Thursday, 28 February 2013

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré: a Review (Gollancz, 1963)

Having recently read and reviewed John le Carré's first two novels – Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962) – it seemed only right and proper that I should tackle his third one too: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. For one thing, it's arguably le Carré's most famous book (although in recent years it's perhaps been surpassed by Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, as a result of that later novel's 2011 film adaptation); for another, it's widely regarded as his best (although, as brilliant as it is, for my money Tinker is the better novel); and finally, it's actually a sequel of sorts to Call for the Dead – so with that novel still fresh in my mind, what better time to pluck my 1963 first edition (second impression) of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold from the shelves and give it a go.

As it turns out, it's quite a different novel to its two predecessors. Both Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality have an element of the murder mystery to them – much more so in the latter, but that strand of DNA is certainly present in the (largely espionage) genetic makeup of Call. In any case, both are very much reactive novels – British Intelligence operative George Smiley investigating the death of a civil servant and an attendant East German plot in the former, and the rather more down-to-earth death of the wife of a schoolmaster in the latter – whereas The Spy Who Came in from the Cold could be characterized as proactive. Here, the plot is propelled by the machinations of the Circus (MI6) and its head, Control, who hatches a plan to take revenge on Mundt, the East German agent-cum-assassin-turned-Abteilung bigwig who murdered two people in Call (and almost did for Smiley as well).

Furthermore, Smiley isn't the star of Spy. Instead, the man tasked with carrying out Control's fiendish scheme is Alec Leamas, a washed-up operative whose chief East German agent is killed at the beginning of the book. Leamas's assignment is to make himself into a candidate for recruitment by East German Intelligence, a goal which entails him hitting the bottle, getting kicked out of the Circus and even being sent to prison for assault. The one chink of light in this dark descent is Liz, a young librarian who becomes his lover, and who will prove instrumental both to his mission, and in his eventual undoing. (Interestingly, not the first time, nor indeed the last, that a woman will be the downfall of a man in a le Carré novel.)

But although Smiley, supposedly still retired after the events of Call for the Dead, doesn't feature much in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, he's a spectral presence throughout. Control enlists his (reluctant) aid in concocting the plan, and he haunts the novel like a portly ghost: glimpsed by Leamas in a greasy spoon and at an airport kiosk; paying Liz a visit with Peter Guillam. He also pops up in the final scene, which brings the action full circle to the East/West Berlin border, but the true climax of the book comes just prior to that, and takes the unexpected shape of a courtroom drama – never my favourite form of fiction, but deployed effectively here by le Carré to lay bare the machinations of Control and the Circus and deliver a final twist which throws a new and awful light on those endeavours.

In the end, le Carré leaves us questioning not only whether the ends justify the means, but whether the ends are desirable either – questions which have as much resonance – as much relevance – today as they did fifty years ago.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Westlake Score: Adios, Scheherazade, by Donald E. Westlake (Hodder & Stoughton, 1971)

NB: A version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker.

Before I get to the final John le Carré novel I'll be reviewing in my short series of posts on the author – i.e. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which I'm still reading – let's have a Westlake Score, in the shape of this:

A UK first edition of Adios, Scheherazade, published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton in 1971, the year after the US Simon & Schuster first. Quite an uncommon book this one: it fell out of print decades ago – in English anyway; there are more recent French editions – making it one of the scarcest of all of Donald E. Westlake's novels – either under his own name or one of his numerous nom de plumes – in any edition, especially so in this British printing. I acquired this copy – for a ridiculously low price – from famed book dealer Jamie Sturgeon, who originally acquired it from... actually I don't really know where Jamie got it from – which I guess is why he's the famed book dealer and I'm simply one of the clueless slobs wot buy books off him.

