Thursday 30 October 2014

Gods and (Holy) Ghosts: Kingsley Amis, The Green Man (Jonathan Cape, 1969) and The Anti-Death League (Gollancz, 1966)

NB: Linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 31/10/14.

When I was drafting my post on Kingsley Amis's The Riverside Villas Murder (1973) last week I came across an interview with Amis which is germane to another Amis book that, like The Riverside Villas Murder, I bought and read bloody ages ago but hadn't got round to blogging about properly (until now). The interview dates from 1973, so not too many years after the book in question:

The Green Man, was published, in 1969 by Jonathan Cape under a dust jacket designed by Colin Andrews – this copy of the first edition of which being a 2009 eBay win, nabbed for four quid; prices have evidently crept up since then, as on AbeBooks at present you'd be looking at more like forty quid for a decent copy of the first (from a UK seller; there are slightly cheaper ones available from US sellers). Anyway, conducted by Amis scholar Dale Salwak – who interviewed Amis six times in total and corresponded with the author for over fifteen years – the Q&A was published in Contemporary Literature 16, No. 1, 1975, and ranges across a variety of topics, from the well-worn – Lucky Jim, the "angry young men" – to more interesting (to me) subjects like human nature, morality and God, both in relation to Amis's work – The Anti-Death League (1966), say – and his life.

In regard to The Green Man Salwak inquires, "How earnestly should we take the supernatural in [the novel]?" To which Amis replies:

As earnestly as possible, I would say. It all really happens; none of what is recounted happens only in the hero's [Maurice Allington, landlord of the Green Man inn, Hertfordshire] mind. It's all literal in that sense. I think we can fit the supernatural part into the natural part by saying that the hero is made aware of his deficiencies by finding out that the reason he's being picked on by the dead wizard [Dr Thomas Underhill, "notorious seventeenth-century practitioner of black arts and sexual deviant suspected of two particularly savage murders", as the jacket flap copy has it] to fulfill his designs is that the wizard feels Allington's character is essential for the wizard's purposes, Allington being a man who doesn't care for people and manipulates them for his pleasure. That's the link between them. I think it should be taken very seriously; I took it very seriously. And naturally I enjoyed doing it, and brought in some devices that had been in my head for years. I'd always been interested in the supernatural in fiction; here was a chance to do a ghost story.

And a ghost story, or a horror story, is in essence what The Green Man is – in other words another of Amis's experiments with genre – see also the aforementioned The Anti-Death League and The Riverside Villas Murder, and The Alteration (1976). (It's also an expression of his desire to, as he puts it in the interview, "elude categorization" and avoid "repeating oneself... the most dreadful thing in the world is that you're writing a book and you suddenly realize you're writing a book you've written before".) Although as with his other dabblings in genre it's many other things besides, in this case a very human account of a functioning alcoholic and his dysfunctional relationships with, well, pretty much everyone, but especially his teenage daughter.

God is tackled too, in a rather different manner to the way in which He's tackled in the earlier The Anti-Death League. In one extraordinary scene towards the end of the novel, shortly after Maurice has participated in a disappointing and ultimately abortive – on his part – threesome with his wife and mistress, God makes a special guest appearance, stopping "all molecular motion" outside the confines of the dining room of the Green Man (so as not to be disturbed) and manifesting before Maurice as a smartly dressed young man to explain why He has chosen Maurice to combat the malefic ghost Underhill. In the Dale Salwak interview Amis addresses this scene and his portrayal of God in both The Green Man and The Anti-Death League:

These are two very different incarnations. In The Anti-Death League, it isn't an incarnation at all in a sense. This is a view of the malignant God, who is very well described in Empson's Milton's God where he states practically, I think, that the orthodox God of Christianity is very wicked, and gives reasons for this. He sees God playing in Paradise Lost not altogether a dissimilar role from the role God plays in The Anti-Death League (although, of course, Empson's book was written before my novel ever appeared). I think if you were to look at that, this would throw some light on The Anti-Death League. In the novel, God is showing his malicious, malevolent side.

The Green Man takes a rather different view, and I'm not sure if they are really reconcilable. The Green Man's God is slightly malignant, doesn't at all object to inflicting suffering, but that is not his main concern. He's running a game that's much more complex than that. He's admitting that he's not omnipotent, and that what may strike Allington as very arbitrary is in fact forced upon him because of the rules of the game. The chap in The Green Man does get tempted occasionally (let's throw down one dinosaur into Picadilly Circus and see what will happen), and that's the sort of thing with the being in The Anti-Death League (let's give her a cancer, smarten them up a bit; so that priest thinks he's in communication with me does he – all right, let's sort out his dog). Of course I incarnated God in The Green Man as a young man simply because he can't be an old man with an enormous white beard. The idea of a young, well-dressed, sort of aftershave lotion kind of man, I think, made him more sinister. That was the intention, anyway.

Amis made his own feelings about God clear in an essay entitled "On Christ's Nature" – originally published in the Sunday Telegraph in 1962 (on Easter Day, appositely enough) and reprinted (with a postscript) in What Became of Jane Austen (1970) – setting out his stall as an atheist before stating, "I am one of that company (large and rapidly growing, I hope) which says: 'I think the traditional God of Christianity very wicked.'" (Amis notes that he is quoting Sir William Empson, who he also references in the Salwak interview.) The God of The Green Man may not be wicked per se – as he tells Maurice, "It's not that I want to be cruel, not that so much as finding that's what I seem to be turning out to be" – but he's a memorable creation nonetheless, his cameo an unexpected highlight in what is by any measure a remarkable novel.


  1. In the collection On Stories by C.S. Lewis there is a transcript (Unreal Estates) in which Lewis, Amis, and Brian Aldriss talk about science fiction. I can't help but wonder what would happen if Lewis and Amis discussed God.

  2. I've always rather loved "The Green Man" partly because Kingsley evokes the ambience of the Good Food Guide and the up-market Country House hotel, or Inn, as it was then called, brilliantly.

    There was also a (goodish) 80's television adaptation starring Albert Finney as the drunken, womanising rogue, which I saw again, recently, and enjoyed enormously, even if it's now a trifle dated. I think you can still get it on DVD.

  3. Amis is a favorite of mine and these are two of my favorites among his books ... thanks for the look at them. Both highly recommended. I would say that while THE GREEN MAN has always had an audience, THE ANTI-DEATH LEAGUE seems a bit neglected among his novels.

  4. I've got to read some Kingsley Amis. All I know of him is what Martin has written about him (as the younger Amis is among my favorite writers).