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.

Tuesday 29 January 2013

Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest: Science Fiction, Spectrum (Gollancz, 1961) and The Egyptologists (Cape, 1965)

I touched on Kingsley Amis's experiments with genre in the previous post, on 1966's The Anti-Death League – the genre in that instance being (largely) spy fiction. But The Anti-Death League also boasts elements of science fiction in its genetic make-up, a genre Amis was a leading exponent of. He wrote a key critical text on SF – 1960's New Maps of Hell – and the following year, in collaboration with his friend, the diplomat, historian and poet Robert Conquest, published this:

Spectrum, issued in hardback in 1961 by Victor Gollancz under one of the publisher's iconic yellow dust jackets, and bought by me in first edition back in November 2011 at the same Bloomsbury Book Fair – and indeed from the same dealer – as the similarly jacketed first of Anthony Price's October Men (which will give you an indication of how long some of the multitudinous books on my "to be blogged about" shelves have been awaiting my blogging attention). It's an anthology of SF tales by the likes of Frederik Pohl, Clifford D. Simak and Robert Heinlein, selected by Amis and Conquest, and with an introduction – obliquely referencing New Maps of Hell – which starts off as a robust rebuttal of ill-informed criticisms of science fiction – drawing the analogy that "a useful qualification for reviewing a book on Georgian cutlery is the ability to tell a knife from a fork" – only to turn into almost an apology for its inadequacies, especially as regards characterization (or lack thereof). Although as my learned friend Olman argues in his review, that perceived deficiency is, by and large, borne out by the stories themselves.

Amis and Conquest would go on to edit a further four Spectrum anthologies for Gollancz throughout the 1960s. But they also collaborated on a novel:

The Egyptologists, published in hardback by Jonathan Cape in 1965, bought by me in first in Hall's Bookshop, Tunbridge Wells either last year or the year before – or maybe even the year before that; I genuinely can't remember (see above re: the length of time it takes me to to get round to blogging about some of these bloody books). The situationist-style jacket design is by Jan Pienkowski, who also designed the Richard Chopping-referencing wrapper for Amis's The James Bond Dossier (Cape, 1965), not to mention, while we're on the subjects of Fleming and Cape, the dust jacket of John Pearson's The Life of Ian Fleming (1966). Kirkus describes The Egyptologists as a "long legpull" and "nonsense", but there's a more favourable – and lengthier – review over at Mystery*File.

Next in the series of posts on Kingsley Amis, I'll probably have a posthumously published work of linguistic pitfalls and pronunciation...