The dust jacket design is by Lipscombe, Lubbock, Ewart & Holland, doing a grand job of evoking the era, if not the specific milieu, of the novel: that of the American sleaze paperback field, in which Westlake toiled away in the late-1950s/early-1960s under a variety of aliases. Chief among those was Alan Marshall, under which moniker Westlake wrote over a dozen smutty softcovers for Midwood; I blogged about some of them towards the end of last year, inspired by Trent's series of posts over at The Violent World of Parker on the Westlake sleaze catalogue. Adios, Scheherazade is about that part of Westlake's life, and is also one of his more experimental novels; as Ethan Iverson notes in his brief precis of the book as part of his peerless Westlake overview: "here there are 10 chapters of exactly 5000 words each, just like the sex novels the hapless narrator is supposed to be writing".

Speaking of other folks' thoughts on the thing, there's a detailed review of Adios, Scheherazade over at Those Sexy Vintage Sleaze Books, but perhaps the best piece on the novel available online (linked previously by Andrew Wheeler, Matthew Asprey and Bill Crider) is Earl Kemp's "Nobody Can Write This Shit Forever". Kemp actually edited some of Westlake's sleaze efforts – quite heavily, if Kemp is to be believed – and his candid, gossipy reminiscences as he picks his way through Adios, Scheherazade make for entertaining and arresting reading. As Kemp drily observes: "The [Alan Marshall] manuscripts consistently rose just to almost the absolute minimum required input level."

Friday, 22 February 2013

A Murder of Quality (1962) from The John le Carré Omnibus (Gollancz, 1964)

NB: A Friday Forgotten Book.

Having vowed never again to enslave myself to Existential Ennui by embarking on too many series of posts, I find myself, just three posts on from making that vow, in the midst of, you guessed it, another series of posts. But at least, to horribly paraphrase Eric Burdon, my intentions were good, in that the reason I've ended up reading, and then blogging about, two John le Carré novels in fairly quick succession (we'll skip over this interlude post – there's really no excuse for it) is because they both reside in the book I decided I most wanted to read (rather than most wanted to blog about), i.e. The le Carré Omnibus. Published in 1964 to capitalise on the success of le Carré's third book, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), it contains the author's first two novels – Call for the Dead (1961), and this:

A Murder of Quality (1962) – which, although it stars Call for the Dead's lead, squat spy George Smiley, isn't, unlike most of le Carré's work, an espionage novel. Instead it's a murder mystery, set in and around the fictional rural public school of Carne, where Smiley, having retired from The Circus (MI6) in Call for the Dead (the first of many retirements from the service), is sent by an old intelligence colleague to find out who killed the wife of one of the schoolmasters. Once there, he quickly discovers what a poisonous place Carne is, populated for the most part by supercilious schoolboys and masters and their equally dreadful wives (the masters' wives, that is, not the boys'; they're a bit young for marriage) and fuelled by gossip and backbiting, a toxic social stew typified by a party Smiley attends where one harridan takes great delight in reminding him of the failure of his marriage.

Indeed, Smiley's distaste for Carne – fear of the place, even – has its roots in his rocky relationship with the wayward Ann: his wife spent her childhood there. Still, George is a square peg in a round hole in most situations; early in the novel a commentator bestows upon him the memorable description "Looks like a frog, dresses like a bookie, and has a brain I'd give my eyes for" – and Smiley certainly puts that brain to good use getting to the bottom of this whodunnit-cum-tragedy. Although in the final analysis, it could be argued that it's the archaic, enervating institution of Carne itself that stands revealed as the true villain of the piece.

To a degree, A Murder of Quality reminded me of The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), and not merely because its school setting is echoed in the later novel's title. Like Schoolboy – like Smiley himself, in fact – A Murder of Quality is an odd fish, at least in comparison to the wider le Carré canon. Both books are slightly overlooked works sandwiched between spy fiction classics – A Murder of Quality bookended by Call for the Dead and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; The Honourable Schoolboy by Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People – and yet nevertheless are rewarding novels in their own right, possessed of a genuine depth of feeling; in the case of A Murder of Quality, it seems evident le Carré was working through some quite personal issues to do with his time at Sherborne public school in the writing of the book. Furthermore, both, in their own ways, interrupt the longer narrative of their particular segments of the George Smiley series; because as Sergio from Tipping My Fedora points out in the comments on my Call for the Dead post, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is essentially a sequel to le Carré's debut.

