the letter of the law, he is really talking about its spirit." A good example of this might be the entry titled "Preposition at the end of a sentence", wherein Amis writes:

This is one of those fancied prohibitions (compare SPLIT INFINITIVE) dear to ignorant snobs. In this case they should be disregarded, and they mostly are, though the occasional stylistic derangement may suggest that a writer here and there still feels its force. It is natural and harmless in English to use a preposition to end a sentence with. As [H. W.] Fowler famously observed, 'The power of saying . . . People worth talking to instead of People with whom it is worth while to talk is not one to be lightly surrendered.' This time idiom and common sense have triumphed over obscurantism.

In his introduction to the 2011 edition of The King's English, Martin Amis makes a similar point to Charles Moore: "...those who remember [Kingsley] as a reactionary – or, if you prefer, as an apoplectic diehard – will be astonished to discover how unfogeyish he is. With remarkably few exceptions, he takes the sensible and centrist course. He is also deeply but unobtrusively learned. As a result, this is not a confining book but a liberating one." That said, there are some cases where the rules are immutable – apostrophes, for instance, where Amis père takes issue with the "greengrocer's apostrophe" and highlights common errors, such as inserting an apostrophe where none is needed. Even here, though, he's notably lenient, admitting that the "rules governing the use of this vexing little mark are evidently hard to master" and conceding that those "who mind their p's and q's must be tolerated".

The word "tolerance" isn't one generally associated with Kingsley Amis, at least in most people's minds – unless, perhaps, it's in regard to his levels of alcohol consumption – but anyone who's spent any amount of time with his writings will know that, like all of us, he was a complicated man. Take the entry titled "Gay", for example, which Martin Amis identifies as "perhaps the most stirring passage in the book": 

The use of this word as an adjective or noun applied to a homosexual has received unusually prolonged execration. The 'new' meaning has been generally current for years. Gay lib had made the revised Roget by 1987 and the word itself was listed in the 1988 COD under sense 5 as a homosexual... And yet in this very spring of 1995 some old curmudgeon is still frothing on about it in the public print and demanding the word "back" for proper heterosexual use...

...once a word is not only current but accepted willy-nilly in a meaning, no power on earth can throw it out. The slightest acquaintance with changes in a language, or a minimum of thought, will show this truth.

This time it is not a wholly unwelcome truth. The word gay is cheerful and hopeful, half a world away from the dismal clinical and punitive associations of homosexual. We lucky ones can afford to be generous with our much larger and richer vocabulary.

As Martin Amis notes: "An 'old curmudgeon': towards the end of his life, Kingsley was monotonously so described. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable defines curmudgeon as 'a grasping and miserly churl'. Whereas all careful readers of The King's English (and of his novels) will find themselves responding to a spirit of reckless generosity."

I'm not sure, however, that the phrase "a spirit of reckless generosity" could be applied to the final Kingsley Amis book I'll be looking at: a 1963 novel that some critics have pointed to as a prophetic portrait of Amis himself.

1 comment:

  1. I think Martin Amis was missing his father's point, vis a vis 'curmudgeon'. Yes, that was its original meaning, but it now means something rather different. And no power on earth can make it mean what it used to. What happens in cases like this is that a word originally intended as a negative is embraced as a positive by those it is applied to--"On me, it looks good."

    A good example would be the mocking song "Yankee Doodle", written by an Englishman to poke fun at the colonial bumpkins, but those very bumpkins liked it so much it became part of the American mythos, and a positive term of expression among us (except in the south, of course).

    People of a certain gruff and sardonic bent LIKE being called curmudgeons today. It's taken as a compliment--there's a well-known blog called "The Comics Curmudgeon", whose author basically spends all his time making fun of bad comic strips. If you told him he wasn't a true curmudgeon, he'd be most upset.

    Thus the original meaning only holds true in dictionaries. And Kingsley Amis remains a curmudgeon. And probably damned glad of it, wherever he is. Probably having it out with Jehovah as we speak.

    Liking "The Anti-Death League"--bit slow going at first, but I'm warming to it.