Friday 22 March 2013

Kingsley Amis: My Enemy's Enemy (1965, Penguin #2346) and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (Lewes Book Bargains)

A Friday Forgotten Book.

From one Penguin paperback edition of a Kingsley Amis book, to another – one which, like that copy of Lucky Jim, I again plucked from the dump bins outside Lewes secondhand bookshop A & Y Cumming (although rather more recently; just the other week as opposed to a couple of years ago):

Published in paperback by Penguin in 1965 under a Pop Art cover designed by Alan Aldridge (who became Penguin's art director that same year), My Enemy's Enemy was Amis's first collection of short stories, originally issued in hardback by Gollancz in 1962. All bar one of the stories had been published prior to appearing in this collection – mostly in the 1950s in the likes of The Spectator, Esquire and an anthology or three – and three of them form a sequence of sorts, all set within the ranks of the Royal Corps of Signals at the tail end of the Second World War: "My Enemy's Enemy", "Court of Inquiry" and the previously unpublished "I Spy Strangers".

It's these three tales that are the standouts of the collection; taken together they can be considered the equal of the best of Amis's novels, including my personal favourite, The Anti-Death League, for which they act as a kind of aperitif, tackling similar themes of prejudice, class and petty point-scoring in the British Army. (Amis served in the Royal Signals during the war; in 1975 he told Michael Barber of The Paris Review that "Court of Inquiry" was based on his own experiences.) "I Spy Strangers", where the politics of Westminster – and Europe – are played out in a mock parliament, is especially good, but for reasons to do with an ongoing situation at my place of work (don't ask), it was the title story that really struck home with me: a cautionary tale for anyone who's ever considered clambering up the greasy pole.

I wasn't quite so taken with the ensuing (unlinked) trio of tales of civilian life: "Moral Fibre", "Interesting Things" and "All the Blood Within Me"; of the three, I found the latter the most affecting, dealing as it does with regret, old age and the lies we tell ourselves (themes Amis would return to in later works). But perhaps most intriguing of all is the final story, "Something Strange", wherein Amis has a stab at writing science fiction. I've blogged about his interest in the genre before – he published a critical volume on SF (New Maps of Hell, 1960), edited a series of SF anthologies (Spectrum, with Robert Conquest), and some of his novels have elements of SF to them (alternate history tale The Alteration, for example). But "Something Strange" is one of the few – possibly only – pieces of "proper" science fiction Amis wrote, and while it pales in comparison to the better stories in My Enemy's Enemy, it's still not bad at all: a little stiff, and with a telegraphed "twist" that anyone familiar with, say, Ray Bradbury will see coming, but otherwise effective and thoughtful.

"Something Strange" had actually been published three times prior to appearing in My Enemy's Enemy: in 1960 in The Spectator; and in 1961 in Pick of Today's Short Stories 12, and here:

The November issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (Vol. II, No. 12, British edition). Which in fact is where I first read it: I found the copy seen here in, I think, the Lewes Antique Centre last year, and bought it expressly for Amis's tale. To my knowledge it was the only time Amis contributed fiction to the magazine (correct me if I'm wrong, SF fans); his story appeared alongside his friend Brian Aldiss's novelette "Undergrowth", which would become part of the full-length novel Hothouse the following year.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis: First Penguin Edition (1961, #1648); a Lewes Book Bargain

Y'know what? That post on the first Penguin edition of Evelyn Waugh's Scoop from the other week has got me hankering after some more hot Penguin action (steady), so rather than showcase random softcovers in amongst the Peter Rabe paperback posts, let's stay with the Penguins for a little while and pluck some vintage examples of the publisher's wares from my collection – such as this:

The first Penguin edition of Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, Penguin #1648, published in 1961, with a cover illustration by Nicolas Bentley, who would later illustrate Amis's excellent book on booze On Drink (Jonathan Cape, 1972 – in fact one of three boozy books Amis wrote). Not an especially uncommon Penguin this one; I found this copy in a dump bin outside one of Lewes's secondhand bookshops – probably A & Y Cumming – a few years ago, and you can pick up copies online quite easily. But it's a nice edition in which to own Amis's debut novel, I feel, and certainly a damn sight less expensive than the 1954 Victor Gollancz first edition, i.e. a few quid as opposed to a couple of thousand.

This particular copy of Lucky Jim has popped up on Existential Ennui before, back in 2010, when I used it to illustrate a highly tedious essay on Kingsley Amis, but it's never had its own dedicated post. However, there's little point in my reviewing the thing; as Amis's best-known work, doubtless there are already countless critiques available online – I can't be arsed to look right now, but I'd be astonished if there aren't – so I'll simply restrict myself to saying that while it's not my favourite of the Amis novels I've read (that honour would go to either The Anti-Death League or Ending Up), it's still first rate, and an indispensable part of the Amis canon – and even more so now that Twitter users have adopted the novel's eponymous lead, Jim Dixon's habit of deploying "faces" to denote emotional states (*Sex Life in Ancient Rome face*).

Actually, I've changed my mind: I will direct you to one review of the book, because during the writing of this post I came across an excellent Penguin collector blog, one to which I suspect I'll be referring again before too long: A Penguin a week, in which, unsurprisingly given the blog's title, owner Karyn Reeves reads and reviews a Penguin a week. A splendid and admirable endeavour, I'm sure you'll agree.

And I've another Lewes-found Kingsley Amis Penguin lined up for the next post: a collection of short stories, no less, dating from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s...