In light of which information, it stands to reason that since I'm already immersed in le Carré's world, I might as well stay undercover and plunge ever deeper into his murky milieu, with the aforementioned The Spy Who Came in from the Cold....

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

John le Carré Interlude: How to Tweet Yourself Onto the Author's Official Website

Before we get to my review of the second half of The le Carré Omnibus – i.e. of John le Carré's second novel, A Murder of Quality – and that great quote about George Smiley I promised, I thought I'd draw your attention to something divertingly daft I stumbled upon whilst tweeting links to my review of the first half of the omnibus – i.e. Call for the Dead. And reader, it's the kind of diverting daftness that has the potential to keep us all entertained for, ooh, minutes.

As I often do with the authors I write about, upon the first full mention of le Carré's name in that Call for the Dead post I linked his official website. I must admit I only gave the site a cursory glance when I did so, but then later, once I'd published the post and tweeted about it, I clicked the link to check it was working OK... and discovered that my Twitter links to my post were now prominently displayed on the homepage. Seems some enterprising soul has set the John le Carré website up so that any time the author gets a mention on Twitter, that mention is "intercepted" – to use the site's own appropriately espionage-y nomenclature – and pops up on the homepage, complete with the tweeter's profile picture.

Of course, as one would with any newly gained intelligence, I thought it prudent to check and verify this information before sharing it (click on the image to enlarge):

More than once, in fact:

In the process enlisting the unwitting aid of fellow Twitter users Nick Meadows and Lewes Retweet. And indeed it appears to be the case. It's a fun little aspect to the website... but it strikes me it does rather leave the site open to misuse... by, say, any other silly buggers – I mean, Twitter users – who happen see this post and decide to tweet their own daft John le Carré messages and then take screengrabs of those tweets once they appear on the le Carré website and email those grabs to me so I can collate them all in a future post.

Just for instance.

Ahem. Anyway: back to The le Carré Omnibus...

Friday, 15 February 2013

John le Carré's Debut Novel, Call for the Dead (1961), in The le Carré Omnibus (Gollancz, 1964)

NB: A Friday Forgotten Book.

If you've read the previous post, you'll know that I chose this next book not because I wanted to blog about it – although, clearly, that is what I'm about to do here – but because I wanted to read it (and if you're baffled as to what exactly the distinction is there, go read that post).

It's a first printing of The le Carré Omnibus, published by Victor Gollancz in 1964 (and published as The Incongruous Spy in the US the same year). Now, if you've been following Existential Ennui for a few years – unlikely, I know, but there might be one or two of you – you might recall my having blogged about this one before, when I bought it back in 2010; it's a collection of John le Carré's first two novels, Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962), both of which star the author's signature lead, British Intelligence operative George Smiley. That it's taken me well over two years to get round to reading the bloody thing is a terrifically apposite example of how blogging about books can sometimes keep you from reading them, or at least those books you'd probably otherwise have read sooner; I made my way through – and adored – le Carré's later Karla Trilogy – which also, of course, features Smiley – in 2010 and 2011, and yet despite subsequently plucking The le Carré Omnibus from my shelves on more than one occasion, there always seemed to be some other book demanding my attention ahead of it.

Until, that is, I decided to mend my ways a couple of weeks ago and simply choose from the many unread books on my shelves the ones I most wanted to read, rather than the ones I thought would make for a good blog post. And this was the one I kept coming back to – and while neither of the novels within is of the same stature or on the same scale – literary or geographically – as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and its two sequels (the third of which, like Tinker, is slowly edging towards the big screen), they are both elegantly written, quietly compelling pieces of, respectively, spy fiction and crime fiction.

In fact, that's one of the interesting things about having the two novels together in this volume: they're quite different in nature – at least, on the surface. Call for the Dead – not only le Carré's debut but Smiley's as well, not to mention that of his occasional sidekick, Peter Guillam – sees Smiley and Inspector Mendel of Scotland Yard investigating the apparent suicide of a civil servant whom Smiley had recently interviewed about his communist background (and who had left a note blaming Smiley for his death), and involves East German agents, multiple killings and even an attempt on Smiley's life. A Murder of Quality, on the other hand, is essentially a murder mystery, a whodunnit, and finds Smiley decamping to a rustic public school at the behest of an old intelligence colleague to ascertain who killed the wife of one of the schoolmasters.

On closer inspection, however, it becomes apparent that Call for the Dead is a kind of whodunnit too, although I guess that's true of a lot of spy thrillers: you often find there's a mysterious death involved. It also features the first of Smiley's many retirements from The Circus (the colloquial name for MI6), starts with a wonderful precis of his early life, wartime exploits and doomed marriage – to the wayward Ann, who would become so pivotal in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – and boasts a brilliant opening line, which sets the tenor not only for this novel but for later books as well, at least as regards Smiley's emotional travails: 

When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary.

Mind you, A Murder of Quality can boast for its part one of the best descriptions of Smiley I've come across, courtesy of Mendel's boss at Scotland Yard, Ben Sparrow... but I think I'll save that for the next post.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

On Reading (and Books Blogging)

I don't know how it is for other books bloggers – which I guess is essentially what I am, even though Existential Ennui isn't, I don't think, a stereotypical new release/press release/publicity mill kind of books blog, and furthermore I don't define myself by that label, because doing this – this, this digressive navel-gazing excuse for an ostensible books blog post thing right here – this isn't my job or anything, although I do work in books publishing, and my job does occasionally intersect with my passion – which is to say the books I blog about on Existential Ennui... But anyway, I don't know how it is for other books bloggers, but blogging about books sometimes feels to me like I'm making a rod for my own back.

You see, increasingly over the past year or so I've found myself planning my reading around what I believe will make for a good blog post – or even better, series of posts – rather than around what I genuinely feel like reading at that moment in time. Now, you might reasonably surmise that the two pursuits – reading and blogging – would be indivisible – natural bedfellows, as it were (literally, sometimes, when I'm lying in bed reading a book and making notes on my mobile phone; apologies if that conjures up an unsavoury mental image) – and often as not you'd be correct. But not always, and especially not when I've locked myself into a series of posts – and I realise I have no one to blame but myself there; it's me who determines the course of Existential Ennui, me who decides each time to embark on a series – and find myself reading a book purely because I'm currently blogging about that author or genre (or whatever).

Moreover, two related problems spring to mind. For one thing, I'm not sure anyone should "plan" their reading beyond having a vague idea of which book, or at a push books, they might like to try next; it rather takes all the fun, all the spontaneity out of the act. For another, having to adhere to a structure with my reading can make it feel like a chore – like I'm having to read set texts or something: trudging through one book in order to get to the next one, and then the next one, and so on.

So, a couple of weeks ago, I decided that enough was enough. I had various series of posts planned, but I knew that in each instance, the reading I would be required to do in order to write those posts I would be doing because I was required to do so; in other words, out of a misguided sense of duty – Christ knows to what or to whom; I mean, it's not as if this is the most widely read of books blogs – rather than because I really wanted to read those particular books. On top of that, I knew that increasing pressures from my "real", non-blogging life would mean that, going forward, I was likely to have less and less time available to devote to reading (and bear in mind my reading also encompasses comics, which I don't blog about too often, but which I usually have a small pile of on the go as well), let alone blogging. (Coincidentally, Trent at Violent World of Parker – where, irony upon irony, I'm co-blogger – also hinted at this in his anniversary post yesterday – and happy websitebirthday, by the way, Trent!)

With that in mind, I did something I hadn't done for a while: I stood before my bookcases (hold your horses: that's not the thing I hadn't done for while; I do that all the bloody time, frequently in my pants) and instead of trying to work out which of the many unread books on my shelves I could blog about next, I simply considered which one, or at a push, which two or three, I'd like to read next. It was, I can tell you, a liberating experience (wearing only pants might have helped). Divorced of the burden of blogging, I was able to properly focus on the books as the the things they were meant to be – things to be read – and select the one I had the greatest desire to read.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying I won't blog about the book that I picked, because I can pretty much guarantee I will; nor am I saying that there won't be any more series of posts on Existential Ennui: one springs immediately to mind (although that won't require much reading on my part – that's already been done by someone else) and in fact the book that I selected will probably itself result in a short series of posts. It's more the principle of the thing, or, if you like, the intent behind it: if I only have a certain amount of time to dedicate to reading – a thing I love doing above almost (almost) every other pursuit – then it stands to reason that I should choose the books that I most want to read, and that my blogging should reflect, should be driven by, my reading – not the other way round.

All of which begs the inevitable question: which book did I choose to set me on this newfound path towards reading for reading's sake? I hesitate to say it, as it slightly – perhaps fatally – undermines my entire argument, but: all will be revealed in the next post...*

*Although a clue can be found in the image at the top of this post: there's a book missing from one of the shelves...

Friday, 8 February 2013

Westlake Score: The Jugger by Richard Stark, alias Donald E. Westlake (Pocket Books, 1965); Parker #6, Harry Bennett Cover Art

NB: A version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker; a Friday Forgotten Book.

I unveiled the bulk of the Westlake – or rather, Richard Stark – Scores I acquired from Alan White Fine Books in one great big splurge of a bloated blogpost on Wednesday, but I kept one back because it dates from slightly earlier in the Parker series.

Published in the States by Pocket Books in 1965, The Jugger is the sixth novel in Donald E. "Richard Stark" Westlake's series starring taciturn career criminal Parker. The cover art is by Harry Bennett, who illustrated the covers of all eight of the Pocket Parkers, from The Hunter (1962) to The Handle (1966), and though there's a general sense among Parker fanatics that there's something a bit off about the novel itself – fuelled, in part, by Westlake himself; more on that in a moment – I'm of the firm belief that the cover is one of Bennett's best efforts on the Parkers. I like the abstraction of the midground – that jumble of flat colours denoting signage – and the way Bennett's placed the figures and the rest on a white background, using the negative space for Captain Younger's shirt. Clever, confident stuff. And as is often the case with Bennett's Parker covers, you get a bonus sketch on the back too:

In an Austin Chronicle interview excerpt on the Violent World of Parker dedicated page for The Jugger, Westlake identifies the book as "one of the worst failures I've ever had", pointing to the way he "spoiled" the novel "by having [Parker] do something he wouldn't do", i.e. going to the aid of his "mailbox", Joe Sheer. Except as Trent notes in the subsequent review, he doesn't; as the novel itself makes clear: "...he had come up to this rotten little town to find out if it was going to be necessary to kill Joe Sheer or not". Westlake's misremembered disapproval of The Jugger might be part of the reason some Parker enthusiasts aren't keen on the book, but perhaps a bigger part is the unusual nature of the thing, at least in comparison to the bulk of the Parkers. As Ed Gorman points out, it's not a heist thriller but "a kind of psychodrama". Viewed in that light, and on its own merits rather than as a decent book in an exceptional series, it stands revealed as a cold, mean mini-masterpiece.

Mind you, despite my sweeping generalizations about Parker fans' feelings about The Jugger, you don't actually have to look that hard to find folks who appreciate it for what it is; witness the glowing reviews at Pulp Serenade, Kevin's Corner, and especially this thoughtful, perceptive one at Olman's Fifty. In fact, on reflection, it's looking increasingly like Westlake was the only person who didn't rate the book...

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Richard Stark's Parker Novels: Westlake Scores; Gold Medal First Edition Gallery, Robert McGinnis Cover Art

NB: A version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker.

So apparently there's some movie out in the States starring Jason Statham and based on the nineteenth novel in a twenty-four-book series featuring a cold-hearted taciturn career criminal. Dunno what that's all about, but whatever it is, I'm certainly not about to let it distract me from the task in hand (especially since said film isn't out here in the UK until March) – namely: blogging about a bunch of vintage Parker crime novels I've recently come into possession of. Because in a really quite remarkable multiple Westlake Score, a couple of weeks ago I managed to get my filthy mitts on four – count 'em, four – US first edition paperback originals of Donald E. "Richard Stark" Westlake's Parker novels, all from the same local book dealer. What's more, three of them comprise a run of the first three Gold Medal editions of the Parkers (the fourth I'm saving for a separate post as it dates from earlier in the series), and are in about the best condition I'm ever likely to see, with nary a cracked spine between them.

To recap (yet again – feel free to skip this paragraph if you're already au fait with the publishing facts from previous posts... or indeed if you have a life): in 1967 Fawcett/Gold Medal acquired the rights to the Parker novels from previous rights-holders Pocket Books, who published the initial eight Parkers from The Hunter (1962) to The Handle (1966). Gold Medal would go on to publish the next four books in the series and bring The Hunter and The Seventh (1966) back into print under new titles reflecting their movie adaptations, i.e. Point Blank! and The Split respectively. Whereas the Pocket Parkers all had cover art by Harry Bennett, the Gold Medal Parkers had cover art by Robert McGinnis.

Anyway, back at the start of the year, I was idly perusing AbeBooks looking for a cheap, decent condition first edition of the eighteenth Parker novel, Backflash – my battered ex-library copy being in danger of falling apart – when I came across a listing from a bookseller based in Brighton (just down the road from where I live in Lewes): Alan White Fine Books. I was immediately intrigued; I'd been under the impression that I was aware of every secondhand bookseller in the area, and yet here was one I hadn't come across before. I took a look at Alan's website and discovered that he had a number of other Richard Stark books besides Backflash (he still has... just not quite as many now)... including some American paperback originals, all in reportedly excellent condition. A number of emails later, and as well as the copy of Backflash (I'll be offloading my ex-library copy onto a local charity shop soon, so look out for it, fellow Lewesians), for a very reasonable price I had procured the following:

The Rare Coin Score, Parker #9, published in the US in paperback by Gold Medal in 1967. This was Gold Medal's first Parker, and it boasts to my mind Robert McGinnis's best representation of the man himself – looking, incidentally, not unlike Josh Brolin, who I reckon would've been a much more suitable choice for the lead in the above-mentioned movie featuring a cold-hearted taciturn career criminal. Ahem.

The Green Eagle Score, Parker #10, also published by Gold Medal in 1967, again with McGinnis cover art. Now, this one might ring a bell with Existential Ennui/Violent World of Parker regulars, as I blogged about this very same edition in both places in November as a Westlake Score, which I won on eBay. That copy was a bit battered, however, whereas this one is in pristine condition. And if it strikes you as odd that a body would buy two copies of exactly the same book... well, you clearly haven't spent enough time lurking on Existential Ennui.

And the third and final Gold Medal Parker I acquired from Alan White was The Black Ice Score, Parker #11, published by Gold Medal in 1968, cover art by McGinnis. In truth this is one of my least favourite Parkers, but I saw a copy of the Gold Medal edition get snapped up right in front of my eyes at last year's London Paperback & Pulp Bookfair before I could reach it, which kind of rankled (us collectors can be sore losers), so I was dead chuffed to find this lovely copy in Alan's possession. And even more chuffed to relieve him of it.

And since I already have these on my shelves:

Point Blank!, published by Gold Medal in 1967 (McGinnis cover art), and:

The Split, published by Gold Medal in 1968 (McGinnis cover art again), that means I now only need the Gold Medal edition of The Sour Lemon Score (Parker #12, 1969) in order to complete my Richard Stark/Gold Medal collection. Rest assured that I'll be posting an equally prolix update if and when I obtain one.

Monday, 4 February 2013

One Fat Englishman by Kingsley Amis (Gollancz, 1963): Book Review

For this final post on Kingsley Amis – for which, if the marked decline in blog traffic over the past week or so is any indication, the dwindling readership of Existential Ennui will be thankful – here's a first edition of Amis's fifth novel, which I found hidden in the little bookcase fixed to the wall outside Peter Ellis's bookshop on Cecil Court, and bought for three quid: 

One Fat Englishman, published by Victor Gollancz in 1963. Now, once or twice during this run of posts I've suggested that there is more warmth, more, as Kingsley's son, Martin Amis, put it, "reckless generosity" in Amis père's novels than those who are only familiar with his reputation – i.e his endlessly regurgitated, perennially picked-over failings – rather than with his work – would suppose. But that's by no means true of all his novels, and it's certainly not the case with this one. Roger Micheldene, the titular Fat Englishman, a libidinous book publisher abroad in America, is a strikingly loathsome creation, and the assortment of writers, students, intellectuals and linguists he encounters at various parties and functions in and around the campus of the fictional Budweiser college (standing in for Princeton, where Amis was a lecturer in the late-1950s) – and their wives and girlfriends, most of whom he attempts (sometimes successfully) to bed – is little better.

In a 2002 article for The Guardian, David Lodge recalled that on original exposure to One Fat Englishman in 1963 he "hadn't really enjoyed reading it, and enjoyment was very much at the heart of my interest in Amis's earlier fiction", but that when he reread it years later it was "more comprehensible and interesting", not to mention "much funnier". Personally I prefer the mid-sixties–mid-seventies Amis novels, but my reaction to One Fat Englishman was similar to Lodge's, except condensed: I was initially repelled by the book, but found myself thinking about it a fair bit once I'd finished.

Lodge identifies Micheldene as "a devastating and prophetic self-portrait", but Amis actually had something different in mind when he wrote the novel. As Michael Barber explained in a 2006 Hudson Review piece – republished on Existential Ennui in 2011 – on Zachary Leader's Amis biography: "Intended as an egregious exponent of the strident British anti-Americanism that Amis then deplored, Micheldene was mistaken by many readers for the author’s mouthpiece." Here Barber was drawing on the evidence of his own eyes and ears: in 1975 he interviewed Amis for The Paris Review, and raised the subject of Micheldene and One Fat Englishman, to which Amis responded:

"...I think the pro- and anti-American stuff hasn’t, if I may say so, been properly understood. What I was doing was knocking British anti-Americanism, and I thought, Put all the usual tired old arguments into the mouth of a very unsympathetic character. I thought this was quite a good way of showing up all those British attitudes. But I must have muffed it somewhere along the line because American reviewers fell into two classes: one lot said, 'Mr. Amis makes some shrewd hits on the deficiencies in our culture.' And they were meant to be very unshrewd hits. Others said, half rightly, 'Mr. Amis's objections to American life are very old hat. If they were ever accurate, they no longer are so. It's all been done better by American writers.' Well, that's true, except that they got the name wrong. Roger Micheldene's objections were all of those things."

Of course, a novelist's relationship with his or her own characters is always complex, and Amis went on to concede that "life tells us all the time that it's possible to like the people that you violently disapprove of" and that he'd "quite enjoy a couple of drinks with Roger". That much is evident in the novel itself, where Amis details Micheldene's exploits with a savage glee; and it is, admittedly, hard not to detect the author's guiding hand in places, such as when Micheldene sneeringly but wittily (and even today, appositely) predicts the likely notices for the debut novel by Irving Macher, a young Jewish author he's taken a dislike to (and who will become his nemesis): 

'A profoundly disturbing and yet deeply compassionate vision of the human situation'—Philip Toynbee. 'Perhaps one of the four most poised and authoritative contributions of the New York neo-Gothic meta-fantasy school'—Times Literary Supplement. 'This searing, sizzling, lacerating I.C.B.M. of a book will pick you up, throw you down and trample on you'—Daily Express. 'Remarkable'—Yorkshire Post.

Even Roger can't ignore the obvious literary qualities of Macher's novel, however, and so it is, after a fashion, with One Fat Englishman: a pleasant – or pleasurable – experience it may not be, but it's not one soon forgotten.